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The Films of Aloha Wanderwell Baker: An Archival Collaboration

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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)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

Comments (7)

  1. For decades, I have been looking for more information about Aloha Baker, but with little success, until this year when I learned that her initial traveling name was Aloha Wanderwell! I’d love to learn more of her early family life that provided her the freedom to carve out such an adventurous life almost on her own at such a young age back in the 1920s… Thank you for maintaining this website and letting fans have access to her video entitled “The River of Death!”

  2. If Laurel Martin wants to find out more about Aloha’s early life, s/he should read her breezy autobiography, ‘Call to Adventure’ published by Robert McBride and Sons in 1939. She came from a wealthy background, though her father died when she was young. Also, I’m not sure that her family provided the freedom – it was more a case of her taking it! Her big break came when she snuck out her boarding school in Nice, France and signed up to be the travelling companion of an explorer going on a three year trip around the world ….

  3. Thank you so much, Paul Henley, for that recommendation! And the extra interesting information!

    • Indeed we are, Göran. That 2015 post was written by Heather Linville, whom we reference in the first paragraph of our blog. It was a fun collaboration. In the six years since this post, Heather is now the head of our Film Preservation Laboratory.

  4. Great to see this 1934 “talkie” by Aloha (if I may). I hope someone with anthropological expertise will write more about a curious near convergence: 5 years AFTER Aloha was stranded in Mato Grosso, one of the century’s most influential anthropologists, Claude Levi-Strauss, studied the Bororos (his only true field work in a long career). His experiences are recounted in his influential book TRISTES TROPIQUES (1955).

    But, to the point of our need to know more about Aloha’s films, Levi-Strauss omits the fact that his wife, anthropologist Dina Dreyfus, was the lead researcher on their field work in Brazil. AND that she made several ethnographic films of the Bororos in 1936. Those are extant.

    And while Aloha was stranded in Mato Grosso, a large expedition funded by the founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company, went to Brazil and recorded one of the earliest sound films of this sort. MATO GROSSO, THE GREAT BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS was shot in 1931. The Penn Museum (one of the supporters of the expedition_, has preserved the film and its outtakes. As has a curious short film made at the same time, THE HOAX (1932), a “semi-documentary” about a Bororo boy (and future chief) preparing for a hunt. Preserved by the Human Studies Film Archive. (Penn Museum film archivist Kate Pourshariati has extensive reporting on these projects and HSFA archivist Pam Wintle’s contributions.)

    Although the above films were certainly pioneering, the Bororos were often studied and photographed before them. Aloha’s film LAST OF THE BOROROS (1930-31) includes a scene of her meeting with Cândido Randon, the Brazilian explorer (himself of Bororo descent). Randon lead a 1914 expedition with no less than Teddy Roosevelt, exploring a river west of Mato Grosso. Much film was shot! Some of it was incorporated into a documentary THE RIVER OF DOUBT (1928?) alongside footage shot in the retracing of the Randon-Roosevelt trip in 1926.

    All of which is no news to the Library of Congress, which has preserved 15 items related to Roosevelt and the River of Doubt. And placed THE RIVER OF DOUBT film compilation on its YouTube channel.

    Thank you for the access.

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