Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

News for Newsreels: Time Marches on the Third Reich

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

News for Newsreels: Time Marches on the Third Reich

Article excerpt

"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 Fuhrer 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. …

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