Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: The Missing Silent Version of a Twain Classic

Like Frankenstein and Misery, the 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was inspired by a dream of the author’s. Mark Twain was on the lecture circuit with Louisiana writer George Washington Cable, who gave him a copy of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The two authors, both of whom were known for writing in dialects, made a joke of the archaic language and began speaking in it, calling each other “Sir Mark” and “Sir George.” Around this time, Twain’s notebooks make reference to a dream about being a knight, and all the inconveniences it caused. 

Posters for the lost 1921 film version of A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

The first film adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was released by Fox in 1921, and it made use of the dream device. While the original novel’s action begins with Hank Morgan waking up in Medieval Camelot after he’s hit on the head with a crowbar, the silent film version takes a more meta approach. The titular Yankee, renamed Martin Cavendish for the film, has been reading Twain’s novel when he ends up struck by the spear of a suit of armor. He ends up dreaming of the book’s setting, just as Twain dreamed of Le Morte d-Arthur. The film’s credits list an actor as playing the part of Mark Twain, but as only three reels of the film survive (2, 4, and 7 are at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), it’s uncertain what purpose he served.

A postcard for the film gives a glimpse of the motorcycle-riding knights. (Click to view larger.)

Still pictures, reviews, and the viewable parts of the film give us some idea of what the movie is like. Perhaps the most intriguing --and amusing-- aspect of the silent film version of the story is that it’s updated to the 1920s. The main character of the original book impresses the people of the Middle Ages with things like gunpowder and a lightning rod, while Martin Cavendish introduces them to the Jazz Age. Movie stills in a French photo-novelization of the film depict armored knights with hip-flasks of bootleg booze riding around on motorcycles. The Photoplay review suggests that the film was full of contemporary slang, not to mention references to Tin Lizzies and the Volstead Act.

Harry Myers with Chaplin in City Lights.

Harry Myers starred in the lead role, and was no doubt suited to the comedic aspects of the film. Ten years later, he’d be Chaplin’s co-star in City Lights, as the drunken millionaire who spends a night on the town with the Tramp. The romantic lead was Pauline Starke, who worked her way up from being an extra in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Starke starred in a another partially-lost film based on a famous book, 1924’s Dante’s Inferno, in which she and other actresses appeared fully nude. (Before the Hays Code of 1930, film producers pushed all limits. Unfortunately for anyone with prurient or even academic interests, a low percentage of the racier films have survived.)

Pauline Starke in a promo pose, and on the cover of a movie mag in 1927.

Wikipedia suggests that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first time travel film, but I’d have to disagree. Because the story takes place in a dream, no one has actually traveled in time. Even if you allow that the events in the film are time travel, then you’d have to agree that the supernaturally-inspired trips to the past in A Christmas Carol are as well, and that story had at least six film adaptations prior to 1921.

Unless you can get the MoMA to arrange a screening for you of the existing three reels, the silent version of Connecticut Yankee will probably elude you. We’ll have to make do with film posters and reports from those who either saw the film in the ‘20s or have seen the extant reels. Ironically, though Mark Twain died eleven years before the film was made, we have existing footage of Twain himself, shot by Thomas Edison at the author’s home in Connecticut. The fact that a movie is gone despite being made years later (and widely distributed and shown across the world) shows the astounding randomness of film survival. If I could time travel, perhaps I’d spend my time in the past ensuring that old films were archived safely. 


Written as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film event at Todd Mason’s blog,  and my own series on lost film versions of books.


  1. I had no idea that anything from this version survived Kelly - sounds great and I'd rather see this than the Disney or Bing Crosby versions I remember squirming through!

    1. If I get to the MoMa, maybe I'll see it, but my list of silents to see is quite long.

  2. I have never been able to find the charm of silent films--a great failing on my part. I guess the words are everything to me. That's why subtitled films don't bother me much--because I am reading words rather than looking at scenery. I should take a film class on silent films and get some perspective.

    1. Patti -- I have a feeling you've just not seen the right films. I don't think it's necessarily that the words mean so much as it is that the STORY means so much. A lot of people have primarily been exposed to silents through comedy, and while they're fine, they're just not going to move you like a gut-wrenching drama or suspense film.

      I saw Sunrise last year at the theatre and bawled like a baby. It's fantastic, and you can almost forget it's silent, because the story is so great. I think it helps to see it in a theatre, with the music and the big screen, but it also helps to place yourself in the time, remembering that there's no TV, no talking pictures, nothing to see but THIS.

  3. Connecticut Yankee was my favorite Twain book when I was growing up, but it was the only Twain book I read until I was in high school.

    I agree that Sunrise is an amazing film as are many of the other silent gems.

    A Faraway View

    1. Sunrise blew me away. It's just about a perfect film. Who would think that the director of NOSEFERATU could also move you to tears?

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