NEWS FOR NEWSREELS

Time marches on the Third Reich

Stephen Bates

We feel that Hitler is too important a figure to be ignored,” Roy E. Larsen, vice president of Time Inc., said in 1935. The point would seem incontrovertible. By then, Hitler had flouted the Treaty of Versailles, pulled out of the League of Nations, and banned all political parties except the Nazis. American newspapers were chock-a-block with Nazi news. But as Thomas Doherty explains in Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939 (Columbia Univ. Press), newsreels were a different story.

To Hollywood executives, movies were all about escapism. Audiences wanted programs of lighthearted entertainment: perhaps a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a Clark Gable feature, and a newsreel about Canada’s Dionne quintuplets. (According to Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, newsreels devoted more screen time to the adorable quints than to the Spanish Civil War.) The movie studios themselves put out the twice-weekly newsreels, which typically zipped through a clutch of upbeat stories in 10 minutes. Those stories might range from the inconsequential to the insipid, but producers didn’t care. “The newsreel is not a purveyor of news,” declared the trade journal Motion Picture Herald.

Newsreel items about Hitler evidently soured moviegoers’ mood, sometimes to the point where they would breach the peace. When the Führer appeared on screen, Nazi sympathizers might cheer and yell “Heil!” Shouting matches and even fistfights broke out. To avoid strife, Variety reported in 1933, “newsreel editors are all dodging Hitler close-ups.”

Then, in 1935, Time Inc. launched what it called “a new kind of pictorial journalism,” a monthly newsreel called The March of Time. The company was wagering that the conventional wisdom was wrong: Moviegoers were eager to be informed as well as entertained. Exhibitors were skittish, but The March of Time won over audiences and critics. Variety praised “its outspokenness, its fearlessness, its production qualities, and its desire to remain impartial.” (In truth, impartiality was a sometime thing.) The Time Inc. series received a special Oscar in 1937 “for having revolutionized one of the most important branches of the industry — the newsreel.”

Nazis might be verboten in other newsreels, but not in The March of Time. A 1935 segment titled “Berchtesgaden, Bavaria!” opens with a solitary Hitler, sitting and then pacing in near darkness, illuminated only by a modest fireplace. Narrator Westbrook Van Voorhis asserts that in just two years’ time, this “lone, strange man . . . has lost for his country what Germany had nearly regained — the world’s sympathy.” The shadowy Führer was actually an American actor, in keeping with a common newsreel practice of reenacting or simply inventing scenes. Later shots show Nazi parades, munitions factories, and Hitler — this time the real one — fulminating before an enormous crowd.

In 1938, one edition of The March of Time, “Inside Nazi Germany,” was devoted solely to the Nazi threat. In the 18-minute film, Van Voorhis declares that Hitler’s “fanatic little propaganda minister,” Joseph Goebbels, has created “a nation with one mind, one will, and one objective: expansion.” The film talks bluntly of the Nazis’ “persecution of the Jews,” shows (and translates) “Jews Keep Out” signs, and reports that city parks have “special yellow benches . . . labeled ‘For Jews.’”

“Inside Nazi Germany” also contends that Nazism represents a growing menace in the United States, showing footage of “Führer” Fritz Kuhn, leader of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, “who claims to have enrolled 200,000 U.S. Germans under the swastika.” The film concludes on an ominous and prescient note. “Nazi Germany faces her destiny with one of the great war machines in history,” Van Voorhis warns. “And the inevitable destiny of the great war machines of the past has been to destroy the peace of the world, its people, and the governments of their time.”

Senators, Roosevelt administration officials, and critics praised “Inside Nazi Germany,” but Hollywood remained queasy. The newsreel would only “kindle the embers of violence,” the Motion Picture Herald predicted, adding that “theater patrons are supposed to be seated in comfortable opera chairs and not crouched behind barricades.”

Some theaters had police on hand at first, but they proved unnecessary. Americans lined up to see the film — at an all-newsreel theater in New York, even the midnight showing attracted a standing-room-only crowd — and, according to one report, audiences “nearly tore down the rafters with applause.” “Inside Nazi Germany” was a hit.

Competitors took note. “Newsreels never abandoned the fashion parades, dumb yuks, and sports highlights,” Doherty writes, “but the ratio of fluff to substance began to tilt toward weightier topics.”

Perhaps The March of Time holds a lesson for the financially beleaguered press of today: If it’s well presented, serious news sells. Or, conversely, maybe contemporary editors should look elsewhere for guidance. As the film scholar Raymond Fielding points out, the newsreel may be the only medium of mass communication that, after its heyday had ended, simply vanished.

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