Friday, January 02, 2015

Ripley: the Believe It or Not American Experience

Leroy Robert Ripley was a cartoonist who really put his stamp on Times Square. In 1939 the syndicated globe-trotter opened his first Odditorium on Broadway and the organization that bears his name and catch phrase successfully re-launched a tourist trap on 42nd Street in 2007. Ripley’s various media properties might seem kitschy to contemporary ironic hipsters, but writer-director-producer Cathleen O’Connell and her cast of expert commentators establish how popular and respected he was during his Depression-era heyday in Ripley: Believe It or Not (promo here), which premieres this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of American Experience.

Ripley was a rather nebbish fellow with tragically buck teeth that Steve Carrell might consider playing next time he trolls for Oscar love. After getting sacked by newspapers in San Francisco, Ripley was able to re-start his career in New York penning sports cartoons. For slow sports days, he started cataloging unusual athletic feats for what became early forerunners of the Believe It or Not template. Obviously, readers approved. Much to his surprise, it led to a dream assignment sending comic strip dispatches from an around-the-world journey. Soon the Ripley’s comic as we know it was humming along, but it was a book deal with Simon & Schuster that really turned him into a sensation.

There are probably a lot of people who remember buying Ripley’s books at school book fares, so it will be somewhat mind-blowing to learn his was a Da Vinci Code level bestseller in his day. Many of the 1980s generation will also remember the packaged television series with Jack Palance, but radio was really the medium that cemented Ripley’s fame.

O’Connell, who previously helmed American Experience’s War of the Worlds special, has a good feel for slightly genre-ish non-fiction filmmaking. She largely casts Ripley as a pseudo-Horatio Alger figure, but also gives due credit to Norbert Pearlroth, his unsung research director, without getting bogged down in the three-headed dogs and ten foot cigars Ripley breathlessly covered. Ultimately, she paints an appealing portrait of a self-reinvented adventurer, despite his considerable human weaknesses.

O’Connell’s Ripley is a breezy hour that never overstays its welcome. Those who watch it will be far less likely to roll their eyes while dashing past the new Times Square Odditorium on their way to a screening at the AMC Empire. Recommended for those who enjoy slightly strange Americana, Ripley: Believe It or Not airs this coming Tuesday (1/6) on most PBS outlets nationwide.