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DVD Review: Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (1930-32) – The Complete Vitaphone Shorts Collection

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Written by Fantasma el Rey

Robert Leroy Ripley was a cartoonist, writer, entrepreneur, and amateur anthropologist. A successful blending of those accomplishments is what made the man and his name famous and well known around the globe. He is the Ripley in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. What started as a newspaper panel feature with some text and a drawing of the subject became a radio show, movie shorts, numerous books, and a short-lived early T.V. series. Those movie shorts are now available on DVD for the first time from the Warner Brothers Archive Collection.

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is a two-disc collection of the 24 complete Vitaphone short films shot in 1930-31. Each episode is filled with on-location footage, photos sent by followers of his panel, and of course, his world famous drawings. Supposedly filmed as if each short took place in a different setting, such as Ripley’s office, a courtroom, on board a passenger ship, an elegant estate dinner, and so on, each appear to be just another studio set. Yet on that set there was always one person that would have some kind of trick or feat to wow the audience and give them the treat of a live "Believe It Or Not," as these presentations of facts, oddities, and tricks came to be known. Each episode features Ripley presenting the information then drawing a picture, showing some film, or merely just making a statement or answering a question put to him.

Each roughly eight-minute episode is crammed with many "Believe It Or Not"s and provides a good look at some of these oddities captured on film. Like the women who can read 200-plus words in 24 seconds, a two-headed turtle and many other odd animals with some special distinct feature or distinct patches of fur, like the cow with Mr. Lincoln on its side. Some more good tidbits of info include the fact that at the time America had no national anthem and Rip shows that that The Star-Spangled Banner was based on an old drinking song. He also presents some of his most famous drawings that include the man who had horns, the man who bored a hole in his head so he could carry a candle, and the ladies of Burma who elongate their necks by adding rings to them. And those are just a few of the treats provided.

The drawback is that some feats, as neat as they are, just aren’t very interesting. Like the lady who made the large yarn ball. Some of the footage shown is of people and places that time forgot, which consist of old hermits who lived on the same out of the way farm all their lives. Looking back at 1930s America that doesn’t seem that hard to believe. But at the time I’m sure folks were wowed by it. The information is presented quickly and at times is a bit hard to digest or get a handle on, making it a bit difficult for those that want to go and actually check Ripley’s facts. An interesting note here is that Ripley did have a fact checker, one of the best and most dedicated in a linguist named Norbert Pearlroth, who had been with Rip since his early newspaper days. So I’m sure most of the facts stand true, believe it or not.

The two-disc DVD is a good look at Ripley and the legacy he created. We see in these 24 short films the beginning of the latter-day television shows, one hosted by Jack Palance is the one I remember most, which continued to bring these odd feats, strange places, and people right to our doorsteps and into our homes. The major drawback to the two-disc set is that there are no special features at all. Not even a five-minute look at the life of Robert L. Ripley, which would have been the best part of the set, giving us a bit more information on the man and what he created. It would have been nice to further explore the T.V. shows that came later, the museums and “odditoriums” he opened and which house many of his finds and art work. If you want to know more you have to search it out which is okay but it seems like a missed opportunity to make this set even better by adding just one more short film on Ripley himself. I say rent this one for its bits of good facts, displays of oddities, and historical significant but overall not really worth the loot, especially with no extras.

Believe It Or Not.

Available to order through Warner Bros. Archive.

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  • meyer

    These films were released by the original maker-copyright holder. they have no access to any other Ripley film or information about Ripley, which is owned by a totally separate entity. Unfortunatley, they wouldn’t sell us these films, nnor did they ask us for any suppoort in their release. it is noice that they are finally avaiaible to the public, but as you say their release could have been so much more….Edward meyer–VP Exhibits & Archives, Ripley Entertainment Inc

  • Fantasma

    Thanks for reading my review and the info about why there are no special features. Its much appreciated. This set could have been amazing with a better look at Ripley’s fascinating life and adventures.
    Fantasma el Rey

  • SILVEY

    I HAVE BEEN SEARCHING FOR A CLIP OF A MAN WHO LIFTED A LARGE ROCK ONTO A TRUCK I THINK IN 1920S,30 OR 40 UNSURE THERE WAS NO WAY HE COULD HAVE DONE IT BUT DID HAS ANYONE FOUND HOW HE DID IT YET IS THERE A CLIP FOR IT FILMED IN B/W