Recalling when the news of the day came with buttery popcorn

The Baltimore Sun

Raymond Fielding chronicled the last great convulsion between old and new media a half-century ago. It ended in the only modern extinction of a major type of news media.

He does not believe what's going on now between print and the Internet will end like that.

(Insert huge hopeful sigh from print journalist here.)

Fielding wrote The American Newsreel: 1911-1967, which laid out the rise and fall of a now-forgotten form that delivered news to the masses in moving pictures and sound in movie theaters through the first half of the 20th century.

Newsreels were hugely popular, taking millions of Americans who at the time rarely traveled beyond their own towns to foreign capitals and battlefronts overseas.

"When I've lectured or given a public talk, I've said it was one of few major media of communications that ever closed its doors. I don't expect newspapers to go out of business, but they're certainly going through tough times," he said from his home in Tallahassee, Fla.

A fascinating documentary at the Newseum in Washington depicts how the newsreel itself ran the gamut from mesmerizing new media to obsolescence over several decades.

Theatergoers were transported to Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, to the 1937 explosion of the German airship the Hindenburg and to the liberation of Paris in 1944.

The newsreel was a potent blend of journalism and entertainment long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Thomas Edison's film of the 1897 inauguration of President William McKinley stunned Americans who at the time rarely saw news photos in their daily papers.

Newsreels delivered scenes from the ruins of the San Francisco earthquake to theatergoers in 1906 - and used footage of model buildings being shaken by hand to satisfy theatergoers who weren't content to simply see the aftermath.

By the mid-1920s, nearly 90 percent of the 18,000 theaters in the United States exhibited at least one of the six newsreels then available, Fielding wrote.

Newsreel producer Mutual Films struck a deal with the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1914: He'd stage his battles in daylight to aid their filming in exchange for money used for guns and ammunition.

The newsreel delivered video and sound, even from the courtroom, of the crime of the century long before O.J.: the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann. He was executed after being convicted of kidnapping and murdering the infant son of the aviator Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Like the Internet today, newsreels were considered very graphic and powerful in their day: A woman sued Universal Studios, claiming that the shock of viewing newsreels of the corpse of Baby Face Nelson caused her miscarriage. The lawsuit failed.

Chicago authorities banned theaters from showing newsreel footage of a deadly clash between police and workers in the Republic Steel strike in 1937 - just as the Chinese government continues to squelch bloggers and Internet reports about the beatings of Tibetan monks last year after anti-government demonstrations.

"Mussolini said 'Let me run the newsreels and I can rule the world,' " said Fielding, who taught Frances Ford Coppola among others at UCLA and later was founding dean of the film school at Florida State University.

But as television ascended, newsreel studios struggled against the tide of immediacy. By 1956, fewer than half of the nation's theaters booked newsreels.

Some of the major newsreel producers of yesteryear remain - Universal, Fox, Paramount, MGM, Hearst, Warner Bros. - but other former household names - Pathe, Movietone, Metrotone, Trans-Lux, Castle News Parade - have vanished.

"Three words killed them, 'Today's News Today.' You would see that at the beginning of NBC's nightly broadcasts, and they simply couldn't compete," said Jerry Grossman, video producer for the Newseum who put together the museum's documentary.

By the time all three major networks had expanded their nightly newscasts from 15 minutes to a half-hour in 1967, Universal Pictures distributed the last newsreel in the United States: 41 years ago Friday.

Roughly nine out of 10 homes in the country had televisions by then.

Internet penetration in U.S. households may still be a little below 90 percent, but in practice, it's way beyond that since many workers today can surf the Internet while at work. There probably weren't many employers in the 1960s that allowed folks to watch TV on the job.

Grossman, the video producer, said that when he showed a 23-year-old nephew old newsreel footage of a famed 1940 wind-driven collapse of a bridge in Tacoma, Wash., his reaction was: "Great animation."

"They really don't have a sense of what it is or of what it meant to people, seeing moving pictures of Hitler and Mussolini, of Pearl Harbor," Grossman says, referring to the newsreel and anyone probably younger than mid-50s. "Seeing these people move and talk was amazing."


Several Web sites offer archived newsreel footage, including:

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