By Namit Arora
James A. FitzPatrick (1894-1980), American movie-maker, is best known for his 200+ short documentary films from around the world. They appeared in two series, Traveltalks and The Voice of the Globe, which he wrote, produced, and directed from 1929-55. Commissioned by MGM, the shorts played before its feature films and were no doubt a mind-expanding experience for many. Some of them are now online at the Travel Film Archive. Nearly eighty years later, what should we make of FitzPatrick and his travel films?
FitzPatrick's shorts on India—including Jaipur, Benares, Bombay, The Temple of Love (Delhi & Agra, no audio), and others not yet online—are a rare and unique window into Indian public life in the 1930s. We can see what many of these cities' prominent streets and traffic looked like before motor vehicles and billboards, what familiar urbanscapes and skylines looked like, and how uncrowded these cities were before the big rural migrations, not to mention 70% fewer Indians. It is interesting to hear an American public figure from the 1930s pronounce on the castes of India, the religiosity of the Indians, and how they shared their public spaces with animals. They have the charm of quaint narrative conventions we find in period pieces. His films are valuable records of history also because they are a unique encounter of two very different cultures—illuminating the world behind the lens through the one in front.
But having said that, I also think their present value owes more to the paucity of video records of everyday life from that era, than to the quality of FitzPatrick's mind. FitzPatrick seems to me very much a man of his time. In his directorial choices and opinions, he may well qualify as a textbook orientalist. This is not to say that his films are devoid of truth, empathy or humor. It is to say that he brought along with him a marked sense of cultural and racial superiority, as he trained his viewfinder on what he found amusing, outlandish or admirable.
FitzPatrick saw Bombay as “the first constructive imprint of western civilization upon this much talked of and generally misunderstood country.” He was impressed by the cosmopolitan life and energy of Bombay, whose population was “over one million people, representing practically every race and creed in the world.” But even in Bombay, he notes, “the 15th century is constantly rubbing shoulders with the 20th” and “the ancient procession goes on in strange defiance.” In his day, Jaipur was apparently “off the beaten track of tourist travel” despite being “unquestionably the most colorful of all the cities in India [and] one of the cleanest and most prosperous.” He doubts if there is another “place in the world where birds and beasts live in closer proximity with mankind.” The people of Jaipur, he finds, have “a contented and peaceful nature, living in a sort of bovine resignation to life”. While in Benares, “the Hindu Heaven”, he suspects that “in the whole world there is no stranger manifestation of human faith in the supernatural than what is witnessed here on the banks of the sacred Ganges.” It confounds him that millions of “dumb animals”, “made and kept worthless by the Hindu religious code, roam the land devouring annually millions of dollars worth of food for which they produce nothing.”
While his medium was quite new, travel narratives were clearly not. FitzPatrick comes across as cheerful and earnest, confidently doling out facts and opinions about faraway places. In India, he surely traveled in style, buoyed by the colonial administration and MGM's cheque book. In the 1930s, each of his 8-10 minute episodes, on average, cost $15K—about $250K in today's dollars. The novel footage he brought home must have fired the imagination of many a youngster. But even accounting for the less developed scholarship of his day, he seems superficially informed about his subject. Nor is he the reflective type. His narration abounds in travel cliches and mediocre opinions, which, given their novelty, were perhaps received quite uncritically by his audience. In his oeuvre, he much prefers to dwell on the ameliorative impact of western colonialism, not its downsides.
He is also given to unsavory, vacuous remarks, as in the claim that the Jains, who practice a “more orthodox form of Hinduism … would not so much as lift a finger to brush a fly or an insect from their babies' eyes.” After a dubious history lesson on Aryans in Benares, he sagely observes that since Indians believe in multiple lives and deaths, “one life and one death do not count for much.” On a passing funeral procession in Peking (1930), he says, “The fact that the Chinese consider death more important than life accounts for the apparent lack of grief at this funeral.” In Ceylon (1932), he watches a group of playful boys, “as active and as intelligent as boys of their own age in any other country. But when they grow up to manhood they would probably subside into languid sensuous beings like their progenitors. Such is the strange fate that usually befalls the children of the tropics.” The notion of a link between climate and sensuality of course precedes his time. A century earlier, Lord Byron wrote, “What men call gallantry, and gods adultery, is much more common where the climate is sultry.”
A more sophisticated narrator than FitzPatrick might have drawn parallels between foreign cultural practices and those in America—say, the injustices of the caste system and Jim Crow South. He might have explored the crafts, leading diversions, ideas of art, modern heroes, or festivals (he did focus on the performance arts). But the real trouble is that FitzPatrick displays little understanding all around; even if he had more time per film, it is hard to imagine him raising the bar. In fact, at times, he betrays his generation's mainstream ideas on race, egregiously so in his film on Fiji and Samoa (1933), “The Cannibal Isles”. In this film, he peppers his narrative with a dozen references to cannibalism, by dark savages inland, who have “enormous mops of bush like hair” of which they are strangely proud. Fijians were no longer cannibals, he concedes, but “the fact that their grandfathers were among the most ravenous cannibals in the history of the world is we suspect a source of secret pride.” (Watch it! It's so bad it's hilarious.)
But this is perhaps what MGM's movie-going audiences expected. We shouldn't forget that his career arose in the U.S in the age of eugenics. Leading universities like Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown offered courses in eugenics. Experts expounded on the “eugenical fitness of proposed marriages.” Students on field trips to state fairs could receive eugenic evaluations at a Fitter Families Exhibit, which also offered contests and medals certifying “A Goodly Heritage”. Systematic, forced sterilization programs in the service of eugenics targeted “orphans, ne'er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers”, “defective persons” who were a “menace to society”, and the “feeble minded”—such as Russian and Polish immigrants, alcoholics, criminals, prostitutes, nomads, and other Americans “born to be a burden on the rest.” While German immigrants were “thrifty, intelligent and honest,” Italian ones had an innate “tendency to personal violence.” So the reproduction of inferior groups had to be controlled.
Led by California, many states used legal sanction to forcibly sterilize over 64,000 people. Many more were hounded and harassed. By FitzPatrick's midlife, interracial marriages had been made illegal in 28 states. Racial segregation and Jim Crow laws ruled many parts of America. So here is another way to think of FitzPatrick's films: In such an America, his films, warts and all, may well have belonged to the progressive fringe, challenging many preconceived notions about the colored folks of the world.
In 1941, Time magazine called FitzPatrick “a temperamental, blue-eyed romanticist”. Odd as this may seem now, instances of it come through at times. In Ceylon, observing “happy and childlike people basking in the shade of the palms, their every necessity gratified by nature without struggle,” he wonders what there was in “the white man's hemisphere that could possibly add anything to their happiness and contentment.” Another time, in Jaipur, he sees the maharaja's automobile—among the first in the region—and laments the “encroachments of the machine age” in Jaipur, where “man and bird and beast live in perfect harmony with each other.” In Bali (1932), a traditional ceremony affirms his belief that in “the age old struggle between the forces of good and evil”, good eventually triumphs everywhere in the world.
FitzPatrick was born in 1894 in Shelton, Connecticut, graduated from Yale, studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and died in 1980 in Palm Springs, California. Today he appears to have fallen into obscurity. I found no substantive essays about him on the Internet, nor references to any offline critiques. What were his politics? How did all that travel transform him? Curiously, the chief criticism he seems to have received in the U.S. was not that he was shallow and condescending, but that “he viewed the world through rose-colored glasses” and did not expose the ugliness of foreign places. I close this essay with his response to such criticism:
How would I have gained admittance to those countries if I had commented on their social problems? Aside from being very rude, it would have been counterproductive. I made my pictures at a time when travel was almost impossible for the average person. I believe I showed people what they would have wanted to see if they could have gone themselves. For years I had a travel agency, too. I don't recall anyone ever requesting a tour of slums and prisons.
Three short films by James A. FitzPatrick:
Three photo albums by Namit Arora:
More writing by Namit Arora?