I love shorts. No, they don't have the depth or emotional impact that a good feature has, but the best shorts present 10-20 minutes of solid entertainment. From the old silent one-reelers to Bugs Bunny cartoons to travelogues I'm willing to watch them all. After all, if it stinks it'll be over in a few minutes so the pain is short lived. Warners print-on-demand DVD service, Warner Archives, has released another complete collection of shorts. They previously put out the Dogville Shorts, and now they've released a two disc set containing all 24 Believe it or Not films staring the originator of the famous newspaper cartoon, Robert L. Ripley.
For those not familiar with Ripley, his cartoon was a sensation for decades (even after he died and it was taken over by the syndicate) and continues to this day. Each large panel illustration (similar to The Far Side's format) would illustrate three or four amazing 'facts', such as the length of the world's longest fingernails or the knife with the most blades. The comic was incredibly popular, being read by 80 million people per day at its peak (according to Wikipedia... well today's version.) These panels were collected into paperback books and kids such as me would scour used book stores for volumes in order to pester my parents and friends. "Hey Mom, did you know that a man once walked all the way across the
In 1930 Warner Vitaphone, always on the lookout for new material for shorts decided to put Robert Ripley in front of the camera and make a film version of his newspaper panel. There were 24 made in all, and they're great fun, harkening back to a more simple time when having someone claim something extraordinary on the screen was enough to make it a fact.
These shorts are all similar in format. There's some loose frame story, Ripley attending his college class reunion or a charity fund raiser, where people listen to the man relate some amazing feats or biological curiosities. At some point in the proceedings someone will ask him to draw the person or event that he's describing and he'll run over to a large easel with paper and start to draw. The camera cuts to a side view, then back to the image which is nearly finished.
My favorite installment had a District Attorney prosecuting Ripley for "making statements... that appear questionable." I guess he missed that day in law school where they talked about the Bill of Rights. In any case, Ripley has to prove that his claims in his daily cartoons are true (without a defense lawyer, naturally). When questioned about his statement that there is no lead in an ordinary pencil he explains that the 'lead' is actually graphite. He shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty and mentions that it was built on what used to be a military prison. Then they start asking him some more pointed questions, like his assertion that a person died of 'old age' at the age of seven. "If you'll allow me, I'll prove it to you conclusively." Ripley replies. He them proceeds to go to a convenient stand with paper and draws a picture of a young boy who looks old. (See the screen cap above.) Wow! I'm convinced. Then he draws a man-eating tree! It's pretty definitive alright. (See below.)
Ripley is not an actor, nor is he a born entertainer. He's very wooden when he speaks and often trips over his lines (especially the jokes which are very lame.) That just adds to the charm of these shorts. They're a lot of fun in an innocent way. They open a door to a world where Americans still trusted the government and everything they read in the papers. (You could even make the argument that this is a precursor to today's reality TV.) Ripley would never get on film today, he's too stiff and unsure of himself in front of the camera, and the show would be more rigorous (I would hope) in explaining it's assertions. Still, I wouldn't change these shorts at all. They're great just the way they are, believe it or not.
These 24 shorts arrive on two DVD-Rs in a single-width double case.
These have not been restored, and the mono soundtrack does have some problems. There's some tape hiss in the background of most of them, and there's a touch of distortion here and there. Needless to say the dynamic range is very limited, and this is quite obvious during the opening song and during the few musical numbers that rarely pop up. Even so Ripley's voice is easy to discern and the flaws were never a problem.
The black and white full frame image is actually a lot clearer than I was expecting. These come from very early prints, if not the negatives themselves, and while there are spots and a tear or two, the image looks great. The contrast is excellent and the level of detail is pretty impressive. I was very pleased with these shorts.
There are no extras on this disc. Ripley appeared in another Vitaphone short in 1931, the musical Seasons Greetings. That would have been a nice addition to the collection and it's too bad that wasn't included.
These are a lot of fun. I really had a great time watching them, zipping through three or four at a time until there were no more to screen. No, I don't believe everything that he claimed (like the man who could grow or shrink his physical height at will) but these were all very entertaining. The good video quality is a huge plus too. If you enjoy short subjects, make sure you order a set of these. Highly Recommended.