Magazine article American Libraries

Preserving History on Film at the Newsfilm Library

Magazine article American Libraries

Preserving History on Film at the Newsfilm Library

Article excerpt


Ask Andrew Murdoch to identify his favorite reel of film from the Newsfilm Library at the University of South Carolina/Columbia and his face lights up. Murdoch, the library's curator, recalled how he was helping a researcher look for film footage on air mail during the early days of aviation, and he came upon a reel from 1926 that showed the inside of an airplane carrying mail on a run from St. Louis to Chicago.

As the reel progressed, the cameraman handed a package to a little girl, who went to the front of the plane and gave it to the pilot. "When the pilot held the package up to his face, we nearly jumped out of our chairs," Murdoch said with a laugh. "That pilot was Charles Lindbergh, and the film was about a year before his famous flight to Paris. What a find! It just shows how film can become more significant with time."

That reel of film also shows why the Newsfilm Library is one of the world's great research resources. It encompasses the Fox Movietone News Newsreel Collection, a 1980 gift from the 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. "For nearly five decades, Movietone News was a leading news-gathering institution that filmed virtually every newsworthy event and some not so news-worthy," said Dan Streible, an assistant professor of film studies at the university, who teaches a course on film history. "The Newsfilm Library is a historical treasure for researchers."

Between 1919 and 1963, Fox Movietone News produced more than 5,000 newsreel programs, an extraordinary historical record that involved 1,000-plus cameramen roaming the globe to cover the news of the day. The surviving Fox Movietone newsreels and their outtakes, an estimated 75 million feet of motion picture film, may be the best record of their kind in the United States.

Twentieth Century Fox has donated 11 million feet of that film to the University of South Carolina. During the past 20 years, the university has licensed footage from the collection to all the major network news programs and a wide range of documentary producers, as well as to academic researchers. Ken Burns' film companies, for example, have used footage to produce documentaries on baseball, the West, and the Civil War, while the Newsfilm Library has provided footage for several feature films, including Biloxi Blues and A League of Their Own. "We get several hundred research requests a year, and our staff is continually working for a number of film productions around the world," Murdoch revealed.

The public can view video clips from the Movietone collection by going to the Newsfilm Library's Web site ( and using RealVideo Player. There surfers will find footage of Charles Lindbergh receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt speaking about the generation gap, and Babe Ruth rounding the bases after a 1929 home run.

The collection also includes a 1930 newsreel appearance by literary grant George Bernard Shaw; dramatic footage of Adolf Hitler during a 1932 Nazi Party rally; Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, in February 1929; and a midair collision and crash during a 1944 Spokane, Washington, air show.

The outtakes are what make the Movietone collection extra valuable for researchers, Streible revealed. "The collection includes not only the 30-second edited newsreel that movie audiences saw in the theater, but everything that was shot, including the roll-ins, fade-outs, and the people talking off-camera when they weren't cognizant of being filmed," he explained. "So researchers get a lot of information surrounding an event, including how the production process evolved and how the news report was put together."

The Movietone collection contains all existing outtakes from 1919 to 1934 and from the World War II period extending from September 1942 to August 1944. …

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