The newsreel was a short collection of nonfiction stories compiled on a single reel of film produced primarily between 1911 and 1967. A number of countries produced their own domestic newsreels, however this article focuses on American-made productions. Usually included as part of a theatrical program including other shorts and a feature film, the newsreel covered an assortment of events and human interest stories that were directed at a national audience. In peacetime regarded as a form of light entertainment, during World War II, it gained national significance as the primary source of news images of combat.
Produced by motion picture studios, newsreels were not the sole source of news for American audiences; rather they presented a cinematic interpretation of the events of the day. Multiple factors, including reduced industry competition, censorship, and the increasing popularity of television news, contributed to the decline of the medium, and the last of the major newsreels ceased production in 1967. From the very beginning of its existence through its demise, the newsreel was caught between the impulse to entertain and the impulse to inform.
|The March of Time|
|Hearst Metrotone News|
- 1 Origins
- 2 Production and Technology
- 3 Distribution and Regulation
- 4 Newsreels in Wartime
- 5 Decline of the Newsreel
- 6 References
An early form of non-fiction cinema, actualities, recorded unscripted moments, while news films captured events of historical significance or staged reenactments. These early cinematic products of Edison, Muybridge, Lumière, and others created a cinema of attractions that overtly acknowledged the spectator and played to the camera as described by Tom Gunning, professor of cinematic history at University of Chicago. Both genres declined in the United States, along with the nickelodean theater, as the feature length narrative film gained traction. The newsreel remediated the topical journalistic diversity of newspaper and radio news, the camera techniques of the actuality, the narrative devices of the news film, and the abbreviated length of the nickelodeon picture.
"The idea for the newsreel is credited to Leon Franconi, Charles Pathé's American-based confidential interpreter" (Fielding 69). Charles Pathé released French and British newsreels in 1910, with an American edition of Pathé's Weekly premiering on August 8, 1911. The Vitagraph Company, with over a decade of experience producing news films, released its newsreel, The Vitagraph Monthly of Current Events, ten days later on August 18, 1911. Over the next decade a number of companies entered the newsreel market, only to find that the expense of cameras and processing apparatus impeded on profits.
By 1925 two major Hollywood studios--Fox Film Corporation and Universal Studios, in association with Hearst Corporation--and two independent producers--Pathé and Educational Pictures, Inc.--were producing newsreels. Two other Hollywood studios entered the field in 1927, Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in association with Hearst, just as sound pictures were on the rise.
The Introduction of Sound
Fox's Movietone News was the first to release an all-sound newsreel on October 28, 1927, after testing the technology with two sound news films, recording celebrations of Charles Lindbergh's record flights. The addition of the integrated audio design element changed the structure of the newsreel, because narration and music could now be used to provide transition between segments. Narrators spoke in voice-over and directly to the audience setting the tone of the story and influencing interpretation. "Such was the initial popularity of the sound film newsreel that, with one notable exception, by 1931 every major producer had converted to sound. The exception was Kinograms" (Fielding 185). That newsreels were sourced from Hollywood Studios and now had the ability to add artificial non-diegetic sound effects complicated the question of the authenticity of the picture and illustrated the slippage between news and fiction.
Production and Technology
To record images film cameras spool celluloid film 16 millimeters wide (almost 3/4 inch) between two smaller reels, mechanically drawing undeveloped film before an aperture. The camera mechanism allows direct mimetic light impressions through its lens, where these imprint and adhere to the receptive surface of the film. After the reel is in the can–-a tin container protecting it from further exposure–-the visual impressions are sealed onto the film surface through a chemical development process. The resulting document, a motion picture, consists of a serial sequence of discrete photographs, viewed by rapid projection at a rate of 24 frames per second. Historically, the human visual perception was systematized in relation to visual apparatuses extensively in the 19th century, as Jonathan Crary has discussed in Techniques of the Observer, such that perception became understood as the visual apprehension of minute differences through time. Film’s motion is only apparent, produced artificially. The film is severed, spliced, and affixed into segments of precise lengths to create a composed sequence.
Film exhibits a particular dynamic between what German media archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski calls dioptric and catoptric optics, a distinction descending from Euclid (85). Celluloid film is dioptric in that its substrate is transparent. It can be backlit by a bright light to refract a displaced image; in fact it must be backlit in order to be visible. Yet the image as cinema is also not visible without an opaque, typically bright surface to be projected on, such as a reflective screen; in this sense it is catoptric.
Employees of the newsreel organizations collected the majority of footage used in the newsreels. Some cameramen were sent out on specific assignments (ball games, visits from royalty, contests, etc.) and others had a specific beat to cover and would collect anything of interest they might encounter. While collecting the material, the cameraman would fill out a dope sheet, listing the different shots recorded on that reel of film. The amount of commentary and contextual information provided in these dope sheets varied; however related newspaper clippings or other information were attached to assist the editors.
Foreign governmental regulations and inhospitable subjects put restrictions on collecting footage. Americans were forbidden by Nazi Germany to film in their country, and the Nanking government of China was also restricted on newsreel cameramen out of concern for the unregulated future presentation of the recorded material. Domestic events also posed difficulties because “strikers and rioters often singled out newsreelmen for their wrath, since the footage photographed under such circumstances often ended up in the district attorney, who used it for prosecution and the securing of injunctions" (Fielding 277). Production companies typically never placed restrictions on what could be filmed, but would encourage the filming of all “newsworthy” events. Editors shaped the footage to match company's point of view. It was not uncommon for the studios to pay amateurs for footage they may have collected, particularly to have exclusive access to the material. In one instance a cameraman paid $7,500 cash (almost $117,000 in today's dollars) to a local amateur who had caught about 1000 feet of film of a Japanese earthquake (Scott).
Starting in 1930 despite competing for audiences, American and foreign production companies found sharing footage to be advantageous. “The coverage of scheduled events was carefully preplanned by all five newsreel producers, sometimes in concert, weeks in advance” leading to “a monotonous similarity of newsreel content…to an increasing extent [as] each of the 5 newsreel companies began screening identical footage” (Fielding 270-271). One writer in 1936 noted, “’If one of Pathe’s cameras had broken down…probably Fox or Universal would have helped out with an extra print’” (271).
Cameramen unionizing contributed to a communal view toward footage. Normal Alley and Eric Mayell, representing Universal and Fox, filmed the bombing of the American gunboat Panay in 1937 together. The two cooperated in the filming and follow-up coverage as well as agreed to “guard each other’s footage in the event of an unforeseen catastrophe” (272). Under the rota pool-coverage system, introduced in the 1930s, cameramen were guaranteed the opportunity to cover an event under the condition that all footage had to be shared among all newsreel producers. During WWII, the pool system helped distribute footage of battles and war events to all theaters.
Colonel William Mason Wright, head of the Pictorial Branch of the Bureau of Public Relations of the Department of War, described the mechanics of the rota system:
“I propose the idea of pooling our resources for the duration of the war. If each newsreel company will provide us with two cameramen for each theater of operations, I think we can adequately cover all theaters. The work of all cameramen will be censored and processed by the War Department and the Navy Department, and then distributed to the five newsreel organizations, along with all of the work of the Army and Navy cameramen. You will use all the same films, of course, and there will be no more competition among you, but we feel that this is the only way of bringing the war in film to the American people” (274).
The majority of combat footage during WWII was filmed by United States Signal Corps and Navy photographers, many of whom were trained by newsreel companies (288).
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Reels of footage were mailed from the field to the editors' offices. Sound and narration was added as the content was juxtaposed with other stories to form a finished reel to be distributed to theaters. The reference materials available to the editors when writing the scripts and assembling the stories were the notes on the dope sheet and any attached documents. Thus the commentary on the events was editorially constructed or reflected the tone or opinions of previously published newspaper accounts. Additionally, the importance of a fast turn around time for newsreels made verifying the facts difficult.
The need for each of the studios to have the freshest, most up-to-date news led to technical innovation to speed up the process. One fascinating example is a "flying picture laboratory," that contained technology to develop and edit both moving picture film and photos for newspaper distribution. Post-production of the material could be completed on the plane and the finished product could be dropped off at various stops along the flight route ("Newsreel is Finished in Monoplane").
Although in later years it was possible for the cameramen to record sound simultaneously, the cumbersome nature of bringing along the sound equipment along with the necessity to be accompanied by a sound technician led many cameramen to collect soundless footage. Editors then used stock sounds to bring the film to life. A newspaper article from 1938 describes how the sound of a waterfall was used along with footage of fire-hoses and sounds of an Italian naval destroyer siren were used in place of fireboats (Desmond).
Newsreel companies exercised self-censorship when constructing the final products. In 1931 Fox ruled “that its theaters and newsreels could not show scenes of a ‘controversial nature…on which reaction might be divided’” (Fielding 278). In 1938 there was a similar move when Warner Bros. banned their 425 theaters from showing a newsreel pertaining to Nazi Germany claiming it was "not good policy" to show it. This ban, however, was lifted in Chicago, and theaters owned by other studios were free to make their own call ("Warner Theaters Ban Film on Nazis"). Editorial newsreel censorship also favored showing celebrities and political figures in a positive light, such as not portraying President Roosevelt in his wheelchair, or not showing the short King Victor Emanuel of Italy being lifted onto his horse.
Self-censoring aimed to prevent a public frenzy, such as the Paramount filming of a 1937 Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO, a coalition of unions) strike, during which police shot protesters. Paramount’s editor, A.J. Richard, said of his decision to not show the footage: “…whereas newspapers reach individuals in the home, we show a public gathered in groups averaging 1,000 or more, and therefore subject to crowd hysteria while assembled in the theatre” (282). Richard’s decision caused U.S. Senator Robert La Follette Jr., chairman of the Senate Civil Liberties Committee to subpoena the footage, which led Paramount to release it in a newsreel. Banned by Chicago police, the reel was shown elsewhere in the United States.
Distribution and Regulation
During the first year of production, 1911, Charles Pathé issued 95 prints of each newsreel and distributed them through the Keith-Albee and Orpheum circuits (Fielding 75). On June 8, 1914, Pathé had begun to rent its newsreels directly to exhibitors and introduced a daily supplement newsreel service. However, this service had a very limited run, only through the outbreak of World War I. Most newsreels including Fox Movietone and The March of Time were distributed twice weekly to film theaters for projection before a narrative feature alongside other short segments.
By the 1940s a standard theatrical package, known as the "staple program," typically consisted of a featured attraction preceded by some combination of newsreel, cartoon, travelogue, featurette, serial, singalong, and trailer. (Doherty 9). Before the Paramount Decree of 1948, studios had direct distribution access to their vertically integrated theaters, contributing to the rise of the Hollywood-produced reels and the decline of competition from independent producers. After the decision, however, all producers were forced to market to the now independently owned theaters.
While most newsreels screened before feature movies, there were other distribution platforms. The newsreel theater exclusively showed programs of assorted shorts. These programs, about an hour long, featured collections of the major studios' newsreels, along with other short entertainments such as cartoons and recordings of musical performances (Schallert). Newsreels were also viewed outside the theater environment at various community locations or events. For example, some schools had regular newsreel screenings for students ("Newsreels To Be Shown In Schools").
While almost everything produced ended up in theaters, censorship was not unheard of. The censorship of newsreel distribution occurred as early as the 1930s on both national and international levels. Foreign governments commonly banned American newsreels, such as in 1933 when the British government claimed that U.S. newsreels were “’objectionable news pictures’” and threatened to stop airing them, referring to a newsreel that showed the re-enactment of the Brooke Hart murder case. However, during the 1930s, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, and Florida developed censorship committees, which previewed films before allowing them to be screened publicly. The committees would recommend edits to newsreels before allowing them to be shown. In 1935, Louisiana passed a censorship act at the persistence of Senator Huey Long after a March of Time newsreel was made criticizing Long’s career, and Ohio censored a newsreel because they feared it was anti-Nazi ("Ohio Censors Newsreel, Claiming It 'Anti-Nazi'"). In 1953, it was estimated “that the newsreel industry could save fifty thousand dollars a year if censor-board review were abolished in the state of Ohio alone” (Fielding 286).
In response to state-mandated censorship, newsreel companies would boycott certain states in protest. Universal held a camera boycott and refused to film news in Ohio. Around the same time during the 1950s, “public and legislative opinion began to form…against all forms of motion picture censorship” (286). In 1952, soon after the case of Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson, during which an Italian film distributor, Burstyn secured a temporary injunction against New York’s license commissioner Edward T. McCaffrey. Soon after the Supreme Court of New York ruled that McCaffrey, “nor any other municipal official could interfere with the exhibition of a motion picture that had already received an official license from the New York State censors” (Jowett, 263). After the court ruling, newsreels were excluded from censorship laws in Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Newsreels in Wartime
In peacetime, shorts shown before a theatrical feature offered the viewer diverting forms of entertainment. During World War II, newsreel war-related topics dominated newsreels and served several important functions for civilians: to spread news; to dramatize news; and to unite civilians at home to the cause of the war abroad. "By 1944, according to Paramount News, 77% of its total content was devoted to war news…” (Fielding 289). The ostensible content of newsreels was informational, yet the real purpose was to dramatize the news. Especially during World War II in Europe and the Pacific, airplane delivery took 10-14 days to bring images back to the US. Radio and newspaper continued as the main sources of news, while newsreels provided visual spectacle of the same topics. Because newsreels addressed audiences in the context of feature films, they adopted many of the same narrative techniques.
During the war, the US government acknowledged raised stakes in establishing nationalism. All newsreel war footage was sent to Washington for review before being edited and distributed by producers. Pictures of events were not released until months or, in the case of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a year after the event occurred. Because of government intervention, “the footage which military officers did release was frequently dull and lifeless” (295). Changing the length of newsreels also affected production and hindered the newsreel industry. The government decided to shorten the length because of a lack of stock footage, since they were mainly concentrating on shooting war events. Newsreel length went from “900 to 750 feet during the period of 1942-45 and from 750 to 700 feet in 1945” (295).
This wartime lens painted the world in starkly polarized social tones of "good" versus "evil." Roeder cites one government official who described this centrality of message control as a "strategy of truth"(2). Roeder proposes to see this dynamic in terms of "war as a way of seeing" (81). To promote both inspiration and involvement, the government sought a positive message, involving an optimistic, one-sided tone. In theaters across the nation, audiences witnessed a film serial like no other: "our boys," plucky and virtuous, picked fights of a lifetime with conniving "Japs" and sinister Nazis for the right side of history.
The government control stymied competition between producers. “Under the rota system the government furnished every foot of film on combat that was released and made it available equally to all interested producers” (Fielding 294). This lack of competition and the government’s control over filming led to a sameness in coverage that caused newsreel theaters to suffer. The theaters attracted audiences “only because of the intense general interest in war news, as well as promotion schemes such as that which provided free photographic enlargements from combat footage to customers who recognized relatives and loved ones in the films” (294). Additionally, the United States financed its own newsreel for foreign viewers, called United Newsreel. This reel was released in sixteen languages and in both allied-countries and captured territories to act as pro-American propaganda.
The film industry and the American public took newsreels seriously for the first time. According to one 1940s journalist, “’the newsreels very likely reached their peak of effectiveness during the war because they were made and supervised largely by individuals and government agencies genuinely concerned with the tremendous drama of global war’” (291).
Decline of the Newsreel
As positively as World War II newsreels were received by critics and audiences, homogenization in coverage, censorship, the government-implemented shortening of newsreel film length, and a lack of controversial issues all contributed to the demise of the medium.
The rota pool and cameraman union led to homogeneity across the different newsreels. This sameness started as early as the 1930s, when major news events were covered by all major newsreel organizations. Although the rota system officially ended in 1945, newsreel producers continued to buy content from other companies, because it was cheaper than producing their own. Thus, the different productions continued to lack diversity, even as other factors made the medium less enticing.
Consequences of Censorship
Censorship affected film production and exhibition since its initiation in the 19th century, but “with the addition of sound and the growth of the political, economic, and military tensions in the 1930s, censorship became even more frequent, severe, and inevitable” (Fielding 276). Newsreels were not immune. This censorship took many forms, as discussed above, including the control of cameramen, editorial control during the production, and the control of distribution and exhibition.
After the war newsreel companies were not able to generate the same sensational and controversial footage, thus losing a spark necessary for public interest and causing a decrease in popularity. Newsreel companies attempted to recover from these events by making changes, such as offering color newsreels, but these changes did not save the companies from further decline.
TV News and the End
The introduction and proliferation of television in the 1940s was dismissed by newsreel companies as amateurish. In 1952, Charles Lazarus wrote in Motion Picture Herald, “theatrical newsreels are expertly and smoothly edited and presented with no interruptions, whereas TV footage all too often is catch-as-catch-can with the presentation interrupted by commercial” (Fielding 305). Television had been broadcasting news events since the 1930s, and one American trade paper commented in 1935 that “against [TV’s] time delay of only about one minute…ordinary newsreels cannot compete. The only hope, then, of the newsreel industry is to improve the technique of newsreel production” (306). Newsreel companies experimented with techniques in the 1930s to transmit footage quickly, as an attempt to provide “live” coverage, but failed due to the restrictions of film. After WWII, the quality of television news coverage improved greatly, and by 1950 many newsreel theaters were closing. On November 6, 1949, New York’s Embassy Newsreel Theater closed, after having sold over 11 million admissions in its 20 years of existence (307). Newsreel companies began to acknowledge the competition of TV news and began providing footage to television stations. Overall, the film industry was panicked by the popularity of television, and box office sales suffered.
By 1953 the newsreel “had sunk so low that parent studios required their own newsreels to feature pseudo-news coverage of gala premieres and publicity events which advertised their own features” (308). In 1951, the newsreel program The March of Time ended and turned to creating a television news program, while in 1956 Warner Pathé News stopped production (308). In the 1960s Fox Movietone and Hearst Metrotone also stopped production, and finally on December 26, 1967, Universal Newsreel, now the oldest newsreel company, aired its final piece (309).
The Afterlife of Newsreels
While they cannot be assumed to exhibit a consistent documentary validity, newsreels have nevertheless become valuable as historical documents. Due in part to the widespread distribution of the films and the economic need to produce new ones frequently, newsreel cameramen often captured the only moving visual record of certain historical events. Apart from historians, the newsreel film record has public relevance now, as much is publicly available. As archives modernize, an increasing amount of footage is becoming freely available on the internet. In 1976, Universal Studios gave all Universal Newsreel material to the National Archives, making it public domain (Universal News Reels). Much newsreel footage similarly became public domain as stock footage after it fell out of regular use. Among the largest sources of stock footage is the US government, as all video footage shot by the military, NASA, and other agencies has also become public domain.
Its status as primary source material has made newsreel footage commonly used in historical documentaries. Study and interest in early and mid-twentieth century events such as the Hindenberg disaster and the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt have kept newsreel footage present in the 21st century. A cultural nostalgia about World War II and its "greatest generation," for example, appears to have created a cottage industry around the subject which relies on this footage, as can be seen in recent productions by institutions such as the BBC, the History Channel, and Ken Burns.
Newsreels have also been used by fictional entertainment productions to set a contextual stage. For example Star Trek: Enterprise used computer editing to create a newsreel depicting Hitler in New York City to add authenticity to a storyline that suggested history had been changed and the Nazis had gained control of the US. The recent Pixar movie, Up, on the other hand, featured a computer animated newsreel that highlighted the era depicted and also served to demonstrate the rather spectacular nature of newsreels themselves.
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Fielding, Raymond. The American Newsreel, 1911-1967. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972. Print.
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Roeder, George H., Jr. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Print.
Scott, John. "Newsreel Men Unsung Heroes of Film Front." Los Angeles Times 21 Aug. 1932: B15. PDF.
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Universal News Reels. Internet Archives. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.archive.org/details/universal_newsreels>.
"Warner Theaters Ban Films on Nazis." The Atlanta Constitution 21 Jan. 1938: 9. PDF.
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