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Thursday, April 8, 2010

RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT -- DVD review by porfle

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the paperback collections of Robert Ripley's famous cartoons which began appearing in newspapers in the early 20s. Ripley's intriguing sketches depicted a wide variety of credulity-stretching oddities from around the world and invited us to... "Believe It Or Not!" Most of us remember the popular 1982 TV show of the same name with host Jack Palance, but several decades before that, during the years of 1930-32, theater audiences were thrilled and amazed by a series of Warner Brothers-Vitaphone one-reelers featuring the man himself, Robert Ripley.

These nostalgic short films, all 24 of which have now been collected on two discs for the Warner Archives Collection's RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT, might be seen today as a bit of an oddity themselves. Ripley appears as our host in most of them, popping up in a variety of scenarios which allow him to display samples of the strange stories he's collected over the years. These framing scenes are lighthearted and very corny, and Ripley, despite his stiff demeanor, total lack of acting skills, and pronounced overbite, comes off as an amiable sort who relates his stories with such cheerful enthusiasm that we don't mind taking his word for it even when he may be selling us a load of clams.

The first short opens in his office, where we see the talented artist sketching cartoons for his latest "Believe It or Not" newspaper entry. The film series' format is established here, in which we'll see a mixture of actual people, movie footage, animated cartoons, and Ripley's own drawings, all of which he narrates to some appreciative
audience. Later shorts will feature him before a gaggle of reporters on the deck of a ship, addressing people at a charity bazaar or "Believe It or Not" fan club gathering, giving presentations aboard trains and airplanes, and even testifying in court after the veracity of his claims has been challenged. In each case, Ripley wows his fans and wins over his skeptics before the fadeout.

It's fun watching him draw in that familiar style of his. With the sure hand of a master cartoonist he renders sketches of an African with horns growing out of his forehead, an eight-year-old mother from China with her nine-year-old husband, and an amazing baby from Germany who could talk at the age of eight weeks, read the Bible at the age of one, and speak French, German, and Latin before he was three. In one charming trick sequence he draws a picture of a cute Chinese boy that turns into the real thing and sings "Hello Baby."

Ripley's extensive travels yield a wealth of interesting film clips from all over the world. We learn of strange marital customs from Africa and the Holy Land, such as a prison for nagging wives, and see sights such as the Tree of Abraham which is the world's oldest living thing, a turtle with two heads, a horse with eight hooves, a working automobile that can be assembled from various parts in mere minutes, a man with no arms who shoots a shotgun and drives a truck, a collection of the world's smallest books, a high-wire-walking dog, and the proverbial one-armed paper hanger. In one amusing clip we see a 128-year-old former slave from Mississippi spanking her 100-year-old daughter over her knee for being a naughty girl.

Other in-person guests include a man who can pick up twelve billiard balls with one hand, a woman who can read eight words per second, and a man who is able to grow 7 inches in height before our eyes. One of the most fanciful shorts tells the story of a little boy named Billy who blows off his homework to read Mr. Ripley's latest book, then falls asleep and dreams that he is invited into a giant mock-up of the book by the author himself in order to experience the wonders within. With the kid's exaggerated acting style, Ripley's own endearingly inept thespian skills, and a generally clumsy and hokey treatment of the premise, the short is enjoyably dumb.

Unfortunately, the last few shorts in the series lack Ripley's participation (he's supposedly on another expedition "in search of the strange, curious, and unbelievable") and consist of film clips narrated by someone named Leo Donnelly. Lacking Ripley's earnest charm, Donnelly instead comes off as a Pete Smith clone complete with doggedly unfunny delivery and bad puns. An example: "We hadda get somebody's goat for this, and here he is...the only four-horned goat in captivity. Just like some people I know, always horning in. A pesky old goat, and that's no kid." As groanworthy as these episodes are, however, they still feature lots of interesting footage.

The DVDs are full-screen with Dolby Digital sound. Image quality is very good despite the expected rough spots here and there. Both discs contain 12 shorts apiece, each introduced with a jaunty theme tune. There are no individual titles and the shorts are identified only by their production numbers.

If you've never seen Robert Ripley's intriguing newspaper cartoons, this set of delightfully dated short films is a good introduction to the fascinating world of "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Even today, his celebrated showcase of the world's most unusual people and things continues to amaze and amuse.

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