Mark Twain’s “Mysterious Stranger”: The robed, headless figure behind a masquerade mask is Satan

By on November 6, 2015

In Will Vinton’s 1985 stop-motion film “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” three familiar Claymation characters from Mark Twain’s work and American literature — Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher — sneak aboard a futuristic hot air balloon, becoming stoways, where they find that Mark Twain himself plans to pilot the dirigible high into the atmosphere so he’ll be able to find Halley’s Comet.

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Twain (voiced by the memorable actor James Whitmore — we guess Hal Holbrook wasn’t available?) is shown as being disgusted with the human race, and plans to pilot the crash toward the comet, with the intent of crashing into it, his “destiny,” something the three kids are horrified by, which then forms the dramatic plot of most of the story, which is to sabotage the voyage and convince Twain that he still has much to offer humanity, the story taking shape here as a morality tale about the nature of good and evil and the question as to whether life has meaning.

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The film is based on, or inspired by, something Twain famously said in 1909: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835, it is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almight has said, ‘New here are these unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”

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The Adventures of Mark Twain — released in the U.K. as Comet Quest — includes an inspired re-telling several of Twain’s stories, which Twain recounts to Tom Sawyer (Chris Ritchie), Huck Finn (Gary Krug) and Becky Thatcher (Michele Mariana) with the use of a magic time portal, the Astro-viewer, which allows them to observe the historical events that inspired his writings, many of them directly related to stories found in the Old Testament. Vinton also created other plot devices, like the Index-O-Vator, which permitted some of the stories to be told within the larger story of the film.

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In this excerpted clip we see a depiction of his very last story, “The Mysterious Stranger,” where they encounter a tall, shapeshifting figure who self-describes himself as “an Angel,” which we learn is actually Satan.

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In Twain’s original work, the actual title of which is “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger,” (the full title of the third version of the story is “No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug and Freely Translated from the Jug”), Satan takes the form of a teenage boy, the sinless nephew of the actual real Satan, and the story — the first version of which was called “The Chronicle of Young Satan” — comes from Twain’s unfinished novel (and unquestionably his darkest story), which is entitled The Mysterious Stranger, is set in Eseldorf, a village in the Austrian countryside, in the year 1702. Twain wrote this version between November 1897 and September 1900. “Eseldorf” is German for “assville” or “donkeytown.”

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Much of the story here is about The Mysterious Stranger showing off his powers to the three stowaways, but ultimately the takeaway is that life is confusing, and despite being curious about humans and wanting to understand why they do the things they do, he ultimately feels contempt for them, especially seeing how the inflict cruelties on one another, ultimately proving his points that the future of mankind is futile and insignificant because of their stupidity and self-destructive behavior. The Mysterious Stranger in this film says some pretty heavy stuff, like “Life itself is only a vision. A dream. Nothing exists, save empty space and you. And you… are but a thought,” and “I find you humans quite interesting, even though you are a worthless, greedy lot.”

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Satan takes several forms here (and is voiced by two different voice actors), one of which is a robed, headless figure hiding behind a masquerade-type mask, explaining to the kids that his ability to change shape and take different forms comes “naturally” to him, “like other things,” and he even does a few tricks for them, like bringing to life Claymation people for a little clay castle he’s created.

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Watching a village of clay people holding a funeral, The Mysterious Stranger says: “Fools. What fascinations there are on this planet. Strange mortals with… strange customs. We’ll have a storm now. And an earthquake if you like. You must stand aside… out of danger,” then he causes lightning to destroy the castle, and when the kids are admittedly horrified by what they’ve seen, they call him a murderer, to which Satan says “I cannot do wrong, because I don’t know what wrong is.” He then fills a crack in the castle wall with grass and flowers.

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Twain’s stories here — telling of the creation of life, death, and the afterlife — are all explored, and as you might expect, this is not just a film for kids to learn about heavy and deep themes, but will appeal to adults too. The “Garden of Eden” sequence is pretty memorable too, and indeed much of the film focuses on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and another segment, The Diaries of Captain Stormfield, where a man arrives at an alien version of Heaven, is also memorable.

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Despite claims you can see online in various spots, this sequence from The Adventures of Mark Twain was never “banned from TV!!” Instead, this sequence was edited out of the 86-minute film in order to make it fit within an hour-long TV slot, allowing for commercials and what-not, and that heavily-edited version is the one that still gets aired on cable television, as it did in the early ’90s. A DVD was released in 2006, and today multiple versions (including a Collectors Edition) are currently in print.

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Oregon-based filmmaker Will Vinton — best known today for inventing the California Raisins — coined the word “Claymation” in 1976 and trademarked it soon afterwards. He was originally approached to work on a project utilizing the works of Mark Twain by Hugh Terrell, who had a small distribution company. Their initial film was based on Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” and its success led the the making of a feature-length film, which showcased and nicely summed up Vinton’s career thus far, the mid-80s, with the use of clay paintings, caricatures, morphing and lip-syncing.

Academy Award winning sound technician and the director of the Disney film Return to Oz was a special consultant to the film, which earned Vinton another Academy Award Nomination for Best Special Effects, and led to his studio becoming one of the many contributors for Disney’s theme park attraction Captain Eo.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.