Registering the Registry 2020: With Car and Camera Around the World (1929)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week is SUPPOSED to involve coverage of Aloha Wanderwell’s travelogue With Car and Camera Around the World, produced from 1923 to 1929 during her trip around the world by car with camera by her side. Circumstances have intervened, though, and, well… best you just read on and see what we had to do to keep the wheels turnin’.
May as well be upfront about this: Today’s piece cannot contain any direct discussion about Aloha Wanderwell’s 1929 documentary/travelogue With Car and Camera Around the World, because I cannot produce access to it. See, copies of the film are only available through appointment with either the Library of Congress or AMPAS’ Film Archive. I am a part-time government worker barely a dollar and change above minimum wage, have no place of my own, and was only just able to buy a car for the first time in the last month. Arranging a flight out to DC or Hollywood is a bit outside my financial prospects right now, and my calls and emails to both entities regarding the exact nature of their Aloha Wanderwell collections have gone unanswered. The absolute best I can manage is these two YouTube videos, which respectively contain footage I can only assume is drawn from With Car and Camera and cut footage from the same, whatever “cut footage” means for a work that constantly morphed throughout its life as an ever-changing companion to an on-the-road lecture series. So, yeah! A mere thirty entries into Registering the Registry, and I cannot view — nor subsequently discuss — the highlighted film, owing to the unfortunately slow grind of archival and restoration processes. This is why we need to vote for politicians who support stronger public funding for the arts.
(And also why the National Film Registry is so frustrating at times, given they’ll ballyhoo about “preserving” easily-accessible films like Shrek or The Dark Knight in the yearly press release announcing the entrants, but won’t do dick about vulnerable films like With Car and Camera other than note their inclusion and occasionally check in with an entity who holds a copy to ensure they’re doing due diligence. Induction really should involve some arrangement with the copyright holder to put out a release, or extra funding to archival bodies to facilitate restoration, anything to make an obscure picture with no public release properly accessible for the citizenry rather than functionally just adding it to a Wikipedia list. Or at least wait until restoration is finished and people outside the Academy’s film technicians CAN view With Car and Camera before adding it to the Registry. Oy.)
Still. I did take a week off from writing this series for a reason, and not the usual “I had a mental flare-up/personal crisis and needed time away from a fairly demanding project” reason. While we cannot talk about With Car and Camera directly, two other pieces of media make it possible to talk about its subject matter, its creator, and potentially its style in a roundabout manner — these being Wanderwell’s 1939 autobiography Call to Adventure!, and her 1934 short documentary The River of Death. The former chronicles the period of her life depicted in With Car and Camera and should give us some idea about the movie’s contents between Wanderwell’s written descriptions and the inclusion of still frames, while the latter is a sound piece about her trip into the Amazon and contact with the Bororo people, which can give us a glimpse into her editorial preferences and the narration she would provide for live performances of With Car and Camera… but look at me here. Rushing in half-cocked on the deep stuff without telling you who Aloha Wanderwell was or why you should care! Let’s a take a moment to correct!
A Canadian-American citizen raised all across the continental United States and western Europe, Aloha Wanderwell (1906–1996, born Idris Galcia Hall) holds distinction as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by car by her own hand. An important distinction this, for the first woman to do so by car (Harriet White Fisher) was mere patron to a chauffer who did most of the work, while Aloha was a more industrious sort. The sort to break a religious boarding school’s curfew to answer a magazine ad from Captain Walter Wanderwell calling for a female mechanic, driver, director, and actress all in one for his Work Around the World Educational Club’s globe-round trip by Model T, and at just sixteen to boot. The sort to constantly push the Wanderwell expedition down new paths, insist on passage from uncooperative border guards and governors, chart routes no other woman had taken just so she could have the pleasure of driving those routes first, stand front and center as mascot and coleader when presenting film lectures on their travels to raise money for gas and board. Her accomplishments include an accidental pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, rank as an honorary colonel of the Red Army, successful drives across the Indian subcontinent from Mumbai to Calcutta and the whole African continent from Cape to Cairo at a time when no paved roads existed between either set of cities and direct passage through Rhodesia was politically impossible, meetings with the likes of Japanese royalty and Mary Pickford alike, and crossed-paths with the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe. All of this on a single wandering trip from ages sixteen to twenty-one (1922–1927 for those playing along at home), and all before she even touched South America.
As actress, producer, director, cinematographer, and editor on the Wanderwell expedition, Aloha oversaw the production of a great many films documenting her travels, sometimes managing yet another feat as the first to film her subjects, as with River of Death’s first known footage of the Bororo tribe. She married Walter Wanderwell in California in 1925 for political convenience (federal agents were determined to arrest him for violating the Mann Act by transporting Aloha across state lines for supposedly “immoral” purposes), though she adopted the Wanderwell name early in the expedition, and did genuinely love the man from all I can gather. The pair continued their travels and filmmaking until Walter’s 1932 murder aboard his yacht, while Aloha kept at her travels until the late 30s, at which point she settled into decades of traveling film lectures, playing nearly two decades’ worth of footage from all round the world in various permutations depending on her audience’s needs, all the way into the 1980s. Towering in stature and bold in spirit, one can look on Aloha Wanderwell as an embodiment of an adventurous spirit which reigned supreme in her day, one of many who made the expanse of the world all the more accessible for the global society we enjoy nearly a century later.
Course, one can also look at her work as typical of an arrogant Western perspective, something I think worth discussion before we cover the positive aspects of the two selected works. You read Call to Adventure! or watch The River of Death, and you’ll immediately notice a trend towards belittling language to describe many people she and Walter’s expedition encountered on their trip. Lots of calling people stupid savages, simple-minded primitives, writing and speaking about people she otherwise respects as if they were children whose upright mobility and meagerest accomplishments are worth amazement as near-impossibilities. There’s an overbearing belief the world is a direct, slow march towards a superior mode of civilization, with many South American, African, and Asian societies woefully far behind, or else an acceptance of social stratification that leaves many enslaved and worse off than the ruling class as when recounting meetings with Chinese laborers. It’s an approach to travel and ethnography firmly rooted in time a century now past, and while it is frequently tinted by admiration (and thankfully never disdain or hatred) for a different way of life and accomplishments, the general framework of viewing African villagers or Chinese slaves as categorically inferior means such thinking never quite translates to lessened arrogance. Many of the most dangerous chapters in Aloha and Walter’s travels come about as a result of their ignoring sound advice from locals who know the land and wish to save their hides needless danger, plunging ahead into inhospitable terrain while just barely prepared for no greater reason than, “Nobody’s done it quite like this before.” The abilities granted by technological advance somehow make heedless travel wherever one likes good and right, even if it presents great risk to the entire party, which speaks to me less a golden spirit of adventure than it does the darker forces motivating colonial conquest and presumptuous right to own all one sees. A lesser version of such, thankfully, the product of growing up and living in conquering states as a beneficiary to their claims rather than going out and oppressing anyone directly, but the drive to go amongst those you see as lesser simply to say and prove you did isn’t an entirely innocuous endeavor.
We must keep these grimier dimensions of early 20th-century exploration for is own sake in mind when discussing these matters. This should, however, by no means prevent us from acknowledging and celebrating the good they do represent. Turning our attention towards Call to Adventure!, Wanderwell’s writings note numerous instances during her five-year trip in which the expedition’s arrival was met with raptuous crowds thronging to meet the first woman to drive the world by car, endless weeks of performances booked solid as people turned out to see footage of far-flung places for the first time in their lives, or else stills when electricity proved sparse. Though the book is rather short and often skates by enormous stretches of time in favor of covering the entire trip in a brief read, those incidents and places Aloha does linger on demonstrate a mind alive with appreciation for a wide breadth of cultures and peoples, and a determination to keep going when man or nature move to balk her advance. Should one press through the lightly racist language, one will find plenty passages in which Aloha describes fast-forged friendships with people the globe over, ruminates on the greater admiration for experience and knowledge over facts outside American borders, marvels at the wonders of Mecca and the Taj Mahal with equal splendor as the work necessary to survive and thrive in the veldt — though never QUITE deeply enough to prevent the numerous near-misses from failing to observe local safety precautions. It’s an imperfect read if one is used to more detailed travelogues and autobiographies alike, but there’s interesting content should one take the time for a read.
I do so wish I could watch With Car and Camera, for Aloha’s descriptions of the places she filmed and the lengths she went for the sake of certain shots tantalize with the promise of what results she must have produced. Even so, chapters like her trip to Mecca, their winding route through southern Africa, and an account of an early point in the expedition when she quit in a huff and had to buy her own way back to the party in Cairo — all moments without any camera present — make the book a worthwhile read in its own right, as does its general ability to communicate Aloha’s thoughts beyond the simply descriptive or passing impressions. Though we play a filmic game here, one should always remember the written word’s inherent at-length advantage for detailing mental processes and communicating thought at greater length than the richest assemblage of moving images.
Thankfully, The River of Death is here to enable discussion of how Aloha captured the world outside her pen. Or at least, it’s mostly here — the film’s three reels totaling about thirty minutes, but all copies available online are subject to terrible degradation in the first reel’s back half, a pulsing tearing around the frame’s edge that starts as a mild droning annoyance, and eventually progresses into a roaring back-and-forth snap, drowning more and more of image and audio until the final minute is completely incomprehensible. This largely loses us a view on the Amazon rainforest as Aloha films it from overhead, in addition to her thoughts on such, yet we have the introductory section, and importantly we have her entire impression of the Bororo tribe. In her speaking, we get an idea of how Aloha lectured alongside her silent pictures, a snappy, cheery voice eagerly detailing necessary context not captured by the camera, words lit by a passion for all she’s seen and a desire to bring as much of it into her audience’s world as possible. In her presentation, I note a strong preference for people. The damaged footage consists mainly of vistas across the lush canopy and mountains, yet the surviving twenty minutes is wholly centered on the Bororo people, all looks in on how they dress, how they work, how they worship, how they hunt, how they bathe, an extended sequence on a ritual dance involving the entire tribe, even an unhappy incident in which two tribespeople are burnt to death to ward off evil spirits. Aloha’s words and phrasings are heavily colored by the colonialist beneficiary attitude I mentioned earlier, but do you know what I find far more prominent here? A glory in simply being.
Beneath the disagreeable muck of observing a different culture as lesser and innately simpler without probing the texture of their daily lives to any meaningful degree, I find a recognizable glee at having pushed so far beyond the conventional bounds of space and nature, plunged into a place that seems totally inhospitable, and finding human life. People who, regardless what qualities the narration imposes on their culture, exist and persist exactly as they were before Wanderwell’s camera, continuing on with their traditions regardless the observer, working to integrate the visitors to their home into their ways for long as the travelers stay. Though I praise the written word for its capacity to capture a one’s psychology, the moving image can preserve an actuality for many, and no amount of editorial cutting or spoken words reducing the subjects to children woefully behind the wonders of modern society can erase what we have here. The Bororo people, living, breathing impressions of a world that otherwise never encounters a movie camera, the rhythms of their life detailed and brought back to a different sphere so others may look and marvel and consider the commonalities in their faces, their dance, their work to survive and thrive according to their idiom.
This is all rather intangible, and moreover applicable to any honest documentarian of the era who didn’t fake their footage for the purpose of showing ways long past to enforce a stereotypical vision of their subjects (*cough* Flaherty *cough*). What can we glean from these works, and by roundabout consideration With Car and Camera Around the World, about Aloha Wanderwell in specific? What makes her cinematic contributions special and worthy preservation beyond the thousand other traveling ethnographers of her day? Frankly, I’m inclined towards the obvious conclusion, in saying her gender and age for the time of her active years make her remarkable. I’ve been somewhat dismissive towards the contextualizing power of her words on page and on screen alike, given their tendency towards denigrating her subjects, but within the cinematic medium the contextualizing power of a spoken narration can do so much to enhance what already powerful pictures can do. Assuming the text of her book matches the live narration for With Car and Camera, her stories there transform a travelogue into a woman’s perseverance against elemental and societal barriers, while the added context of Aloha remaining behind while everyone else traveled back up the river to rally plane fuel for six weeks in The River of Death gives its images an additional layer of authentic grit. By the same token, knowing these works were all the product of a woman who wasn’t yet twenty when she frequently seized the helm of her adopted expedition, charting courses and plotting financial avenues and demanding their peer across just one more horizon… it takes the stink off the colonial-inflected impression of arrogant Westerners charging across lands against native warnings. Not ENTIRELY, I shan’t absolve boneheaded determination against good sense because the advisor has the wrong skintone so easily, but this was someone who wanted to see the world a time when her sex and age often precluded such endeavors, who seized the opportunity when presented, and pushed to do so, so much more than initially asked.
It’s less the image of conquest than, well, adventure, industrious spirit given space to explore and expand, and bring back pictures of the wider world and stories to match. Someone the world said couldn’t and shouldn’t (especially in view of our discussions about Hollywood’s willful ousting and erasure of female creatives during this time), very much out there doing and being, for her own benefit and the benefit of the world entire, living pictures in hand and a million stories on her tongue as she returned to her shores. If I’m wrong for thinking this meritorious enough to warrant preservation and celebration regardless any unsavory aspects, kindly never direct me towards what’s right. Or at least help me raise some dough so I can actually watch With Car and Camera Around the World for myself to see how my conclusions hold against the real deal instead of this circuitous approach.
Bit of a weird roundabout we traveled this week, but we came out the other side just fine, and hopefully a lil’ stronger. Hash out any thoughts in the comments (those of you who have any on so twisty-turny an article), and I’ll see you next time for yet another Registry film. It’ll be Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut in one of the few all-black films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, starring the likes of Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram, and Louie Armstrong — it’s 1943’s musical hit Cabin in the Sky! Hoopla has you for streaming, while YouTube, Amazon, and Vudu can cover the rentals and purchases. Til then!