A Travel Film Pioneer: James A. Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick's Traveltalks
Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks

You have probably heard the phrase ‘…and as the sun slowly sets, we say goodbye to the colorful country of…(insert country of choice).” This is one of those trite phrases that has been used as a joke so many times that people don’t even know where it came from.

In fact those words were first strung together by James A. Fitzpatrick, an enigmatic non-fiction filmmaker in the very early 1930’s and he was completely sincere when he used them in his travel documentaries.

Still from Fitzpatrick's Bali Travelogue
Still from Fitzpatrick’s Bali Travelogue

My obsession with the golden age of travel began when I saw my first Fitzpatrick Traveltalk. I was and am still fascinated by the Technicolor images showing far away places it Fitzpatrick’s conventional style.  His travelogues might have lacked what we consider fines these days, but they are still entertaining and inspirational.  I can just imagine watching a travelougue  in a small town theater, enthralled by the images from all over the world.  Even now, the little child in me longs to be James Fitzpatrick, traveling to exotic locations, my 16mm camera slung over my shoulder like a photographic hobo capturing images never before seen.

James A. Fitzpatrick
James A. Fitzpatrick, travelogue pioneer

The truth is, I don’t know if that really was the way he rolled.  I don’t really know anything about him except from what I’ve learned from viewing his films.  There is surprising little information about him any where, at least that I have been able to discover.  Surprising, because he is considered by many to be a pioneer in the art of the travel film. During his career, Fitzpatrick made over 250 travel films, traveling to the worlds most fascinating places. At a time when most people had to live viciously thru the movies they saw, this must have been a most amazing thing.

This is the information that I have been able to gather, courtesy of IMDB.  After he studied dramatics, he spent a little time as a journalist before he started his filmmaking career.  It seems that he made a few short fiction films and then just started making travel films.  This, for me is the biggest mystery.  I could find no information on why he started making films or how he came up with the idea of specializing in travel.

He continued to make travel films under various names for MGM thru the 1930s until well after WWII.  His last credited work was “VistaVision Visits Spain” in 1955.  This is another mystery.  There is a 25 year career gap before his death in 1980.  In a quote, Fitzpatrick mentions in passing that he ran a travel agency.  But that is all I could find about that.

He was criticized at some point for only showing the good and positive aspects about the places he visited.  It is a little vague about when he received this criticism, but I have a feeling it was after he stopped making films.

Traveltalk Movie poster

“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.”

Who are we to say what he should or should not portray in his films?  It’s true that by today’s standards, he appears to be politically incorrect, to say the least.  His narrative often refers to people as being ‘simple or innocent.’  I think those comments are only non-PC if taken out of the context of their time period.  In today’s hypersensitive society, this is always a danger and I think people should keep this in mind as they watch any movie from any era than their own.

What intrigues me about the man was the fact that he traveled the world and brought it home on film to share with everyone.  He once estimated that he had traveled over 500,000 miles making his films.  This is impressive in a time when the average train ride between countries was 18hrs-if there was a train at all.

If you would like to see a couple of Travel Talks, here ya’ go:

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