Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Shattered Idol

Watched an oddly touching & nonviolent episode of The Rifleman today, the old 1/2 hour western starring Chuck Connors & Johnny Crawford as father & son Lucas & Mark McCain. Seems Mark Twain's stagecoach broke down & he got stuck overnight in the town near the McCain ranch. Young Mark McCain idolizes Twain (nicely played by Kevin McCarthy), but the famous writer, though not old, is a curmudgeon. Twain does easily win a hefty bet on a difficult set shot from a sleazy but harmless hotel pool shark (Jack Elam). When the boy asks for preview of the next chapter in Twain's serialized novel, Twain angrily says, "Huckleberry Finn is dead. He's dead! I tell ya' he's dead!" This news, & the bitter personality of his literary hero, crushes Mark McCain, who weeps with disillusionment. From a letter Twain accidentally drops, the older McCain learns he's actually grieving over the death of his son, which Twain blames on himself. But it all gets resolved in short time, & through another more meaningful wager at billiards arranged by The Rifleman. Mark McCain's respect for Twain is restored, & of course we know Twain goes on to finish his masterpiece.

None of this fits into the actual time frame of events. Langdon Clemens died about 4 years before Twain began writing "Huckleberry," & at least ten before the era depicted in five seasons of The Rifleman. But I was impressed with the neatly-written little fantasy, played out realistically within its own improbable universe, respectful of the Twain myth, yet keeping him human-sized. The caricatures weren't stretched, the sentiment was restrained, nobody winked at the camera. "The Shattered Idol" was first aired in December 1961. The irony is that The United States of America had a president in 1961 who had read & could quote Mark Twain.

(I'm not that familiar with The Rifleman, I wasn't much into TV westerns as a kid. This episode had some thoughtful b&w camerawork & a quality music score.)


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