Thursday, June 19, 2008


Towards the beginning of The Trouble With Harry, Mildred Natwick's character invites Edmund Gwenn's to her apartment for muffins, coffee, and elderberry wine. When I heard her mention elderberry wine, my immediate thought was to check whether she had been in Arsenic and Old Lace. Sadly, she hadn't; Josephine Hull and Jean Adair played the aunts in both the movie and stage versions. However, it immediately got me to thinking about in-jokes in movies.

The thinking led me to a scene from Go For Broke!, a film about the all-Japanese regiment which served in Europe during World War II, and which TCM showed this past Tuesday as part of its look at Asian images in film. In one of the scenes, the soldiers are stuck in the open back of a truck being driven to their next bivouac, with the rain pouring down on them. One of the soldiers sardonically says, "And so, we leave sunny Italy...."

It's clear from the tone of his voice that the character was meant to be channeling James A. Fitzpatrick's Traveltalks shorts. Fitzpatrick was a documentary filmmaker working for MGM who made a series of one-reelers documenting various locations all over the world. (At least, all over the world apart from the several years of World War II, when he was limited to the Americas for obvious reasons.) From the mid-1930s on, he worked in Technicolor, which must have been a real treat for the audiences, bringing them relatively authentic locations in color.

"Relatively" is the key word here. Although London is actually London, and not the MGM back lot, Fitzpatrick's style was to romanticize the places he visited, treating impoverished third worlders as just poor benighted souls who had nice costumes and some dances for us. The delivery is bombastic too; Fitzpatrick's stentorian voice and formulaic delivery was ripe for parody. However, many of the shorts are worthwhile documents of things and places that aren't there anymore, such as one looking at bombed-out London shortly after the end of World War II, or many of the shorts looking at places in America.

Only a few of them are on DVD, appearing as extra features on various DVDs. For the most part, if you want to see them, you'll have to watch carefully for the schedule of shorts airing on TCM. As far as I can tell, the next Traveltalks short shows up on Saturday, June 21: Egypt Speaks, airing at about 7:20 AM ET just before Caesar and Cleopatra.

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