The Timeless Tedium of TravelTalks

Frequent TCM viewers will undoubtedly be familiar with the Technicolor short subjects entitled TravelTalks, which the network employs in much the same way as these little films were originally used — as filler between features. TravelTalks were produced, directed, written and narrated by a man named James A. Fitzpatrick (1894-1980). Fitzpatrick had been an actor and a journalist prior to breaking into movies. In the 1920s he was a protege of Charles Urban, creating silent cinematic profiles of great authors, and the like. By the middle of the decade he had hung out his own shingle, with series on composers and the music of different lands (though the films were still silent). He started the TravelTalks series in 1930, which MGM distributed through 1954. He spent one additional year presenting VistaVision Visits for Paramount, and then retired.

I confess I generally roar with laughter through these little movies, which remind me (unintentionally) of the comedy of Bob and Ray. They seem to me the apotheosis of midcentury ugly Americanism: uncultured, incurious, shallow, stereotyped, bland, plodding, unimaginative, and pedestrian. And, peculiarly, since most of the films are in Technicolor — colorless. As a director Fitzpatrick has no eye; as a writer he has nothing to say. It’s very much like watching the vacation slides of some not-very-bright neighbor. “The Vatican is vurry in’ersting to look at, with its magnificent Catholic churches and colorful clergymen in their trademark red vestments”. That’s not a direct quote, that’s an approximation of his style, which aims towards the underside of middle-brow.

Now naturally, to live in our time is to be spoiled. There are probably dozens of brilliant television presenters who take their cameras to far-off places, record their impressions, and communicate them to us in insightful, original, respectful, and intelligent ways. Many of them double as cooking shows. My idol in this field was Anthony Bourdain, a topic too painful for most of us to re-visit anytime soon. But Fitzpatrick was a man of his time, though it’s not like we don’t still have them — the people who travel all the way to New York City just to eat at an Applebee’s identical to the one in their own town. Like them, Fitzpatrick seems to be neither anthropologist, nor art critic, not even a comedian. He’s just a guy whose job is to buy plane tickets every few weeks, shoot some footage in a foreign location (it’s by no means a given that he looked through the viewfinder before doing so), and then go home and write up some copy he paraphrased from the encyclopedia: “They have more pineapples in Bora-Bora than any other nation” or whatever it is.

The crazy thing is I am a sucker for historical documentary footage. I have been known to freeze frame movies and just stare, or just keep rewatching the same piece of film, for the sheer thrill of the time travel. But Fitzpatrick’s films, though shot between the 1930s and 1950s, don’t even satisfy me on that level. And while I am often drawn to the period charm of terrible movies, Fitzpatrick’s possess something more like period charmlessness. I am not drawn to them, I am repelled, because it is the cinematic equivalent of some oaf in a track suit walking through a Buddhist monastery. And yet there is one way in which his films are timeless. Back in the day, I surely would have used TravelTalks as my opportunity to slip out of the theatre for a snack or a pee break. Today, nearly a century later: same thing.

Fitzpatrick made over 300 of these boring little aberrations. Some have been released on DVD if you’re morbidly curious and you’re not patient enough to catch them on TCM. May you enjoy them as much as I do!