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Reliving History Frame by Frame

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

Before there was television news, there were newsreels. They were short films shown in movie theaters between shows, ranging in length from five to ten minutes.

Newsreels provided American audiences with motion picture accounts of the important news of the day. Many of the events of the twentieth century etched in the minds of Americans came from newsreels. These include the takeoff of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in 1927, the explosion of the German dirigible Hindenburg, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, newsreels played in more than three-quarters of the nation's movie theaters. "Newsreels offered the American movie-going audience a glimpse of the important political, cultural and natural events shaping the world around them," says Benjamin Singleton, news film coordinator at the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library, home to the Fox Movietone News Collection, one of the largest in the world. "Their powerful influence helped to form public opinion and transformed the ways in which news was reported."

The newsreels were shot on film made of nitrocellulose, the same material Thomas Edison and others used when first developing motion pictures in the 1890s. The film burned easily. Nitrate was sensitive to the slightest heat, even the heat of the film projector lamp. In the USC collection there are eleven million feet of film, seven million on nitrate and four million on more stable acetate. With support from NEH, the USC film library is transferring the nitrate film to modern polyester to retain the quality of the original stock. "Using this process we can retain as much of the original as possible," says Singleton. "It will last hundreds of years if kept cool.

"At the time of filming, the thought was to get the film out right away, not about preserving it for future use-there was no TV then," says Singleton. "The film was not kept in air-conditioned warehouses." The film is now held in a temperature-controlled environment and stored in metal cans with a baked-on vinyl coating to inhibit corrosion.

Under the NEH grant, a team of film restorers is currently working on films from 1927 through 1929. The major portion is in the form of unedited, original camera negatives. "Film of this type from this time period is extremely rare and of immense cultural value," says Singleton.

The first Fox newsreel program was in August 1919. A breakthrough came in 1927 with the addition of sound. While competitors experimented with systems that required synchronization, Fox bought a patent for a process that produced sound right on the film. A sound strip ran alongside the picture on the negative. When the film was exposed to light, both the picture and the sound came on simultaneously.

"Although The Jazz Singer is considered the first motion picture to have sound, in reality, Fox debuted sound in theaters six months earlier in its newsreels," says Singleton. The first sound newsreel was Lindbergh's departure for Paris from Roosevelt Field, New York, on May 20, 1927. The following month Fox showed film of President Coolidge greeting Lindbergh at the White House and a film segment of a speech by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. They generated excitement and the new sound became a standard at motion picture theaters.

"The camera rolled and let the event speak for itself," says Singleton. "The audience did not hear from the newsmen and there was no voice-over." Usually the cameraman put a microphone in front of the news subject and let him talk or her talk. Lindbergh, unfortunately, was not ready to speak in front of the camera and the newsreel just contains the background sounds of the event. Years later, of course, reporters and commentators spoke before the camera, but in the beginning, the cameraman was the journalist.

After filming a news story, the cameraman would fill out a "dope" sheet, which explained what the event was, who was in it, and why he chose to record it. The cameraman would then rush the can of film to Fox headquarters in New York, where it would be edited and made ready for motion picture theater audiences.

"The cameramen operated independently," says Singleton. "They were outfitted with a truck that could follow newsmakers and get footage. The format was remarkably similar to TV news today."

"In the early days, the cameraman was boss," says retired Fox cameraman William Birch, now eighty-eight. "The cameraman shot what he wanted and the reporter wrote his script according to what the cameraman had shot." Birch began his career at age seventeen, following in the footsteps of his father, Harry Birch, one of the very first news cameramen.

William Birch did the bulk of his filming during World War II and after. During the war he was assigned to the Signal Corps and worked with film director Frank Capra, producing films on the war for the U.S. government and covering special features such as how the Red Cross went into combat and brought out wounded soldiers. He was involved in the government's Why We Fight film series shown in theaters to rally American support for the war.

Although many believe that radio was the model for television news shows, Singleton says it was the newsreels that set the agenda for television broadcasts. The film started with its top story, a national or international story of major importance, then lesser stories following with some sports and soft features. "The format was remarkably similar to TV news today," says Singleton.

By 1929, Movietone--the name Fox created for its sound reels--had cameramen and representatives operating around the world, and its newsreels were available in twenty-two languages. Thomas Doherty notes in his book, Pre-Code Hollywood, that the newsreels were popular enough to sustain a dozen all-newsreel theaters in large cities. One of them, the Embassy Newsreel Theater, was a fixture on Broadway from 1929 until 1949. Using newsreels from Fox Movietone News and Hearst Metrotone News, the Embassy played a forty-five to fifty-minute program with fourteen showings daily. The theater was an immediate success, notes Doherty.

One of the most significant events captured by a newsreel cameraman was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Cameraman Al Brick happened to be in Pearl Harbor and filmed the bombardment, but the U.S. government confiscated Brick's footage to prevent the Japanese from seeing the film and assessing the damage. A year later, the government released the film, and Fox presented much of Brick's dramatic footage to Americans for the first time in an eight-minute documentary, Now It Can Be Shown. "Brick's footage of the Arizona exploding may well be the most frequently shown newsreel clip of all time," says Singleton.

The footage shows not only the USS Arizona, but other battleships, including the USS Tennessee and USS West Virginia burning. It contains scenes of the capsized USS Oklahoma and the wrecked planes at Hickam Field.

The USC newsreel collection also contains feature stories providing insight into the domestic culture of the time. One features John W. Herbert explaining to a cameraman what it was like to play in the first intercollegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. There is the story of Bee Jackson, who traveled the world popularizing the Charleston, a 1920s dance. Others have titles such as, "John Philip Sousa at Michigan State Fair," President Hoover Meets Boy Scouts," and "Life Aboard A Submarine."

African Americans and women are also presented. A 1929 newsreel, "Harlem's Latest Fashions," shows the latest in evening gowns during the Harlem Renaissance; another the same year presents Oscar De Priest, an African American congressman from Illinois, speaking from Washington on voting rights. There are depictions of beauty contests and a foray into the world of science with French physicist Marie Curie.

Given the size of the USC Fox collection, restorers sometimes make discoveries. "Only this past summer did we discover heretofore unidentified footage shot in 1926 or 1927 of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry," says Singleton. The film was apparently shot for a documentary and offers another avenue for historians studying the unit.

Another recent discovery was an early silent film on air mail. The piece follows a package from the post office to delivery. Who is the pilot transporting the mail? A young, unknown postal pilot named Charles Lindbergh.

"Such a large archival resource of unedited moving images exists in no other academically housed collection," says Singleton. "It stands as a truly unique research collection for students and scholars from all fields."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a freelance writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The University of South Carolina received $251,268 from NEH to preserve 225 Fox Movietone newsreels.