The Only Footage of Mark Twain: The Original & Digitally Restored Films Shot by Thomas Edison

We know what Mark Twain looked like, and we think we know what he sound­ed like. Just above see what he looked like in motion, strolling around Storm­field, his house in Red­ding, Connecticut—signature white suit draped loose­ly around his frame, sig­na­ture cig­ar puff­ing white smoke between his fin­gers. After Twain’s leisure­ly walk along the house’s façade, we see him with his daugh­ters, Clara and Jean, seat­ed indoors. Below you can see the orig­i­nal murky ver­sion, fea­tured on our site way back in 2010. A dig­i­tal restora­tion (top) does won­ders for the watch­a­bil­i­ty of this price­less silent arti­fact, so vivid­ly cap­tur­ing the writer/contrarian/raconteur’s essence that you’ll find your­self reach­ing to turn the vol­ume up, expect­ing to hear that famil­iar cur­mud­geon­ly drawl.

Shot by Thomas Edi­son in 1909, the short film is most like­ly the only mov­ing image of Twain in exis­tence. We might assume that Edi­son also record­ed Twain’s voice, since we seem to know it so well, from por­tray­als of the great Amer­i­can humorist in pop cul­tur­al touch­stones like Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion and par­o­dies by Alec Bald­win and Val Kilmer.

Kilmer’s sur­pris­ing­ly fun­ny in the role, but he doesn’t come near the pitch per­fect imper­son­ation Hal Hol­brook had giv­en us for the bet­ter part of six­ty years in his mas­ter­ful Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook’s vocal man­ner­isms have become a defin­i­tive mod­el for actors play­ing Twain on stage and screen.

Giv­en the num­ber of Twain vocal imper­son­ations out there, and Edis­on’s inter­est in doc­u­ment­ing the author, we might be sur­prised to learn that no orig­i­nal record­ings of his voice exist. Twain, we find out in the short film below, exper­i­ment­ed with audio record­ing tech­nol­o­gy, but aban­doned his efforts. It seems that none of the wax cylin­ders he worked with have survived—perhaps he destroyed them him­self.

As nar­ra­tor Rod Rawlings—himself a Twain imper­son­ator and afi­ciona­do—informs us, what we do have is a record­ing made in 1934 by actor and play­wright William Gillette,  an able mim­ic of Twain, his patron and long­time neigh­bor. Like Hol­brook, Gillette spent a good part of his career trav­el­ing from town to town play­ing Mark Twain. Below, you’ll hear Gillette address a class of stu­dents at Har­vard, first in his own voice, then in the voice of the author, read­ing from “The Cel­e­brat­ed Jump­ing Frog of Calav­eras Coun­ty.” Gillet­te’s per­for­mance is like­ly the clos­est we’ll ever come to hear­ing the voice of the real Twain, whose major works appear in our col­lec­tion of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Pre­dicts the Inter­net in 1898: Read His Sci-Fi Crime Sto­ry, “From The ‘Lon­don Times’ in 1904”

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Mark Twain’s Vicious­ly Fun­ny Mar­gin­a­lia Took Aim at Some Lit­er­ary Greats

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Terry Ballard says:

    It could also be that Hal Hol­brook gives us the most accu­rate voice of Twain. It is doc­u­ment­ed that he met with Twain’s long­time sec­re­tary Isabel Lyon in the 1950s when he was devel­op­ing his show and got excel­lent coach­ing from her. I seem to remem­ber that he also met with Clara Clemens.

  • Sol Raeus says:

    It would have been nice to get the word­ing away from Twain’s face so we can see it. How igno­rant.

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