Fitzpatrick Travel Talks Vol. 1 (1934–1946) (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Produced by James A. Fitzpatrick; directed by Ralph F. Donaldson, Ruth Fitzpatrick, and Benjamin D. Sharpe; cinematography by Art Arling, Charles Boyle, Bob Carney, Jack Cardiff, Wilfrid E. Cline (also credited as Wilfrid M. Cline), Ray Farnstrom, Hone M. Glendinning, Winton C. Hoch, Virgil Miller, James H. Smith, William Snyder, and William Steiner; music by Constantin Bakaleinikoff, Nathaniel Finston, Maria Grever (also credited as Griever), Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Jack Shilkret, and Nathaniel Shilkret. DVD, color, 521 min., 1934–1945. A Warner Archive release.

The neglected genre of the travelogue is emblematic of the cinema. What other type of film speaks so directly to the popular desire to escape the daily grind of one’s own life and the often invisible local, national, and international phenomena that shape it? Going to the cinema in the 1930s and 1940s to watch strangers in strange places was only one remove from actually traveling to strange places. This was a desire intuited by the founding fathers of projected movies. Where other film pioneers like Edison focused on theatrical performance such as dance or the circus, the Lumières sent cameramen all over the world, providing exotic spectacle for French audiences that turned out to be just as fascinating for locals, thereby unwittingly kick-starting many national film industries. Albert Kahn conceived the Borgesian Archives of the Planet project in 1909, and for over twenty years chronicled the variegated cultures of the world in luminous color photography and film. The travelogue plays a central part in the prehistory of cinema—from the slide show illustrating a traveler’s lecture to precursors of Hale’s Tours, the amusement park attraction that offered a virtual railway tour through scenes shot on film. 

John A. Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks series for MGM comprise many of the features of the travelogue and its genealogy skimmed through above. The sixty films in this exhausting three-DVD set were made during the period of the Depression and World War II. Its images brought back from distant lands—in hyperreal, almost acidic Technicolor at a time when even big-budget features were shot mostly in black and white—offered a brief escape from a “real world” riven with conflict and anxiety. These films range across most of the world, as befits a brand proclaiming itself “The voice of the globe”—Europe, the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific; Africa is largely ignored. 

The shorts follow the same format, the cinematic equivalent of a glossy magazine spread or an article in a children’s encylopedia. Images from the chosen locale, usually tourist sites and centers of industry, are accompanied by snatches of clichéd, “nationally specific” music, and producer Fitzpatrick’s narration, packed with dubious facts and would-be poetic stereotypes. As World War II approaches and tourist destinations are limited to the Americas, a shrill jingoism emerges, with most of the post-1940 subjects ending with a paean to U.S. democracy, justice, liberty, and all the rest.

By this stage, Fitzpatrick himself had become the star attraction, occasionally appearing in front of the camera. He was sufficiently recognisable by 1940 to replace the mascot of the series—a globe given the face of an Art Deco beauty, radiating a prism of coloured light to the heavens—with his own portrait. And while the predictably mouth-watering color photography is the series’ main sell (and stunningly replicated in this set), with the cinematographer receiving a bigger tagline than the rarely credited director, even this craftsman is eclipsed after 1941 by a huge title card reading “Produced and narrated by James A. Fitzpatrick” (the photographer of Paris on Parade (1938) is John Cardiff, who as “Jack” would become one of the century’s great directors of photography).

Any one short is typical of the series as a whole. As I know Ireland reasonably well, a look at Ireland : The Emerald Isle well might demonstrate the series’ features. Images of medieval religious settlements, an impoverished rural district, and a colonial fortress, each found in different parts of the country, are brought together—not to show the variety of Irish life, experience, and history, but to collapse them into a generic travel agent’s idea of Ireland. The film was released in 1934, in the middle of a devastating economic war with the British Empire blocking the newly semi-independent nation - less than a decade after the fateful partition of the country, and following a vicious and still-reverberating civil war - a Catholic theocracy marginalizing women, homosexuals, socialists, and Protestants. Irish-American Fitzpatrick waxes lyrical about the picturesque poverty, claiming that the poetic Irish prefer sentiment and imagination to “stormy” history (as if “history” was an unavoidable natural force and not the cumulative record of human actions), and are happy to wait for their heavenly reward instead of struggling for justice in the present. This kind of pernicious prattle had been peddled historically to justify both colonialism and to appeal to “Irish exiles” who could blubber romantically about donkeys without the discomfort of having to actually live in the country. 

Typical is the sequence where “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” sung in unctuous Irish tenor Count McCormack-style, accompanies an extraordinary portrait of a “typically” beautiful Irish colleen, framed from below against the sky in the extravagant colors of a John Hinde tourist photograph but with the intensity of pornography, an icon whose own speaking voice is seen but not heard. Fitzpatrick and his Irish-American audience may not have liked what she had to say.

Such appeals to Irish nationalist nostalgia don’t stop Fitzpatrick in many other shorts from praising British imperial efficiency throughout the world. And he certainly shares his putative Irishman’s aversion to history—Czechoslovakia on Parade, released in June 1938, is oblivious to local and European tensions and the fifth column activity that would facilitate the Nazi invasion four months later. Ditto Modern Tokyo (1935), where the military dictatorship is nowhere to be seen. This, of course, is to be expected—audiences wanted to escape history, not be reminded of it. And, in fact, it is in such films—see also Paris on Parade and Rural Hungary (1939), as well as the many shorts about colonies that would soon achieve independence—that the series has its great value, once the viewer has mentally scrubbed the imagery of encrusted Fitzpatrickisms. These are worlds that would be devastated by war, radically altered, and in many cases have disappeared altogether by the late 1950s, when Fitzpatrick ended his series. Here they can be seen as they were, as long as you accept that they are wearing their Sunday best.

Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4