ARTICLES

GULLIBLE'S TRAVELS

KATE HOLLIDAY August 15 1949
ARTICLES

GULLIBLE'S TRAVELS

KATE HOLLIDAY August 15 1949

GULLIBLE'S TRAVELS

KATE HOLLIDAY

JAMES FITZPATRICK is undoubtedly the man who most enjoys his work in the entire movie industry, for he makes lovely dough doing exactly what his heart desires above all else: jaunting around the globe.

Mr. Fitzpatrick, who prefers to be known as “The Voice of the World,” creates MGM’s “Travel Talks.” A man of 47, in the last 19 years he has spent nine months out of every* 12 on planes, trains, ships, cars, dog sleds, oxcarts, and every other form of transportation on the trail of color film. His motto is, “See the world before you leave it.” His ulterior motive is to make foreign climes so alluring that the motion-picture public will never again be satisfied with its home town.

He has recently completed a pair of pictures in Canada, “Ontario, Land of Lakes,” and “The Quebec in Summertime,” and the way he approached these is typical of his attitude toward life in general.

Ask him about Lower Canada (or Upper Tibet) and he rolls his eyes skyward, sighs and murmurs, “The most wonderful country on earth!” Enquire whether or not he is satisfied with his latest productions and he retorts stoutly, “The greatest footage I ever got—anywhere!”

In the case of Canada he perhaps means these sentiments, for Canada has always been one of his deepest loves. He’s been trekking northward for so long now that he’s forgotten when he had his

first view of the Dominion. And the land so enchanted him that for the last 10 years at least he has been buttonholing people for discourse on the friendliness of the Canadian-in-the-street, the excellence of Canadian food, the gorgeousness of Canadian scenery and so on.

His message in the two films he made last summer is that Canada is now the only place on the globe where one can travel in perfect safety, without restrictions, and see the Old World picturesqueness one formerly viewed in Europe. Fitzpatrick himself subscribed to these sentiments so strongly by the time the shooting was over that he purchased for his own use three islands off the coast of British Columbia near Victoria. With a total of 300 acres the property includes a house and a tennis court. It is his dream to retire to their fastness when he begins to totter, and spend the rest of his life radio broadcasting to the world about their wonders.

I am inclined to doubt whether this plan will be realized. Mr. Fitzpatrick would never admit tottering, has too much fun at his work to give it up, and he makes too much money.

In the nearly two decades MGM has released his one-reel, 10-minute films, Mr. Fitzpatrick’s personal mileage has equaled six round trips to

Through James Fitzpatrick’s rose-colored camera all the world’s an Eden. Even guarded Russia took his smooth line

the moon. He has produced approximately 200 shorts at a cost of from $30,000-$40,000 per picture. Since he finances these himself, he estimates that he has spent over $7 millions in bringing the world to your neighborhood theatre. Naturally, this has not been done completely in the spirit of altruism. For the tiny epics play some 15,000 houses, are translated into seven languages and, because they are never connected with current events, have the further charm of not going stale. Thus, they can be —and are reissued for new generations.

Made Russians Like Him

UNDER bis contract “Fit/,” is allowed to go anywhere he fancies, shoot anything, do all bis own research, editing, cutting and narration before showing an inch of celluloid to the bosses. MGM, on the other hand, is not committed to purchase any short it does not like.

The fact is that the company usually kicks its heels skyward when it sees a new “Travel Talk”* and immediately lays out a large slice of cash for the exclusive rights. The result is rather like a successful marriage in which the principals are aware of a divorce ' court down the street if they are incompatible.

As I say, no one in the business loves his job like Fitzpatrick, since no one gets such a bang out of world travel as he. And the point that he has made his greatest pleasure pay to the extent of a six-bedroom house in Beverly Hills, a weekly payroll of 12 people, and a satisfying bank account is considered miraculous in the cinema capital.

“He’s a sort of roving Chamber of Commerce,” one MGM-ile told us.

Fitzpatrick invariably looks to the bright side of any country IK; visits. With some pride, he maintains that nowhere would he not be welcomed back with a certain amount of dancing in the streets. The assertion even holds true—or did until recently, anywayin Soviet Russia: in 1932, “Fitz” pro-

duced two shorts on that nation which, though not seen by the censors before release, so charmed the authorities that they wrote him a letter of thanks. The story of how those films came into being illustrates the occasional hazards of his job.

It seems that MGM was unable to secure decent background shots for the picture called “Rasputin.” The studio had appealed to the Russian Government for permission to shoot various palaces and received only a courteous veto. As a last resort, one of the executives cabled Fitzpatrick, who happened to be barging around Europe.

“Fitz” discovered that there was in those halcyon days a cruise from Iceland and Sweden which included a stopover in the Soviet Union. For a small fee, passengers were allowed to debark at Leningrad, and then journey overland to the delights of Moscow - all under the careful supervision of the Intourist Agency. He joined a happy throng of schoolteachers on the cruise. Neither they nor the officers of the ship knew that the innocent-looking camera over his shoulder was capable of turning out professional work. On the boat he convinced 10 fellow passengers that it would IKquite a jolly thing if they smuggled a couple of rolls of film apiece in their suitcases for him.

Beside him on the rail when the boat docked at Ixjningrad there happened to be a tall gentleman snapping away like mad. He turned out to lx* one Branson DeCou who had so delighted the Russians in a Carnegie Hall lecture the year before that they had invited him to return. They had given him reams of papers enabling him to go anywhere. He had heard of Fitzpatrick; Fitzpatrick had heard of him. So, instead of glaring at each other as rivals, they immediately joined forces against the censors.

A Time for Hospitality

At that precise moment, something vehemently Russian was shouted. It proved to be a command to dispose of all cameras. No pictures allowed on Russian soil. The pair by the rail sadly watched the ship tie up and the baggage sealed into vans destined for the Moscow train. Then gleefully they noted that none of the pieces was opened. An hour later when they entered their compartments they found that their possessions were still as they had packed them. But there was one definite flaw; they were welcomed so effusively by the Russian tourist bureau that it seemed it would lx* impossible to recover the film from their coconspirators.

“Fitz” solved this difficulty in a characteristic manner. Installed in a hotel in Moscow, he ordered a bottle of vodka—“to express my happiness at being in your country, you know.”

And, after hosting what by then appeared to lx; a regiment of merry and attentive Russians, he grabbed a tray and went to extend his hospitality to his friends from the ship. The Soviets were charmed by his thoughtfulness. 11 never occurred to them that he was, while pouring, stuffing his pockets with contraband.

For the next three days, he and DeCou photographed everything in Moscow, “Fitz” running around like a rabbit with a buzzing camera, DeCou hauling out his batch of papers every 10 minutes when the police hove in sight. As a result “Fitz” produced “Moscow, Heart of Soviet Russia,” and “leningrad, Gateway to Soviet Russia,” plus providing MGM with its needed footage for “Rasputin.”

Fitzpatrick was born in Sheldon, Conn., and his initial trip when he was a bounding four, took him across the Esotonic River to the town of Derby on the opposite bank. The lure was some church bells which he could hear but not see and he was happily returned to his own hearth by the local police.

He is a small man, stocky, blue-eyed, dark and curling of hair. He wears glasses until he begins to talk, when he takes them off, lays them on the nearest desk and lets the words flow with closed eyes.

Though his films are sometimes labeled “corny,” he continues to make them in exactly the same pattern. His tag line, “. . . And it is with this thought that we reluctantly say farewell to beautiful Lake Louise . . .” or Bangkok, or the Philippine Rice Festival, is a case in point. It so bored even him that he cut it from his narration. But, at the request of the MGM office in London, back it went and has remained: the British audi-

ences were joyously saying the words along with him as the pictures ended and all hands agreed that such intimacy should be preserved.

After a session at high school, he spent two years at Yale, where he acquired an ambition to become an actor. He lost it, however, after attending the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York for a few semesters. “My inner self told me I was no actor,” he says now.

He found himself teaching drama at a children’s school. In the class was one somewhat obnoxious widget whose greatest joy was to imitate Charlie Chaplin. He gave Fitzpatrick the idea of making a motion picture with an all-moppet cast and “Fitz” did it on $500 borrowed from a friend. Calling it “A Chip Off the Old Block,” he sold it, much to his own surprise, to a film company. To his even greater surprise, the outfit requested another like epic.

The Castles of Spain

At 20, he had repaid his friend double what he had borrowed and settled down to make 16 more children’s pictures. When this petered out, he took a trip to Hollywood, where he found that r.o one wanted him as an actor. He had to borrow money to return East. He went back to what he by then knew was his rightful field with a series of 30 shorts on “Famous American Authors.” Using a wellknown poem and film illustrating the author’s favorite haunts, he was so successful that he was asked to do the same for British writers and so took his first trip abroad to bring America the real dope on Shelley, Keats, Byron and Milton.

Then came sound. The monkey wrench. But “Fitz,” as always, had an idea. He took off for Spain, shot a lot of footage and repaired to the RCA laboratories in Camden, N.J. He put the background commentary on his pictures on records which would be played along with the movie. At the test in a friend’s Broadway theatre he

sat in the projection room with his forefinger on the needle pickup for 10 sweating, agonizing minutes to keep it from jumping the track, as it once had done. The applause which greeted his reluctant departure from the ladies of Spain was the beginning of his true career. In 1930, he signed with MGM and has trotted the globe for them ever since.

Now the father of five children he regards the incident in which he decided he adored the lady he ultimately married as one of the most breathtaking in his history.

He had been lecturing in Hong Kong. A reporter had expressed surprise that the rolling stone had gathered no missus. Immediately afterward, while dashing to catch his ship, Fitzpatrick spied a girl buying a canary from an old Chinese. Knowing more Chinese than she (he can also get around in Spanish, German, French and Gaelic) he helped her make her purchase. It turned out she was one Leslie Champlin of Evanston, 111., traveling with her aunt and uncle. She was so charming that he began thinking of moonlight and soft music.

When the ship docked in New Zealand, he secured permission to show her the sights. Riding over a narrow mountain road, the car skidded and plunged 60 feet into the rapids of a stream below, landing on its side. A torrent of angry water poured through the windows.

“I gave up then and there,” Fitzpatrick says now. “I was underneath both Leslie and the driver and I didn’t see how we could possibly escape. But she was so brave and sensible and at once set about not only getting herself free but helping me that I decided she was the woman I wanted.”

He Prescribes Moonlight

This was only one time in which death has come too close for comfort to Fitzpatrick. In Iran his plane once barely made a landing in a storm. Off the coast of Spain a small ship nearly sank under his feet in a gale. In a remote section of Peru, he suffered an appendix attack of such violence— without a doctor—that it seemed he would never live to t 11 about it.

“Fitz” says his most difficult problems are weather and customs inspectors. “For some strange reason, cameras and film are a bugbear in every country on earth,” he says. “The customs men seem to think I am carrying machine guns.”

Through the years “Fitz” has received bushels of letters from couples asking about places to go on their honeymoons. A travel service was the natural result and is proving most successful. His one innovation is to show his prospective customers films on the places they intend visiting.

Any tourist, he believes, should time his journey to a famous place to coincide with a full moon. Often, he says, the most gorgeous views are obtained only after sunset.

He has acquired many honorary titles and dozens of keys to cities. The Sultan of Johore gave him a commission in his 3,500-man army when Fitzpatrick was his guest in 1938, following in the footsteps of the late Maharaja of Baroda, who had added him to his personal staff in 1935.

“The Maharaja asked me to visit him,” Fitzpatrick says, “and I saw a life of splendor. His carriages were plated in gold. His elephants had golden ornaments and emeralds were embedded in their harness. In his vaults I could stand in precious stones up to my chin.”

And so reluctantly we leave James Fitzpatrick, as the sun sinks into . . .