The wonderful thing about the Warner Archive Collection and its burn-on-demand approach to DVDs is that it permits the release of titles that would otherwise be aimed at so narrow a niche as to be nonviable as a commercial release. And this two-disc set is a case in point. Hosted by Robert L. Ripley himself (yes, believe it or not, he was a real person), here are 24 ten-minute shorts from the early 1930s. They’re an entertaining hodgepodge of interesting facts, oddball trivia, quirks and freaks of nature, and travel footage. Among other things, what we have here is the ancestor of the shockumentary, and there are plenty of items that are still pretty eye-opening (such as the horned man).
As hosts go, Ripley is a fine illustrator. In other words, he’s a rather stilted, charisma-free speaker, but there’s a certain innocence to his delivery, and indeed to the entire proceeding, that is most engaging. I say “certain” innocence, and that qualification is important. Given the times, it should come as no real surprise that casual racism and sexism are rife. Ripley’s trip to Africa (the subject of Episode 12), for instance, presents the cultural practices there (and “Africa” is treated as if it were a single, unified country) as subjects worth of amused and horrified fascination. Some segments are stronger than others, usually depending on how much actual footage or live demonstrations Ripley presents. The passages that are little more than a litany of facts spouted by Ripley (there are no legal holidays in the US!) are rather less mesmerizing.
Still, whatever unevenness these shorts might display, they are valuable pieces of film history in and of themselves, and so have an interest over and above whatever items Ripley presents to his audience. Their availability in this release, then, is an extremely welcome development. Check out the collection here: http://www.wbshop.com/Ripleys-Believe-It-or-Not-193032/1000148019,default,pd.html?cgid=