Before computers and television, and also before air travel became common, people got their information from reading about things, hence ink, paper, books, writing, and all the rest. In those days one heard about far-off places like India and Madagascar, one didn't visit them, as people do today, or at least few people did. Since photography was fairly primitive, even in the early decades of the twentieth century, it wasn't easy to see what these places looked like, and most people relied on paintings or illustrations of some kind, of the sort that one finds in old books. N.C. Wyeth and that sort of thing.
Life in the first half of the twentieth century was at a crossroads. On the one hand horses and buggies were still around, but they were going rapidly out of fashion. Yet even as cars came to dominate, we still often called them by name,--the Hudson or the Dodge or whatever--as a kind of holdover from the days when when we traveled by horse, and the horse always had a name. Things like science, the future and other such matters were the business of Old World type professors and eccentric New World inventors like Edison. As to exotic places, well, there was the fiction of men like Kipling and Sax Rohmer.
Then came along an ex-baseball player from Santa Rosa, who almost by accident began a cartoon columnist (for want of a better term) that evolved eventually into Believe It Or Not. His name was Robert Ripley. The goal of Ripley was to make the exotic comfortable, to show the world in all its glory to the average American. Part-travelogue, part-popular science, it had more than a touch of the carnival sideshow ("step right up, folks and I'll show you,--whatever--the armless, knife-throwing amazon, the wrestling Chinese twins"), and it was all true. Ripley made sure of this. And he did it all with drawings, not even photographs.
This documentary film on the life and times of Ripley and the Believe It Or Not phenomenon, is as fascinating and splendid as Ripley himself was. We see the America of the first half of the twentieth century, and how provincial it was, as Ripley, hardly a sophisticate, was the perfect man to travel about the globe, picking up odd factoids (not to mention memorabilia,--the man was a pack rat), in order to show us his esoteric finds, "hot off the wire", as it were, like a kind of globe-trotting Walter Winchell. We see in this film how big the world was sixty and seventy years ago, when if you wanted to go to China you had to take a slow boat there. There were still undiscovered tribes and undiscovered animals; and religions and customs that westerners, even if well-educated, knew little or nothing about. Ripley brought it all home to us. And he did it in an entertaining way. The movie is among other things a capsule history of the first half of the twentieth,--as told by Ripley, of course--and it shows how naive everyone was back then. Or maybe innocent is a better word. Ripley, for all his travels, at times seems the most innocent of all, with his perpetual grin and waving arms, his child-like enthusiasm combined with shrewd business sense. It's hard to believe that he ever existed. He's like something from the Land Of Oz.
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