Mark Twain on film

No, not Hal Holbrook but Mark Twain himself. Thomas Edison shot this film of Twain in 1909 and it is the only known footage of the author. To celebrate, Jason will cook me one of his celebrated Mark Twain steaks, pan-fried of course. (via Mental Floss)



  1. For now we see but through a glass, darkly.  How might distant generations look back similarly upon us?

  2. Twain was left-handed! I’ve read a ridiculous amount about Twain, and never once saw this mentioned. It explains his atrocious handwriting.

    1.  I noticed the same thing. I don’t know if he really was left-handed, or if the film was  reversed when it was transferred.

      The daughter sitting across the table from him also sips with her left hand.

      1. In fact all three of them are drinking left-handed, so you may be right. He’s smoking right-handed in the walking sequence, though holding the cigar left-handed in the opening shot.

  3. He walks!  He smokes!  He sips tea!  His daughter delights in receiving a hat!

    I’m glad we have this sort of stuff, but I don’t see this film adding a lot to the Twain mythos.

      1. TOM EDISON: Sorry Sam, out of film.
        MARK TWAIN: Drat!

        *carefully slides off of unicycle, drops set of juggling knives, lights cigar*

    1. Nikola Tesla shot some pretty cool IMAX 3D footage of Mark Twain fighting an army of mechanical dinosaurs, but the film was destroyed after Edison sued for copyright infringement.

  4. I was raised just a few miles from where this film was taken (Stormfield has long ago burned down) and spent much of my youth at the local library Twain founded with his own books.

      1. You might already be familiar with Redding’s open space but due to very early conservation efforts much of the town has been protected from development, trails blazed, and opened to the public. Stormfield, as land, is part of the system but, I believe, the house site remains a private residence. Not much of the trail system is available online but a great book is available at the Mark Twain library for purchase which details all open space. It is worth every cent as places like Fall’s Hole, Huntington, and The Great Ledge are, to me, some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Here’s a Google Street View of part of Stormfield:

  5. I’m thinking that shot of them at the table must be on a set of some sort arranged for that purpose, because I’m not sure how they would have gotten the lighting to match between the indoors and the “outdoors” seen thru the window.

    1. I just thought the tea was outside in some kind of gazebo or something. At least I would assume that with the cameras at that time it would have been too dark to film outside. Edit: Argh… too dark to film inside.

      1. Agreed — and it must’ve been a cloudy day, given how even the lighting is, and how much detail is there (trees outside and black dress under the table are all well exposed). And, despite all facing different directions, their faces are well lit.  Nice. And I wonder if the walk was staged where it was to take advantage of bounced light from the white building, filling the shaded side of his face.

    2. It couldn’t have been TOO carefully arranged or they would’ve been smart enough to move that teapot out from in front of the young lady’s face.

  6. Can I ask why old films taken at slower frame rates are always projected at higher frame rates so that everyone seems to be moving at hilarious speeds? I mean, apart from the hilarity. We can put an automobile on Mars, but can’t make older films look normal?

    1.  two possible reasons I can think of…

      -equipment to transfer film at rates slower than 24fps is not entirely common. The transfer of 24fps film to 30fps video is a well-established technique and the only ratio most film transfer equipment is built to do, although it is much more possible today to re time the footage digitally after the transfer.

      -it was common even then to project film faster than it was shot.  In his silent era history “The Parade’s Gone By”, Kevin Brownlow explains that exhibitors would show films faster than originally shot to squeeze in an extra show in course of the day. Audiences came to accept this sped up motion as normal.

  7. quote: “To celebrate, Jason will cook me one of his celebrated Mark Twain steaks”

    Enjoy your steak…. what are you celebrating and who is Jason?

  8. Looks like he carried a ton of stuff in his pockets. Makes me curious what all he’s got in there…

  9. I wonder if the Wizard of Menlo Park knew that Twain was buddies with Tesla.

    (Similarly, I wonder how it came to pass that Charlie Chaplin plays tennis with W. R. Hearst in one of Hearst’s home movies)

    1.  Hearst used to bring Hollywood stars to San Simeon to entertain Marion Davies at parties. Chaplin was a frequent guest.

  10. The first few seconds: Oy! What are you doing here? Get off my lawn! F***ing paparazzi. Unbelievable.

  11. If ever there was a case for bias correction, this footage is it!   The distracting changes in brightness could be removed fairly easily.  That is if you’re familiar with the literature on MR Imaging…

  12. +robert mitchell — Let me google that for you.  No, there is no known recording of Twain’s voice, though it seems pretty certain that his voice was recorded, possibly to wax cylinder by Thomas Edison.

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