This travelogue is weird, fascinating, fun and informative. Douglas Fairbanks combines vitally important documentary footage with hokey camera tricks and cheap wisecracks, calculated to provide something for both the highest and lowest brow in the audience.
The film starts in Honololu. We see and hear some ukelele players but (surprisingly) no hula dancers. During the voyage across the Pacific, Fairbanks (age 48) demonstrates some gymnastics with his astonishingly muscular body. We then tour Asia as far west as Calcutta, at which point the rest of the "around the world" trip is summed up with some gags and trick photography.
Fairbanks and his crew used an innovative sound-recording device, enabling audio recordings in remote parts of Asia. Yet some of this footage is silent. In Tokyo, Fairbanks has a brief reunion with Hollywood's silent-film actors Sojin and Sessue Hayakawa, but we don't hear their voices during their very brief appearance. We do hear, unnecessarily, a long speech in mumbled Spanish by a Filipino dignitary. We also hear a tone-deaf boy screeching in ungrammatical Chinese, and an untalented adenoidal Japanese woman attempting to sing and play a three-stringed pentatonic instrument. A Thai boxing match offers nothing interesting. Some other performances by various Oriental musicians and athletes are much more impressive.
Fairbanks keeps up a running commentary, filled with jokes about Prohibition. He makes a reference to Frank Tinney, a vaudeville blackface monologist who was already a has-been in 1931. At several points, silent footage is supplemented by gramophone recordings of American popular songs that ironically contrast with the action. We hear a band singing "Collegiate" over footage of Cambodian athletes.
There are some weird set pieces, such as Fairbanks on a giant map of Asia, chipping a golf ball from Manila to Bangkok. A scene of a tiger attack is blatantly fake, ending in a punchline conceding this. On two occasions, Fairbanks claims to be Graham McNamee, a real-life narrator of 1930s travelogues.
Fairbanks and director Victor Fleming capture impressive scenes of Asia's high cultures: the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the Summer Palace, Sun Yat-Sen's tomb. Doug takes high tea with the Siamese royal family. We're also shown the grinding poverty and oppression in these same nations. One of Doug's wisecracks is perhaps more revealing than he intended: as soldiers march in China's civil war, Fairbanks comments that he wanted to play golf on one of the local golf courses, but the soldiers need it for a battlefield. A couple of his jokes about peasants and beggars are extremely insensitive. And we didn't need to see that shot of naked Asian children exposing their genitals. Fairbanks's thin high-pitched voice is at odds with his Olympian physique.
This film is a clever mix of anthropology, history, high culture, low sight gags and wisecracks, ensuring something for almost everyone. Footage of graceful Siamese dancers is intercut with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. I laughed when Doug's flying carpet is threatened by gunfire as it passes over gangland Chicago. (A reminder that we Occidentals are not so civilised.) My rating for this international mishmash: 8 out of 10.
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