AROUND THE WORLD IN 72 DAYS: THE AUDACIOUS ADVENTURES OF NELLIE BLY (1997; DVD EDITION, 2006)
American Experience, WGBH
About midway through this appealing, tightly focused, PBS "American Experience" episode, Catherine Robe points out that, "Always, the main character in any Nellie Bly story is Nellie Bly herself, and she was very much a character." This video biography plays that theme consistently, and in the process speaks to viewers who might have only a general sense of women journalists in the late nineteenth century, or none at all. The production is a compelling introduction to the energetic and influential Bly. But at the same time it only alludes to major themes of American female journalists of the period, lacking an expansive context except in one area. It is a splendid supplemental video work than can enhance a more rigorous study of women journalists.
This rhetorical strategy is understandable, even enjoyable, given the medium-the episode is for television, after all, not for scholarly journalism or an hour's lecture in a classroom. The production presents an array of artifacts and images, from period photographs (including many of Bly herself at various stages of her life), drawings, maps, and a nearly constant moving camera that pans and zooms and tilts over still documents in styles popularized by Ken Burns and others. And it includes especially enjoyable uses of sound and visual effects. In one scene, as narrator David Ogden Stiers reads from Bly's account of the horrendous cold-water baths she endured during her ten days at the infamous Blackwell's Island asylum for women, we see and hear loud gushes of water spilling over a blurred, dank room and over shadowy faces, some of them in stone, until we settle on a photograph of Nellie herself as the camera bores in on her. It is hard not to get a slight chill ourselves as the words and the images coalesce.
The documentary also presents an eclectic roster of astute commentators: New York University (NYU) professor and author Brooke Kroeger, Bly's biographer, is the episode's lead consultant and appears most often, but she is joined by such authorities as NYU colleague Mitchell Stephens, the news historian; Harvard historian Ellen Fitzpatrick; writer and National Public Radio Fresh Air reviewer Maureen Corrigan; actress Muriel Nussbaum, who created a one-woman play about Bly; historical novelist Caleb Carr; and Robe, whose honored Harvard thesis was, "On the World's, Stage: Nellie Bly and Nineteenth-Century Stunt Reporting."
Around the World in 72 Days does not concentrate solely on that famous trip in 1889-1890, and the resulting celebrity it brought for Bly (Robe: "She was an advertiser's dream because everyone recognized her name and assumed that if her name, Nellie Bly, was connected with something, it would sell"). The narration and commentary also explore her nearly impoverished background in Pennsylvania, her entry into journalism (a letter to the editor that prompted the Pittsburgh Dispatch to ask her for a story, which she wrote on the dire lives of young working women), her move to New York City in 1887 and that "tryout" story she needed to land on Joseph Pulitzer's World: going undercover into the notorious asylum, and more of her reporting.
The episode offers glancing references to some of Bly's predecessors-Margaret Fuller, of course, and others-and to some of her contemporaries, but generally does not digress into any long, contextualizing of women in journalism in the late nineteenth century. …