Reel News: The 100th Anniversary of Hearst Metrotone Theatrical Newsreels

December 27, 2014

William Randolph Hearst, already a big name in the newspaper publishing industry during the second part of the 19th century, had always been interested in new technology. Lucky for him, during the last decade of the 1800s a new medium was emerging: moving images. Hearst hopped on the trend, and as early as the Spanish-American War in 1898, he sent men out to record the action, though sadly none of this footage has survived. Hearst continued to make use of the brand new entertainment form in his failed campaign for governor of New York in 1906 and would go on to produce feature films (mostly starring his mistress, Marion Davies), documentaries, TV productions, and newsreels.  

 

Working in the business of news in paper form, Hearst realized the huge opportunity and advantage he had in the newsreel business. Taken as he was with the medium of film, he also had the manpower and advertising potential: his reporters and photographers were already out gathering stories and pictures, and his newspapers and magazines provided invaluable advertising potential. Add to that the necessary capital which he undoubtedly possessed, and there you had it. Hearst’s partnership with “newsreel pioneer” William Selig in 1914 sealed the deal, and weekly newsreels began to play in theaters soon thereafter (39).

 

As the title of this piece informs, Hearst's work in the newsreel world was the focus of the evening at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, as the Archive celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the first theatrical release of a Hearst newsreel.

 

UCLA archivist Blaine Bartell shared with the audience that evening that the Hearst newsreels are one of the crown jewels in UCLA's collection. They are routinely referenced by students, researchers, and filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Ken Burns, and most recently Ava DuVernay, who utilized the collection during the making of Selma (2014).

News of the Day reels at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (via newsroom.ucla.edu)

The History

One hundred years ago, Hearst partnered with William Selick, who had been producing short form news releases since at least 1903, to form the Hearst Selick News Pictorial. The company released news pieces twice a week through the General Film Company (85-86). Unfortunately, the partnership didn't last more than 2 years, and very little survives from that time. However, those of us in the audience were in for a treat, because the first newsreel we watched that evening was from that two year period.

 

Though the name, content, and commentators frequently changed with the times, the Hearst Corporation's newsreels spanned an impressive five decades, with the last newsreel produced in 1967. To bring it full circle after having the privilege of watching a rare reel from the early days, we ended the evening by watching the final newsreel made by the Hearst Corporation.   

 

Fourteen years after the last newsreel screened in theaters, the Hearst Corporation announced that it would donate the collection to UCLA. In a twist of irony, Bartell was working his first job at the Archive as a work study student when he was tasked with unloading the truck that contained the Hearst material!

 

Bartell also explained that we would view a great mix of material that night, including newsreels that were restored, preserved, not yet preserved, theatrically released, shown on television, tinted, silent, sound, and one newsreel trailer.

 

1914-1929

Jeffrey Bickel, one of the newsreel preservationists at UCLA, took the stage to present the program in chronological sections, the first of which focused on newsreels from the silent era. Accompanying these selections was Cliff Retallick, a fantastic pianist who I've heard several times before.

 

As promised, we watched part of one of the rare surviving Hearst Selick News Pictorials from 1915 covering the Vanceboro Bridge bombing. A major news story in its day, the bridge bombing is now relatively obscure, though when you hear the description of the incident, it's definitely a strange one: a German man was paid to destroy the Saint Croix-Vanceboro Railway Bridge, jointly owned by Canadian and American companies, so Japan couldn't send any troops through Canada, which was a legitimate (well, real) German fear at the time. Fortunately, the suitcase full of TNT the man carried did not destroy the bridge, but it did blow out windows in houses on both the American and Canadian sides and disrupt rail traffic for a few days. Considering the footage was almost 100 years old, I was surprised by how good it looked, though I was not taken aback by the bombing's aftermath:  once we saw the bridge (which was quite small) and the damage that had been done, it was hard to imagine that was the result of TNT - did it get wet or something?! How did it blow out windows but barely make a (visual) dent to the bridge? 

This is the bridge the Germans were convinced the Japanese would send troops over.

The silent section also included fascinating coverage from an assortment of presidential inaugurations, ranging from McKinley in 1897 (in a horse drawn carriage) to Coolidge in 1925. Observing how these momentous events have changed over the years, even in the first two or three decades of the last century, was a real treat. I also noticed how the outgoing President would accompany the President-elect in an open coach or car, and they would always have a blanket draped across them - they sure don't do that anymore!

 

The final selection from the silent era was a complete news edition from 1929 featuring a wealth of diverse pieces which, as we would learn, painted an accurate picture of the great variety of content these newsreels presented to audiences. This reel featured stories on Mussolini, the world's largest sea plane, and last but not least, a German wash tub derby. I was glad to see that amusing items such as the derby were still reported in the news, just as they are today, to balance out the serious events of the day.

 

1929-1937

The next section covered only eight years, but boy, were they eventful ones! In September 1929, Hearst began producing sound newsreels, renamed Hearst Metrotone News. Of course, one month later, the Stock Market crashed. The first piece screened was released theatrically on Thursday, October 21, 1929, just two days after the three day catastrophe of Black Thursday, Black Monday, and Black Tuesday. For the first time that evening, we watched something other than straight event coverage: now that the newsreels talked, suddenly there was commentary! Right after we saw footage of crowds milling about Wall Street, steel magnate Charles M. Schwab faced the camera to reassure the audience that the little economic hiccup was only a temporary downturn, and people had nothing to fear. I wonder if he really believed that, or was he just trying to calm the folks in the theaters?

 

In 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, one of the most highly publicized crimes of the century occurred: the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. This particular story reminded me of the frenzy that surrounds cases like this today, especially with the intense media intrusion and the emotional strain that comes with them; you could tell by their exhausted expressions that Lindbergh and his wife did not exactly welcome the media circus but hoped it may in some way help locate their child. That wasn't all: it pained me further when we saw the only film footage of the baby, happily playing in his crib and crawling around outside on the family's large, secluded grounds. Knowing the terrible outcome of this story made it all the harder to hear the commentator's hopeful voice and watch the family's tearful plea.  

Film footage of the Lindbergh baby used in newsreels.

Hearst made a rare personal appearance in a clip from this section, released on January 14, 1933, in which he urged viewers to buy American for prosperity. Out of all the newsreel releases, those from the Hearst Corporation were most often criticized for their “alleged propaganda intent,” partly due to Hearst’s reputation in the journalism and political worlds, which was sensational to say the least. By the mid-1930s, it was common for audiences to boo or boycott theaters that ran Hearst newsreels due to his character (248). In 1936, the series was renamed News of the Day in an effort to distance the films from Hearst's image; obviously, his appearances were cut at this time as well.

 

This segment also included footage of FDR's inauguration on March 3, 1933. I believe it was for this event that the Hearst Metrotone team rented an entire train traveling from DC to New York to use as a mobile film lab to develop the film so they would be the first to report on the inauguration only one day later (after watching over two hours of newsreels some of it bleeds together). This would also make sense as I read that Hearst instructed the newsreel team to record “ ‘a complete sound motion picture of the INAUGURATION of PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT’ for immediate release to theaters across the nation” (177). Though we live in an age of instant news in which day old reporting is basically nonexistent, I had to marvel at how much work the team put in to beat their competitors. It was fun watching the employees develop film on the moving train and rush around on the multiple hour trip just so the public could catch a glimpse of this historic event as soon as possible.  

Hoover and FDR on the way to FDR's inauguration.

The newsreel trailer we were promised played after FDR's inauguration piece. Dating from October 1934, the trailer introduced the new Hearst commentator, Edwin C. Hill, who worked with Hearst Metrotone until 1936. He led the audience on a visual journey with the newsreel photographers, from the US to far flung lands. I was initially skeptical when I heard about a trailer for a newsreel; people actually went to the theaters sometimes just to watch the news? Apparently so, as I ironically found out days later when I was reading Victoria Wilson's recent behemoth biography on Barbara Stanwyck (Volume 1), A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940. Wilson wrote about how Stanwyck and then-husband Robert Taylor oftentimes rushed their dinner to get to their favorite newsreel theater to catch the latest news show (853).

 

The pre-war section ended with two notable tragic events from 1937. The first was the Hindenburg disaster, which I had never fully seen before - all 20 seconds of it. The cameramen waiting to film the airship’s landing sure struck gold - albeit awful gold - when it suddenly exploded as it approached the ground. Watching the flames swiftly engulf the structure in under 30 seconds, seeing only the bare steel frames still standing afterwards, and hearing a survivor's incredible story (and the fact that 62 of 97 survived that hellish fireball!) brought the event to life for me in a way it never has. 

 

The second 1937 story covered was the Battle of Shanghai, which boasted one of the most famous newsreel scenes of the 1930s: a baby crying in a bombed out train station. This image was shown two or three times, highlighting the utter devastation of this incident. It also had me questioning why didn't anyone pick the child up and quickly take him or her to safety?!

A frame from the famous Battle of Shanghai footage.

1937-1945

The next piece focused on the years 1937-1945, but we actually saw little coverage from World War II itself, which surprised me; furthermore, most of the footage shown was culled from foreign countries before America entered the war. Again, I had to remind myself that these newsreels, newspapers, and the radio were the only ways people would know what was going on in the world, especially outside their home country.  

 

As Bickel recalled from the previous section, 1937 was a very big news year. In addition to the Hindenburg disaster and the Battle of Shanghai, this reel highlighted the vanishing of Amelia Earhart, the death of John D. Rockefeller, and the coronation of King George of England.  

 

Another landmark event was Marian Anderson's concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. The occasion was historic, as the setting was notably changed after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to have her sing in DC's Constitution Hall because she was African American. Boy, did they miss out, because her voice was wonderful. The theater was eerily silent during this portion, and I actually heard a few people clapping in the Billy Wilder audience when her rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" was over.

Marian Anderson's concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Of course, the world was also dealing with the rumblings of war, which were growing louder by the day, especially in Europe, as shown by a story from April 1939 that also emphasized the American attempt to remain neutral. Footage was also screened from Poland in late August 1939, just days before Germany invaded. According to the scene we saw, the Polish people were deep in preparation, as they scattered the streets in an air raid practice that would soon be all too real. The final newsreel shown from this era was also European-based, highlighting the more obscure (at least today) Battle of Narvik, fought between the British and Germans as part of Nazi Germany's successful campaign to invade Norway.

 

Though I admitted before that I was surprised we didn't see any footage from the American home front or battles on the big screen, I was glad the programmers chose the sequences we watched. It reminded me that World War II was fought on such a massive scale across multiple continents - yes, even in countries like Norway, which I honestly had never learned in History class. Perhaps these newsreels should be used in high schools and colleges to supplement the lesson plans…

 

Upon further research after that evening, I found out that with the start of World War II, the number of newsreels released dropped significantly. During that time, many of sequences were filmed by civilian cameramen operating under the military or military units themselves. Though some theaters boasted “No War News Shown Here” early on, after America joined in late 1941, there was substantially more interest from audiences and thus an increase in war-related footage (288-289).

 

1945-1959

The post-war section of the evening technically began at the end of the war, with Truman announcing the bombing of Hiroshima. Two sequences featured in this reel, including this one, were partly silent. In the case of the Hiroshima bombing, the picture had been preserved because it began to deteriorate, but unfortunately, most of the soundtrack was lost after we heard Truman speak. This footage highlighted two very different, and important, subjects. Firstly, preservation-wise, it's important to save as much footage as possible in these cases, especially with such newsworthy events. Secondly, content-wise, even without sound we still felt the emotional impact of the story; in fact, the absence of sound actually rendered the harrowing images all the more bleak and serious. It was easy to tell how fearful the American public was as they observed the ushering in of the atomic age right before their eyes.

 

The atomic age was here to stay for the people featured in the newsreel and also for those of us in the audience: another segment in this reel highlighted Operation Crossroads, which consisted of two nuclear tests performed at Bikini Atoll in July 1946. This particular story covered the first test, which was carried out in order to evaluate the effect of the bomb on ships and supplies. The event did not move forward without a hitch, though: those in charge received pressure from diplomats and scientists to cancel the maneuver due to the belief that further testing was unnecessary and environmentally dangerous. Well, the latter was certainly true, as within a 12 year span from 1946-1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated on Bikini Atoll, rendering the island unfit to live (islanders were paid a total of $150 million in compensation to account for damage and displacement to their homeland). Another consideration was the effect of radiation on sailors in the testing area (and humans in general). Since those in charge wanted to gauge this effect, animals were added to some ships to test how they reacted. You can guess that animal rights groups were none too happy about this! 

Operation Crossroads on Bikini Atoll.

The post-war segment shifted from one major issue to another: the atomic age to the civil rights movement. Bickel mentioned initially that we would be watching one piece that originally aired on television as opposed to being released theatrically, which was a civil rights sequence; ironically, not much was released in the theaters on this historic movement. The footage, featuring Martin Luther King Jr. giving a speech at a mass meeting at a Montgomery Church in April 1956, followed in the footsteps of Truman's sequence, in which part of the sound was lost. Lucky for us, King Jr.'s stirring talk remained intact.  Though I've heard the famous leader speak before, watching him in this setting really emphasized the profound influence he had during that time.

 

Staying on the subject of civil rights, another piece focused on the desegregation of buses in Dallas and Little Rock. Surprisingly emotional, this sequence featured close-ups of workers removing signs that directed whites to sit in front and blacks to sit in back. These shots were intercut with images of the discarded placards sitting in a box on the ground and men and women of all races boarding the buses in each city. Like a few other scenes in this section, this particular story was presented without sound, which I believe added more of an emotional value to such a simple yet profound action. 

Taking down segregation notices on buses in Dallas and Little Rock.

The post-war segment then moved on to another huge 1950s news story, the Cold War. Once again, the evening's programmers chose diversity over familiarity, including stories on the Suez Canal Crisis and the Hungarian Uprising and subsequent Soviet military intervention. Though I know a little bit about the Suez Canal Crisis, the Hungarian Uprising was one event I was not familiar with, and I was pleased to see it presented that evening and learn more about it.

 

After watching some of the most famous stories of the post-war period, the section ended with a full newsreel review from 1959, which served as a great overview of the era, not only politically, but also in the arenas of sports and fashion. This certainly was a welcome relief compared to the more serious selections we viewed from this era!

 

1959-1967

The evening ended with a short section comprised of stories occurring between 1959 and 1967, which signaled the end of the Hearst Corporation's involvement in theatrically released newseels.The finale began with a July 1962 speech made by JFK, who discussed the launch of the AT&T telecommunications satellite, which relayed the first television pictures across a live transatlantic TV feed. Wonder what the audience must have thought of that technology at the time! Bypassing Kennedy's assassination, the next story followed Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign and his inauguration in January 1965. 

Hard at work on the AT&T Telestar satellite.

In a fitting ending, the final reel of the evening also happened to be the last theatrically released newsreel from the series, dated December 1, 1967. Short and sweet, the segment featured stories on the Vietnam War, current day fashions, and preparations for the Grenoble Olympics, which would take place the following year.

 

The Hearst newsreels faded out without much fanfare, as the times had changed; while newsreels viewed in the theater reigned as one of the main suppliers of worldwide news at the beginning of the century, over 50 years later TV had taken over as the primary source for current events across the globe. Though newsreels have been out of fashion now for almost as long as Hearst produced them, they provide a unique window to more than five decades of world history and serve as a wonderful historical and educational tool, which will hopefully last for many years to come. 

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