Traditional movie Newsreels, produced between their theatrical debut in 1911 and their demise in 1967, are wondrous windows on the world that once was, and collectively serve as a perpetual record of our shared history and popular culture.
Today we have instant and worldwide access on our televisions, computers and hand-held devices to witness news in real time as it happens. Prior to the advent of the newsreel, Americans primarily depended on radio and print media for news and information. Only by going to the movies and watching the newsreels could one see and hear history in relatively real time. The newsreels superbly fulfilled that important purpose until television came along and access to filmed news went from twice weekly on the silver screen to daily broadcasts on the TV screen.
Theatrical newsreels were typically structured much like a daily newspaper. They changed twice weekly taking about 10 minutes to tell 6 or 7 short stories. Each newsreel focused on current events, politics, natural and other disasters, sports, movies and contemporary pop culture in general. Occasionally an entire newsreel would be devoteed to a single story or event of optimum interest, like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the inauguration of a president.
Theater owners routinely booked their newsreels from any of five major newsreel companies: Pathe News (1910-1956), produced by Pathe Film, later distributed by RKO Radio Pictures (1931-47) then Warner Bros. (1947-56); Hearst Metrotone News (1914-67), produced by Hearst, distributed by Fox Corp. (1929-34), then MGM (1934-67), the name was later changed to News of the Day; Paramount News (1927-57), produced and distributed by Paramount and promoted as “The Eyes of the World;” Fox Movietone News (1928-63), produced and distributed by Fox Corp; Universal News (1929-67), produced and distributed by Universal Pictures, later Universal-International.
A sixth newsreel series The March of Time (1935-51) was created by Time, Inc. in part to upstage the fierce competition among the five major newsreel companies. It was conceived as a costly $50,000-monthly news magazine to offer “pictorial journalism” to movie-goers by integrating authentic news footage with freshly-filmed reenactments and dramatizations. While popular with audiences, it proved controversial among media purists and never managed to attain profitibility.
The March of Time’s compelling visuals and the commanding voice of narrator Westbrook Van Voorhis were satirized with considerable bombast by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Welles’ pioneer masterpiece is a thinly-veiled bio of William Randolph Hearst. In Citizen Kane, Hearst’s own Metrotone News is further satirized during the opening sequence, which establishes the film’s plot utilizing a fictitious newsreel titled News on the March. Enjoy some scenes from Citizen Kane by clicking here to see the theatrical trailer.
By the mid-1920s it was estimated that between 85-90% of the 18,000 U.S. theaters exhibited one of the five major newsreels to a weekly audience numbering in excess of 40 million people. By the 1930s, most newsreel companies released two editions weekly, on Mondays and Thursdays. The March of Time was released in monthly installments.
Among the most shocking newsreel footage ever captured was the fiery crash of the German Zeppelin The Hindenburg on May 6, 1937. After successfully completing many transatlantic air ship crossings, The Hindenburg crashed upon landing at Lakehurst, N.J. All newsreel companies had photographers on hand when the explosion took place. Here is the Pathe News coverage of this horrific event.
Here the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Bridge is depicted with awesome images and narration. The controversial bridge opened in 1940 and the collapse four months later was captured on film by local camera store owner Barney Elliott. This newsreel sequence was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Foreshadowing today’s reality television, this provocative and harrowing Universal-International newsreel clip features a foolish mom recklessly tossing real knives at her two infant daughters purely for the purpose of “entertainment.”
In 1938, a pre-Citizen Kane Orson Welles broadcast his stunningly authentic “War of the Worlds” radio simulation. Many listeners tuning in by chance concluded the fictitious alien invasion to be actually happening, which triggered a national panic. In this brief Universal News clip, Welles coyly responds during a national press conference.
In 1929, Fox opened the Embassy Theater in New York City as an “all-newsreel” theater. They ran the biweekly editions of all five major newsreel companies back-to-back and continuously throughout the day. Author Raymond Fielding in his book “The American Newsreel, 1911-67” writes; “(newsreel companies) discovered that in FDR we had the greatest single attraction. Announcement of his fireside chats, which were always filmed, brought hundreds of patrons to the theater. Anti-New Dealers came to hiss. The vigorous years of the New Deal under FDR and the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Chang Kai-shek aroused great interest in newsreels.” The all-newsreel theater concept expanded with more companies participating and proved immensely popular in Britain and other countries.
Universal was the last company to produce theatrical newsreels and the phenomenon died on screen in 1967 following a decade of dwindling dollars, diminished audience interest and declining quality and in 1974, Universal Pictures gifted its entire Universal Newsreel library to the U.S. National Archives exclusively for public purposes. This included 30 million feet of film produced between 1929 and 1967.
In the end, newsreels simply could not compete with the timeliness and relevancy of television news. Audiences quickly became accustomed to a daily diet of TV news and sitting through it all again while seeking real-world escapism at the movies was an unappreciated redundancy.
Television news began in 15 minute doses on NBC in 1948 with Camel Newsreel Theater, anchored by John Cameron Swayze. It was a daily live news broadcast that featured Movietone newsreel footage. The following year the name was changed to Camel News Caravan and the footage was provided instead by NBC News cameramen. Newsreel footage was no longer necessary. In 1955 the sponsor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, cut its sponsorship to 3 days a week. The other two days were then sponsored by Chrysler’s Plymouth brand and called Plymouth News Caravan, anchored by David Brinkley. These newscasts were replaced in October 1956 by The Huntley-Brinkley Report.
Here you can sample a typical American newsreel from the 1940s. From 1942-45, the U.S. Government commissioned a newsreel series called United News that was collectively produced by the major studios on behalf of the Office of War Information and distributed worldwide to America’s Armed Forces. A WWII War Bond drive is showcased in this United News report loaded with celebrities of the day, including James Cagney, Irene Dunne, Ronald Colman, Tyrone Power, Joe Louis and so many more. Enjoy this piece of history:
The history of movie newsreels is profoundly complex and we have scarcely scratched the surface in this brief distillation. To learn more, a website called History of the Newsreel offers a detailed, chronological history and is highly recommended.
Theatrical newsreels served the nation well in an era when motion pictures defined our world. Newsreels are abundant with original source content and today represent ideal teaching tools for comprehending our shared history and culture.
Bob Campbell is co-creator and producer of the original PBS series Matinee at the Bijou. He is currently working to bring back the series in a sequel to be hosted by the magnificent Debbie Reynolds.