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The Films of Aloha Wanderwell Baker: An Archival Collaboration

Courtesy of the Nile Baker Estate

Last November we hosted a visit from Heather Linville, a film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood; the AFA is part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is better known as the organization responsible for awarding Oscars. Heather had been processing a collection of nitrate film donated to the Academy in 1985 by a fascinating woman with the fabulous name of Aloha Wanderwell Baker, and wanted to inspect some films in our collection attributed to her. Aloha–whose given name was the more prosaic Idris Hall–was an explorer/adventurer most active in the 1920s and 1930s, hailed as “the world’s most widely travelled girl” for her around-the-globe sojourns (by car!) with her husband Walter Wanderwell (not his given name either, alas).

Aloha’s approach to the filmmaking process mirrored her approach to archiving her own collection. Aloha was a true independent filmmaker in that she created and distributed her own films, presenting them on the lecture circuit, continually reediting them throughout her career. This resulted in several different versions of her films tailored to specific audiences. In the 1980s, wearing the hat of archivist and caretaker, Aloha carefully selected film elements and manuscript material from her personal collection to donate to multiple archival institutions. The Academy has the bulk of her film footage, and Heather has a nice post about the collection on the Academy’s blog.

To properly preserve and restore the films that Aloha created, including such titles as With Car and Camera Around the World and The Last of the Bororos, it is important to locate and evaluate the current condition of the most original or best surviving film elements. Due to the separation of Aloha’s materials, information exchange between archives is essential. This is the only way we will know how to select the best source to create preservation masters and access copies, and best reflect Aloha’s original work.

Film Daily (28 March 1934)

We have a copy of Aloha’s only sound film, The River of Death, from 1934; the AFA has outtakes from the film, so ours very well may be the sole surviving complete copy. It was donated to us in 1988 by a collector named Charlie Tennessen and not Aloha herself, and it’s one of three films she assembled from a 1930-1931 trip she and her husband took to the Mato Grosso region in Brazil. She was in the process of editing the film when Walter was mysteriously murdered in December 1932 aboard the couple’s yacht; the case remains unsolved. The following year she married cameraman Walter Baker and began her career on the lecture circuit, even if her travels to every corner of the United States were less adventurous than her previous globetrotting trips. We had some other fragmentary films of Hawaii, Tahiti and Samoa cataloged as being shot by Aloha, but Heather inspected them during her visit here and is highly doubtful they actually were her work.

In order to capture its lovely emerald green tint, we digitized the nitrate print of The River of Death a couple of years ago. May Haduong, one of Heather’s AFA colleagues, used clips from it for a presentation she was making on Aloha’s films at the 9th Orphan Film Symposium at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam (the 10th edition will be at the Packard Campus 6-9 April 2016 and you’ll be reading a lot more about that on “Now See Hear!”) We’re pleased to present The River of Death here, and are grateful to Heather and May for the information they provided us about our holdings on this most interesting woman.

The River of Death (Ideal Pictures Corp, 1934)

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