A look at how newsreels grew into a unique 20th-century institution that informed and entertained whole generations. Bill Moyers conducts a tour of the cultural and political landscape so dramatically rendered by the American newsreel.
NEWSREEL CLIPS: Viewed as the luxury liner of the air, the Hindenburg’s horrible end has shocked the entire world.
Why not put out feelers and see how hubby would like you in this? All in all, you must say these styles are —
Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroyed Japan’s power to make war.
I’d sure like to have that kidnapper alone for just about four minutes. Well, come back soon, little Lindy. Our hearts are with you.
I’m speaking to you. I want you to do what I tell you. Now keep your head down. This young boy is just starting, you see — Not that far down. The newsreels are on you.
BILL MOYERS: The newsreels — as one cynic described them, a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show. I’m Bill Moyers, and this is a strip of yesterday, an old newsreel containing crude but moving images of the 20th century, our century. Just as rough pictures on the walls of ancient caves represent some of the earliest entries into the family album of the human race, these newsreels are another much later addition to the growing archives of our collective memory.
For over 50 years of this century, they appeared in our local movie houses, a predictable part of every program somewhere between the popcorn and the cartoon. I’ve been told that around half a billion feet of motion picture film were taken during the era of the newsreel. I think I must have seen just about every frame on alternate Saturdays at the old Lynn and Paramount theaters in Marshall, Texas.
I took unabashed pleasure in the Tom Mix westerns, the Buck Rogers serials and the Bugs Bunny cartoons. But I gave my heart to the newsreels. That dime I handed the lady in the ticket booth took me to far off places like Paris, Berlin and New York City, gave me a front row seat for a pageant of gangsters, presidents and kings that would have made Chaucer envious, and even put me, as a kid, behind home plate when the great Babe swung his mighty bat. Aladdin, with his magic lantern, never had more exciting adventures that I did with a dime at the matinee.
BILL MOYERS: Here is where generations divide. My three children, who grew up with television like many of you, have never seen newsreels in a movie theater. But for us old timers, they alone brought us moving images of momentous days. Now no one ever will confuse newsreels with high art.
Soon after they first appeared in 1911, the newsreels were controlled by the major film studios, whose purpose was to entertain, not inform. Newsreels became, well, show business, fascinating audiences but frustrating critics who called them trivial and superficial and accused them of ducking controversy for fear of offending the customers. By and large, the critics were right. But the newsreels will have the last word.
They will outlive us. When future generations want to know what we look like, how we dressed and talked, they will turn to the newsreels, for over 50 years, the sound and visual record of our century.
NEWSREEL CLIP: Newsreel camera records a fatal leap. Her parachute never opened. Inside of agonized thousands, she falls to a mercifully swift death.
ED HERLIHY: What was the newsreel? It was the television of its day, of course. Everything that took place in the world up until 1947 was either on the newsreel or it wasn’t.
BILL MOYERS: (V/O) Ed Herlihy — for 25 years, he described scenes of war and peace, fads and fashions, his resonant voice booming through movie theaters across America. He was the voice of Universal News.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): Victory in Europe brought wild rejoicing throughout the allied world as the big three announced the downfall of Nazi Germany. New York celebration is typical of the nation’s joy at the end of nearly six years of war in Europe. It’s a great day as a thankful people let loose their pent up emotions.
ED HERLIHY: I don’t know whether you were in Times Square that day — I was. And that was something to behold, to see those people.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): There’s a hard road ahead before we bring Japan to her knees, and it’s up to us to get back on the job until complete victory is assured. Let us thank God for the peace that has come.
ED HERLIHY: Newsreel started as a filler. People went to the movies to see the feature movie, of course. But you also saw a comedy, and you saw the coming attractions, and sometimes you saw a short subject, as we called them, a travel log or something of the sort, and the newsreel. The newsreels gained and gained in popularity through the years, especially with men, because they could see the sports that they wanted to see. And they could see the great plays of the games that they wanted to see. And they finally ended up with newsreel theaters that did nothing but newsreels. And they were great places for salesmen to go when they wanted to kill an hour. Instead of going to the porno houses of today, they went to see the newsreel theater.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): Blitzkrieg, new German —
ED HERLIHY: Most people don’t realize is that it was a silent war. Pictures were not shot with sound as they are today. We made the war. We put the sound on in that little stage on Monday and Thursday nights. So when the war took place and the bomb exploded in the air, that was our bomb from the control room in the sound effects man’s department. He pushed his little micrometer screw and — [EXPLOSION]
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): The kamikaze, the Jap suicide pilots.
ED HERLIHY: They always had pretty girls in bathing suits. That always had to be a part of it. We always had to have one of those in there somewhere. So a little cheesecake is acceptable and desirable, and it balanced off the whole package.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): In Egypt, they have a national problem which has everyone tossing and turning. Cairo’s belly dancers are tossing their tummies while everyone is turning his head to watch. The girls claim their navel maneuvers reveal less than the local beach. Anyone for a swim?
ED HERLIHY: Here’s one about the Russian rocket there, the first one to the moon. That was the seventh of October, 1957. Today a new moon in the sky, a 23 inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): Today a new moon is in the sky, a 23 inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket. Here, an artist’s conception of how the feat was accomplished.
ED HERLIHY: We didn’t have a picture, you see, so we had to draw cartoons of how this thing worked and was animated. So that’s what we told about as we described what the Russians had done. That was the first Sputnik.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the Earth circling satellite, one of the great scientific feats of the age.
ED HERLIHY: Yeah, there always was entertainment in them, and we made that a very special point. But they also wanted to see the latest baseball game, how the World Series turned out.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): It’s a double to center, past Hank Aaron.
ED HERLIHY: They wanted to know what the latest fashions were.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): Oh, raccoon coats never die. They don’t even fade away. The roaring ’20s and the flappers are far behind us, but you’d never know it to look at today’s co-eds and their back to campus wardrobes and transportation. Underneath those raccoon coats, fashions follow new lines —
ED HERLIHY: The Ivy League look, a combination of kilts and leotards for lounging around the green. And what else? Oh yeah.
ED HERLIHY (on newsreel): Get in the swing with striped collegiate shirts and black tapered pants maybe, some keeper. The way of the fair on the fairway.
ED HERLIHY: The way of the fair on the fairway, pretty corny, but that’s the way we did it.
BILL MOYERS: Like contemporary television reporting, the weekly newsreel was a team effort. But in the theatrical newsreel, the music editor had the authority of a maestro. And the cameraman who brought back the pictures was a veritable titan, a titan before whom the lordly strutted, ladies paraded, and disasters erupted as if on cue. Sometimes the cue was given by the lowliest member of the entourage, the reporter, known in the trade as the contact man.
TOM MCMORROW: It would have to be a very rare occasion that a contact man, as we would know them, would be seen in the picture, which of course is quite the opposite from the situation today when the first thing you see is the reporter who’s out there with the crew, saying well Jim, I’m out here on 49th street, and the building is still burning. And so we see him and we listen to him, and eventually, we may even get a look at the burning building.
BILL MOYERS: Tom McMorrow — in newsreel parlance, he was the contact man, the off camera reporter who organized each day’s filming. He began with Paramount News in 1948 and was with the newsreels until the 1960’s.
TOM MCMORROW: The major motion picture companies used the newsreels as a tool for their own ends. The major studios were interested in getting the premieres of their big movies covered, getting the stars filmed, frolicking at the swimming pool or otherwise.
FILM CLIP: Let me just make, like, an artistic dive. You back up a little bit. Oh, get off.
TOM MCMORROW: The newsreel was presented in a rather overblown manner for what we’re used to today. It started off with a tremendous fanfare, a stirring march and then with a clash of symbols, we’d go into the first story. And these stories, of course, all had musical scores. And one of the marvels of the newsreel business, was in a matter of hours, a brilliant music editor would score an entire 10 minute film with music appropriate to a fashion story, a ski jump, a boxing match and a political speech, and make it all come out even at the end and go into the final [hums what the music sounded like].
HY FUCHES: Oh, the difference between in a silent film and a film with music was enormous. As soon as music was put on, it seemed to come to life. It gave the stories involved great urgency and great importance.
BILL MOYERS: Hi Fuchs — in 1929, Pathe News converted to sound and Hi Fuchs joined the music department. He stayed with Pathe until the shop was closed in 1956.
HY FUCHES: (playing song) This was played probably 1,000 times on various newsreel stories, ranging all the way from horse racing to politicians. In fact, this could almost go for a bathing beauty parade on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. At the opposite end of the spectrum, supposing we got a story in on strikes, riots, floods, hurricanes, just disasters, we’d go to a category called dramatic agitato. And this is all it isÖ
NEWSREEL CLIP: [MUSIC PLAYING] A flood, raging water.
HY FUCHES: We learned. We were feeling our way in those early days. When the atom bomb went off and we got the first pictures, what kind of music do you put on an atom bomb going off? We learned that silence was the most awesome sound that we can get.
TOM MCMORROW: When I came into the newsreel business in the late 1940s, the cameraman was king. The cameramen of those days were, for the most part, men who had started when the newsreels started, around 1920.
DENNIS BOSONNI: This particular camera was used when the Wright brothers were flying the Wright plane.
TOM MCMORROW:They came out of the silent era when the camera was everything. There was no sound, there was no music. There was only the picture. And the cameraman was supreme.
DENNIS BOSONNI: It’s what’s known as the hand crank camera. And we call this a coffee grinder. That’s what we called it, and this is why.
BILL MOYERS Dennis Bosonni — he is two years older than this century, and seems to have taken pictures of most of it. Bosoni is an ex-boxer well equipped to deal with the rough and tumble world of the newsreel cameraman. Through the lenses of his cameras have passed images of every US president from Wilson to Nixon. He gave us the movies for dozens of Miss Americas and scores of World Series.
DENNIS BOSONNI: We tried to give them pictures so that — if there was a big fire, as an example. Before you got to the fire, you made a long shot. That’s part of covering a story. Then you moved in closer. And if there were houses in the area where the fire was, you’d focus on those houses. You could get smoke billowing out of the building. You’d make your close ups of the fire itself.
TOM MCMORROW: In those days, you learned how to deal with the cameramen. You could never tell them what to do, because they would instantly ask you who the hell you thought you were telling me, the cameraman, how to make a picture. So you learned to say look at that over there. Isn’t that funny? And he’d look over, and he’s say yeah, I think I’ll make a shot of that. Great.
DENNIS BOSONNI: Part of the front of the building had collapsed, and the side of the building — that was still up. So I said to the fire chief, I said, hey Bill. I said, what are going to do about that wall? He said why? I said why the hell don’t you knock it down for me? It’d make a hell of a shot.
And he says well, let me get the dozer in here. So they got the dozer in with a bucket. It had a high bucket. And he just hit the wall a couple of times and it collapsed, and it stared another fire. But that was another picture that I had gotten a commendation for. And not only that, but they gave me $25 extra. I was making a pretty good money in those days. A matter of fact, I think I made more than my father made. And my father was the head chipper in an iron foundry. When I come home on my paycheck, or my check, or my cash, my mom would say well, you made more money than your father did.
ED HERLIHY: They were very brave and daring men who would hang off the tops of building, hang off the bottom of helicopters, do anything to get that story, including the fact that I think they would have killed you if you got in the way while he’s trying to shoot it.
DENNIS BOSONNI: Oh God, you went through hell when you were a newsreel man, because a lot of people always tried to cut you out of something or they tried to get in your way or something like that. And when we got a hold of a guy like that, we’d either take the tripod and put in on our shoulder and run right into the guy. Either that, or if we had a hand camera and he got funny, we just stuck the camera in his ribs or we hit him in the jaw with it, which happened several times with me, as far as I was concerned.
Then we’d get a hold of a guy that we didn’t like, and he got fresh, and he had a car, and he was getting in the way with a car, he’d try to bump us with a car. When he wasn’t looking, we’d just take the tire and flatten it for him.
ED HERLIHY: And they were, without question, the romance men of the whole industry.
DENNIS BOSONNI: And if we got a cameraman that wasn’t a professional cameraman, that wasn’t in our business and had no business being on the scene, and he happened to be some fresh kid with a camera that wanted to get out in the foreground and make himself look big, why, we would always talk to him and try to be nice with him. And when the kid had his head turned around where he was talking to another cameraman, if we had a piece of gum in our mouth, stuck it right on his lens. And if they didn’t like that, then we kicked them in the shins.
TOM MCMORROW: They kind of needed a buffer between them and the more genteel aspects of our society that they might be called upon to photograph, and that was then the contact man’s function. I recall, for example, when General de Gaulle visited New York. He was standing up. He’s, of course, six foot six, tall, austere, proud magnificent man, arrogant, steely eyed, and cameramen yelling at him, hey, de Gaulle, over here, over here. Fortunately, the general did not understand English.
DENNIS BOSONNI: The first thing you learn when you’re a photographer is that you’ve got to have a stomach for it. You’ve got to feel that if the guy standing alongside him is a doctor and it doesn’t make him sick, I’ve got to feel the same way as he does. Because if I get sick, this guy’s going to say what the hell kind of a sissy is this guy that he can’t take it? And you learn to stomach these things, and you learn that when you’re going to an area that’s a disaster, you forget what the disaster is. What you’re thinking about is what kind of pictures am I going to get so that the public will see what they didn’t see or what they couldn’t go to see. Because public isn’t invited to all these accidents, all these disasters, train wrecks and that kind of stuff.
NEWSREEL CLIP: The German Zeppelin, Hindenburg, queen of the skies, seen here from a Universal newsreel camera plane as it sped over New York to its tragic end at Lakehurst, New Jersey, now lies at the Naval Air station, a twisted mass of metal.
DENNIS BOSONNI: We had been on forest fires all that day and all the two nights before that, all through Jersey. And we were in the area, and I called New York. And New York says no, we’re going to send now Al Gold and A. A. Brown down to shoot it in sound. You go on home and get some sleep. You’ve got too much overtime in.
NEWSREEL CLIP: Slowly the big ship warps in, and the ground crews rush for the boarding lines. In another 10 minutes or so, the great aircraft would have been snugly docked. But as the passengers mounted the windows to watch, a roar and a burst of flame near the tail fins turned the ship into a flaming inferno.
DENNIS BOSONNI: Once I got in the house and laid down in the bed for about an hour, I got a call from New York. They said get the hell back to Lakehurst right away. The Hindenburg blew up. See? Down I went.
NEWSREEL CLIP: Passengers and crew, the fortunate among them fell or jumped and were dragged to safety before the fiery furnace took their lives.
DENNIS BOSONNI: When I got there, all I could find down there was bodies being taken in to the hangar.
NEWSREEL CLIP: It’s the greatest of miracles that anyone came out of the disaster alive.
DENNIS BOSONNI: These things behind me are part of the Hindenburg. Well, I wanted them more for souvenirs. And I wanted to feel that I had something that I could look back to in years to come.
NEWSREEL CLIP: A message that shocks the world comes in on the police teletype. Only a few minutes have passed since the message was flashed. It isn’t much beyond midnight, and already the state troopers are going through the neighborhood with a fine toothed comb to meet the challenge of a criminal degenerate.
Not a single bed is overlooked, not a single suspicion unverified in the search for the most famous baby in the world, innocent 20 month old son of the Lone Eagle and his mate, the victim of as cruel and fiendish a crime as any human can be guilty of.
PROSECUTOR (newsreel): Didn’t you wire the note? Time and time again, didn’t you?
HOFFMAN (newsreel): I did not.
PROSECUTOR (newsreel): You did not?
HOFFMAN (newsreel): No.
DENNIS BOSONNI: I shot some of the stuff in the courtroom, and that was when Hauptmann was on stand.
PROSECUTOR (newsreel): You had a 20 dollar bill, Lindbergh ransom money. Did they ask you where you got it? Did they ask you?
HOFFMAN (newsreel): They did.
PROSECUTOR (newsreel): Did you lie to them or did you tell them the truth? Did you lie to them or did you tell them the truth?
HOFFMAN (newsreel): I said not the truth.
PROSECUTOR (newsreel): You lied, didn’t you?
HOFFMAN (newsreel): I did, yes.
DENNIS BOSONNI: The courtroom was small, and there were only three camera people allowed in.
PROSECUTOR (NEWSREEL): What do you suppose he wanted it for? What do you suppose he did with it? He wanted that money so he could as he did, live a life of luxury and means so he wouldn’t have to work. He quit his job the day he collected the $50,000, the very day.
DENNIS BOSONNI: The town itself was so filled with souvenir hunters, thinking they’d get some pieces of the child’s clothes or something like that. But they did have souvenir stores. People were coming in from all over, and some of the farmers in the area even came in with some of these hay wagons and stuff. When I wasn’t in the courtroom, I was out making cut end shots.
We also made shots of the ladder being placed up against the wall to the window where the baby was kidnapped. And while the hearings were or, you staying there in the event something else had happened. Who knew what would happen? Who knew whether or not somebody had got to Hauptmann and blew his brains out? Who knew what somebody would do in reference to the jail, whether they wouldn’t stick a bomb under it and blow it up?
HOFFMAN (NEWSREEL): I want to tell the people of America that I am absolutely innocent of the crime of the murder. I am going to die as an innocent man.
HY FUCHES: What history that is, history that changed the world forever? How many countless volumes have been written on these subjects? And how many more are yet to come? But in these brief newspapers, these events that changed the world forever are forever preserved on film.
BILL MOYERS: History, yes. But it’s only recently that newsreels were admitted to the august company of historical documents. At the time, old newsreels, piling up in vaults, were considered as useless as yesterday’s newspapers. More so, actually. You can’t wrap a fish with a newsreel.
Only recently did anyone set out systematically to preserve old film. Since it disintegrates with time, whole decades of newsreel footage, like this, have turned to dust literally and are lost forever. But occasionally, social historians, like archaeologists, are surprised with unexpected gifts, fragments from which emerge other portraits in our family album, a portrait in the cave, a coin in a stream or celluloid in the tundra?
Dawson City in the Klondike of northern Canada — in 1897, they had a gold rush. But there is more than gold buried in these barren fields. Old silent newsreels shipped to Dawson City’s movie theater somehow ended up as landfill, their images literally frozen solid in the Canadian permafrost. They were discovered by workman a half century later and handed over to the Dawson City Museum with Cathy Jones in charge.
CATHY JONES: Well, we dug almost 800 reels of film up. And these went out to Bear Creek to a root cellar out there. And then the National Film Archives gave us a contract to go through them, clean off the rust and eliminate any of the strips of film that the image had completely disappeared.
BILL MOYERS: Like the ruins of ancient civilizations pieced together by archaeologists, these films are fragments of our century. Some of them are from World War I, with young recruits marching through the streets of Chicago. But what of these strange images of young children playing war games for the benefit of a newsreel camera?
What these elks would be called upon to do for their country, we may never know. A silent protest march by blacks through the streets of New York City. One sign reads, we own 250,000 farms.
But everything in these early newsreels still in search of their form was not news. Early viewers got to watch Mrs. Louisa Andrea demonstrating her favorite recipe. And film versions of the editorial cartoons — their significance and humor have faded with the ages. From the reservation to civilization — for the newsreel makers of years ago, this was their idea of civilizing the natives. In their own way, the films have captured not only the images but the mores of a bygone age. But let’s not hasten to judge. What will future generations make of fragments from our daily television news broadcasts if somehow they too become frozen in time?
BILL MOYERS: Throughout the 1920s, the silent newsreels flourished. And when the decade ended, five major companies competed with each other to cover weekly events. All of them converted to sound by the early ’30s, and this addition brought to the storage cupboard a greater sense of realism.
Yet the newsreels shrank from the realities of the biggest story of all, the Depression that put 25% of the labor force out of work and pushed America toward chaos. Hard pressed Americans went to the movies to escape. They wanted to be amused, and the newsreels that amused were of fashion shows, parades, flagpole sitters and other human interest subjects such as the North Carolina family with 34 children who used the bathtub for a butter plate.
One editor said his biggest human interest film was a duck leading a blind bull to water. And one producer, when asked what kinds of pictures were most popular with audiences, replied soldiers, airplanes, battleships and babies. So it was that the images of the Depression that we recall today — bread lines, shuttered factories, homeless families — were not what audiences saw on the screen at the time.
It was only in 1931, as protests began to dominate the headlines, that the newsreels were forced even to acknowledge something like the hunger march on Washington that December. The demonstrators were asking their government for unemployment insurance and welfare for the needy, reasonable demands by today’s political standards. But in 1931, any group challenging a threatened social order was described as either Communist or criminal. The newsreels made no pretense of objectively sorting out the players in the drama.
NEWSREEL CLIP: 200 capitol policeman, fully armed with riot clubs and teargas bombs, formed the reception committee for the hunger marches. [They] will be severely dealt with. The Washington special tear gas squad is heavily loaded for any trouble.
BILL MOYERS: In the summer of 1932, newsreel cameras were filming another protest in Washington. This time it was the Bonus March of World War I veterans. Several years earlier, Congress had voted ex servicemen a pension, but not to be paid until 1945. 25,000 veterans marched to the capital in ’32 to demand that the bonus be paid immediately, during the Depression, when their need was desperate. Dennis [? Bosoni ?] covered the event for Fox. All the newsreels were there.
NEWSREEL CLIPS: It’s war, the greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865. The third cavalry from Fort Meyer and the first light tank regiment, the twelfth infantry from Fort Washington, all assembled with a single purpose, to route the Bonus Army from government property which they have been occupying without permission. The Bonus veterans have defied their leaders. The police cannot handle them since the riot this morning that ended in one death and dozens wounded. And so they’re being forced out of their shacks by smoke bombs and tear gas, hurled by the troops who have been called out by the President of the United States. Mr. Hoover doesn’t blame the veterans entirely. He claims that the disorder and defiance were caused by foreign reds and a large criminal element in the ranks of the veterans.
DENNIS BOSONNI: I was down there when it happened. And I think Hoover gave out an order that he didn’t want us to photograph more of what was going on. And he thought at the time that it was sufficient enough for us to just forget the incident.
NEWSREEL CLIP: The soldiers have orders to burn down the unsanitary and illegal camps.
DENNIS BOSONNI: Well, it just felt that if this was continued, we continued to shoot and shoot and shoot, the whole country would be in an uproar over the whole thing. We just simply went along with whatever they felt was best for the country. There were some things that we could photograph and some things we couldn’t photograph or we wouldn’t photograph. Let’s put it that way.
But in defiance to an executive order, we were taking an awful chance. Because if you had a White House card, it wouldn’t take them very long to bring you in and say look, we just have to take the card away from you because of the attitude that you take towards your government.
LEO SELTZER: During the 1930s, during the Depression, there is very little factual news about what was going on, simply because it was a policy of the media and the newsreels, the theatrical newsreels and the newspapers to ignore the existence of the Depression. And this was in accordance with the official government point of view, from President Hoover down, who said the Depression is a very simple thing that will be over in 60 days.
BILL MOYERS: Leo Seltzer — his film career spans 50 years. A distinguished documentary cameraman and producer, he worked with Edward R. Murrow, was film biographer for the Kennedys, and in 1948, he won an Academy Award.
As a teenager in the 1930s, Seltzer joined a radical group called the Film and Photo League. During the early part of the Depression, the forces of the left, including the Communist party, were the most organized of the voices calling for relief and social change. But first, they had to show what was really happening in the country. And that meant an alternative to the official view as presented in the commercial newsreel.
So they developed a series of film programs which they called the Worker’s Newsreel. It’s object was openly political, to shape public consciousness and mobilize Americans to demand change. Leo Seltzer was one of their first cameramen.
These were silent newsreels. Commentary was in the form of titles. They were produced on low budgets, little money for film or equipment, nothing for salaries. These newsreels did not appear in regular movie houses, but they were shown around the country in meeting halls, church basements, and even outdoors, projected from the backs of trucks.
LEO SELTZER: A lot of the footage that we got brought the audience into contact with the activity, unlike the commercial newsreels which were usually photographed from the top of a large panel truck, photograph everything from a very sort of objective point of view. We had handheld cameras. And I photographed what I was experiencing, not just what I was seeing. We weren’t just filmmakers. We actually participated. I was unemployed, and I was a worker, so I was participating in these things with a camera in my hand.
Very often, the newsreels we made were the only means of information available to workers. And I took these films of city workers on picket lines and demonstrating to show them. And I rebuilt a projector that could run off a car battery. So with the 16 millimeter print and the special projector, we were able to show these films to farmers in little school houses that had no electricity out West. And when the farmers saw these films of city people engaged in this conflict and suffering from the Depression, there was an understanding of the extent of this Depression at the time to the point where no other media brought that information to them.
BILL MOYERS: Union Square, New York City, March 6, 1930, of the first mass demonstrations against unemployment. Over 20,000 people took part. Police on horseback and motorcycles were determined to break it up.
There was considerable violence and many demonstrators were arrested. This commercial newsreel was never seen by the general public. The New York City Police Department censored it. The footage was acquired by the Worker’s Newsreel and became powerful ammunition in their drive to politicize the nation. As the Depression deepened, demonstrations like these spread across the country, with the Worker’s Newsreel recording many of them on film. In 1932, Leo Seltzer filmed the veterans’ Bonus March. His was not the commercial newsreel view of the news.
LEO SELTZER Well I went to Washington when the ex-servicemen first arrived there and covered the beginning of the encampment and their first marches and demonstration. I don’t think many of the newsreels covered this. There wasn’t that much interest. And again, it was against the point of view of the government, the official point of view.
But when the Army came in and they ejected the ex-servicemen by force, of course, this is well covered by all the newsreels. The newsreels, like most media today, are concerned primarily with sensationalizing the material they deal with. So with that sort of a basic guidance in terms of selecting material, obviously, you’re going to select not what is most important, most significant, not what is educational. But you’re going to select that which will attract, or confuse or startle most people.
NEWSREEL CLIP: A human pendulum swinging, she heads for the heights. Nearly one mile up, and here he is, that daring young man on the flying trapeze. This unusual picture is taken from the blimp. Some thrill, eh? A backside view. Mr. Bates says all you need is a blimp and a trapeze, and you can have the same fun. You can have it .
BILL MOYERS: To later generations who are accustomed to critical journalism, newsreels seem suspiciously like mirrors of official reality. One newsreel was even alleged to be receiving secret funding for its overseas addition from the United States Information Agency. That was another day. I remember President Lyndon Johnson watching the evening newscast back in the ’60s, and thinking back to those early newsreels, saying they don’t make news like they used to. No, the newsreels didn’t look for journalistic gold medals. From 1911 until their last flickers in 1967, they wanted the audience not to question, but to sit spellbound at the awful, wonderful, startling or silly surprises flashing on the screen before our eyes.
Even with the dawn of nuclear weaponry and the Cold War, they were not the medium to question or disturb. Today, we see this uncritical and star spangled performance as one of the newsreel’s most disturbing failings.
NEWSREEL CLIP: The natural power of the universe is harnessed in the new atomic bomb. It’s tremendous possibilities are explained in this chart. The mightiest most destructive bombs yet produced, such as England’s terrifying Grand Slam, weighing 11 tons, are puny midgets compared with the new Atomic Wonder.
TOM MCMORROW: If you hear some of the jingoistic rhetoric in some of the commentaries of the old newsreels, it really makes you laugh.
NEWSREEL CLIP: Never before had the nation known such freedom from want. But in this realm of abundance, we reigned along. Looking toward Europe from Moscow, Soviet Russia with expensively stabbing westward, knifing into nations left empty by war with misery and chaos as allies. On orders from the Kremlin, Russia had launched one of history’s most political, moral and economic wars, a Cold War.
TOM MCMORROW: Basically, I would say they were right wing Democrat as far as their politics were concerned. They would generally, I think, reflect the attitude of the administration in power, with whom they worked very closely.
NEWSREEL CLIP: Already, an iron curtain had dropped around Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, menace to the security and institutions of democratic government.
NEWSREEL CLIP: A pet show in New York brings out some very special pets, including this cheetah named Last Savage. Pavlovian training turns this duck into an entertainer and a threat to Carmen Caballero. It’s even enough to worry Liberace. Would you believe a basketball playing chicken? Well how about a chicken basketball player? Of course, he’s no Wilt Chamberlain. Since he’s already equipped with drumsticks, why shouldn’t he be the Gene Krupa of duck land? And this wild chick is a great dancer. She likes to neck too. A cheap date — just a couple of kernels of corn is your only expense. Put one duck on piano, the other duck on drums. Let the chicken dance. Have them all grow long hair. And presto, a new group, two quacks and a cluck.
ED HERLIHY: Two quacks and a cluck — boy, no wonder we went out of business. The newsreel finally died of its own weight, its own inability to be there the first with the most. We were an old hat by the time we got to the street.
DENNIS BOSONNI: The theater said, well there’s no sense in us buying the newsreels when the television stations come out the same day with a story that you’re holding until the next issue comes out, which happens to be three days from now. And the people that come in to see the newsreel say, well I saw that television. So what’s the use of looking at that?
HY FUCHES: We were all called into the large screening room and told that the Pathe rooster would crow no more. Men whom I had never known to display any emotion wept openly. It was the end of an era.
TOM MCMORROW: Hollywood really didn’t care. They wrote it off. They took a tax loss and jumped back in the swimming pool.
BILL MOYERS: Along with the $0.05 cigar, the iceman and the horse drawn street car, the newsreels are dead, victims of their outmoded style, advancing technology, the competition of television and our changing fads. They will never again light up the movie screens of the world, never engage and delight audiences with their particular view of the passing parade. But perhaps never is too strong a word, for we have one more newsreel to show you.
In 1939, the Westinghouse Electric Company worried over the perishable nature of Western civilization. As a legacy to future generations, they made a time capsule. The capsule was concocted from a copper alloy and sunken to a crypt deep in the ground of Flushing Meadows, New York at the site of the 1939 World’s Fair. On the capsule is the stern message, not to be opened until the year 6939. That’s right — 6939. And what will our descendants find when they open up this 5,000 year old missile from the distant past? Well, they will find an alarm clock, a can opener, a safety pin, a container of tobacco and a plastic cup in the shape of Mickey Mouse. They will also find detailed instructions on how to build a movie projector.
BILL MOYERS: Why a movie projector? Because besides the eyeglasses, and fountain pens another three dimensional artifacts of our age are buried a selection from the newsreels. 5,000 years from now, if our descendants can follow instructions, these are the actual newsreels they will get to see — the spring fashions of 1938, Jesse Owens winning the Olympic 100 meter dash, a Harvard Yale football game, the score, Harvard 13, Yale 14, American sailors coming home from war, the bombing by Japan of Chinese civilians.
As to what our descendants will make of these images, we can’t even hazard a guess. But the newsreels leave us with this thought. Will they in the end be among the last will and testament of the 20th century as curious and unworldly to our distant areas as the sculptured ornaments of ancient Sumeria are to us? I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.