Imagine you're spending an evening with an old friend, someone you've known a long time. He's a good guy over all, energetic and fun, and you've shared a lot of amusing adventures together. He has a zest for life that is admirable, but, like all of us, he also has some traits that don't wear well. His sense of humor is corny, he can be smug at times, and he has a rather provincial view of the world. Your friend -- let's call him "Doug" -- has been on a long vacation and this evening he's eager to show you the pictures he took in the course of his travels. His film footage is genuinely interesting, but watching it with him is a chore because so much of his running commentary is annoying. True, some of his remarks are informative, but others are patronizing, vulgar, or unnecessary. At some junctures he says nothing at all about matters of potential interest. Worst of all, Doug seems to feel a compulsive urge to turn almost everything into a joke, and even the best of his quips are only mildly amusing while others reveal a shockingly narrow-minded attitude towards the peoples of the world he met on his travels.
That's how I felt while watching Douglas Fairbanks' travelogue of his 1931 tour of Asia and points East. The veteran movie star co-produced this documentary with his longtime friend and former director Victor Fleming, who appears alongside Doug and shares his adventures in Hawaii, Japan, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand (then known as Siam), and India. Obviously a film featuring Fairbanks and Fleming holds great interest for movie buffs for that reason alone, but because of the nations visited it's also of interest for historians and anthropologists, as well as anyone studying international relations during the period of uneasy peace maintained between the two world wars. Despite Fairbanks' facile narration there is much of interest here. To be fair, our host makes it clear at the outset that his film is intended simply as a lightweight frolic in which humor will be emphasized, but whatever his intentions it was inevitable that the geopolitical realities of the era -- that is, real-world stuff that wasn't so light or humorous -- would find its way into the mix and darken the atmosphere.
At times Fairbanks the narrator comes off as quite broadminded and humane by the standards of his day. He takes pains to praise the Japanese for their courtesy; adding "they're even polite to their relatives" in one of his better quips. He expresses sympathy for Chinese farmers who, like their American counterparts, are always in need of relief and never get it. He praises the grace and beauty of Siamese dancers, and, in a low-key way, expresses indignation that the sacred monkeys of India are better fed than most Indian citizens. So it's all the more disheartening when, over street scenes of Hong Kong, we hear him say: "The curious thing about China is that most of it belongs to somebody else. All of the nations of the world have muscled in on it some time or other, but the Chinese don't seem to complain. Perhaps they do, but nobody can understand them." I suppose this was intended as an ironic comment on colonialism in China, and Doug was attempting to be breezy about it, but the punch-line is provincial in the extreme.
If you can handle these wince-provoking moments there are a number of scenes that are well worth seeing. There's a segment in a well-to-do household in Yokohama where a maid assists her mistress in dressing and doing her hair; I found this strangely hypnotic. In India there's a somber sequence showing the cremation of Hindu dead on the banks of the Ganges; fortunately, Doug was wise enough to keep mum at this juncture. And during a passage showing Siamese dancers there is an unexpected cameo by the one and only Mickey Mouse! Doug and his wife Mary Pickford were both outspoken in their admiration for Walt Disney, and it seems the Disney studio returned the favor by contributing a brief animated bit. Mickey dances alone on screen before a simply drawn Siamese backdrop, combining Asian moves with American-style jive, but doesn't interact with any live characters. It's a high point, and helps make up for some of the film's unfortunate lapses. Also worth seeing is the climax, when Fairbanks, Fleming, and crew re-stage the finale of The Thief of Baghdad, and return to Hollywood on a flying carpet.
Given the history of Asia in the 20th century, both before and after 1931, it's inevitable that any travelogue produced there in that inter-war period is going to provoke some pained feelings in viewers today. We know, as Fairbanks and Fleming did not, what would happen in Japan, Cambodia, and Indo-China (i.e. Vietnam, mentioned only in passing) in later years. In our time Doug would never say, as he does here, that "the world is essentially funny" and "a great place for laughs" in reference to touring these places. But the filmmakers' state of innocence deepens and sharpens our experience of watching their work in a way they could never have predicted or intended. For them, Cambodia was just a colorful, exotic place to visit, and of course the famous Douglas Fairbanks was given a hero's welcome wherever he went. For us, these locales mean something quite different, and we watch this documentary (and listen to the narrator's well-intentioned but hokey commentary) in a mood of sober, ironic wonderment. Could Americans ever have been so naive about the world?
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