Judge Adam Arseneau wrote this review. Believe it or not!
Oddities. Rarities. Profundities. A Robert L. Ripley treasure trove!
It may be best known today as a fully functional media conglomerate of theme parks and publishing, but the name of Ripley used to mean just one person: Robert Leroy Ripley. He became a household name in the early part of the century from a published newspaper panel, "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" featuring text and drawings of peculiar and eccentric curiosities, random factoids and unusual phenomenon. In his day, he was quite literally the most popular fellow in the entire world, a multimedia superstar on the cutting edge of all fields. Writing, cartooning, anthropology, radio, television, museum curatorship; you name it, he did it. Ripley took his success and ran with it full speed, and his name lives on in legacy today.
Released at the height of his popularity, Warner Bros. recorded twenty-four Vitaphone shorts, Ripley's Believe It Or Not in the early 1930s. Each short features Ripley telling audiences about some of the strange and wonderful things his travels and research have uncovered, along with some charcoal drawings and sketches for illustrative purposes. To make the experience more enjoyable for audiences, a certain amount of narrative creativity has gone into the shorts, coming up with situations or environments in which it might be plausible for Ripley to break out his sketchbook and illustrate some amazing facts or discoveries. One episode features his arrest and prosecution in a court of law for making up outrageous claims, and so he defends himself with charcoal drawings. Another feature has Ripley settling a gentlemanly bet in a barber shop, which leads him back to a party where a white canvas is conveniently waiting for him, and so on. These are loose excuses at best, but given the nature of the format, completely understandable—it is all tongue-in-cheek fun.
As for the man himself, Ripley is a strange and peculiar contradiction. Shy, awkward, and gangly with unfortunate ears, a staggering overbite, and a nervousness of speaking on-camera, his nebbish exterior runs perpetually at odds with the childlike twinkle of excitement and glee in his eyes. His wooden delivery and stuttering mannerisms make it hard to wrap ones head around exactly how popular and influential he was in popular culture. The man literally received a million letters a year from all around the world. You could write 'Ripley—America' on a letter, deposit it in any mailbox anywhere the world, and it would be hand-delivered. Heck, some people didn't even stamp their letters, and they still got delivered. Ah, for simpler times.
Part circus freak show, part Darwinian evolutionary showcase, part human interest travelogue, and part National Geographic photo shoot, Ripley and his researcher trolled libraries, traveled to over 200 countries and took photographs and sketches of every weird, wonderful, and peculiar phenomenon they encountered. Nothing was off-limits: obscure laws, genetic quirks, birth defects, cultural peculiarities, natural phenomena, and strange talents—if it was weird, Ripley wanted it. He took great pride in being able to substantiate every one of his claims, even if the logic may not exactly stand up to current investigative standards. When he tells you he met a man with eight-inch horns growing from his head, he's not making it up—but neither is he actually explaining anything. Today's modern science could easily explain the condition of bone spurts protruding as a genetic defect or a rare medical condition and make it seem less devilish, but Ripley wasn't interested in explaining why, only showing people the what. Hey look, a man with horns! Call it curiosity, call it sensationalism, but either way, people loved it—and they loved Ripley for it.
In this modern era of mass media, Internet searches at the tip of the fingers, and 24/7 cable television devoted to weather, geography, history, and nature, a lot of Ripley's facts and revelations are Lilliputian by today's standards—whimsical at best, common knowledge at worst. Burmese women who elongate their necks with rings have been National Geographic fodder for the better part of three decades now, but in the 1930s, people simply didn't know about how weird and wonderful the world around them was. Ripley's Believe It Or Not is a product of its era, expressing a simplistic honesty and curiosity about the weird and wonderful. It may feel like good-natured ignorance by modern standards, but even the most seasoned Wikipedia crawlers may find themselves surprised by some of Ripley's facts now and again.
Ripley's Believe It Or Not contains all twenty-four shorts spread across two DVDs. The quality of the transfer is pretty abhorrent, but this is little fault of the DVD itself. Recorded in 1930 to 1932, these were Vitaphone productions, pre-dating the adoption of sound-on-film. As with all film from this era transferred to DVD, you must judge it based on different criteria. Can you see anything on the screen at all? Can you hear anything? Then it passes. Large scratches, tears, jittering frames, unsynchronized audio, and all manner of general age throughout all these shorts are all expected. It comes with the territory. Truth be told, we're lucky that this material from this era even survived long enough to make it to DVD.
Like other releases from the Warner Archives, Ripley's Believe It Or Not is as barebones as they come: a two-disc set released in small batches on recordable media with no extras or supplements included. The lack of subtitles is the real pain point here; the Vitaphone recorded audio leaves something to be desired by modern standards, and it can be challenging to find a clear dialogue balance amidst the cracking, hissing and popping.
By modern standards, there isn't much wonderful or weird left to discover in Ripley's Believe It Or Not, but it's hard to dismiss the shorts altogether. There is something refreshingly honest and nostalgic about these Vitaphone shorts, products of a bygone era, pre-dating the era of information when even educated men and women simply had no idea about the world outside their window. Ripley opened the horizons of millions with a charcoal stick and a newspaper panel, and I'd love to know what Ripley would think of our weird and wonderful world today.
Not guilty. A solid recommend for the curious or the nostalgic, but there's not much here for the modern man.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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