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In the days before television network news, CNN, FOX news and the Internet, many people got much of their world news from the newsreel at the movies. A newsreel was a compilation of world news stories, both serious and funny, that various movie studios put together and released with their films in theaters.
Pathe released the very first newsreel in 1911, and the popularity of the newsreel quickly caught on. Although silent, the newsreel gave the ordinary person a glimpse at life beyond his city limits. Most people had a radio and listened to national and world news there, but the newsreel allowed them to see the news. The newsreel could be said to be the forerunner of both the network television news and entertainment news shows.
The first “talkie” newsreel was exhibited in 1926, and after that, five companies produced the films: Fox Movietone, Paramount, Universal, Warner-Pathe and Hearst Metrotone. When The Jazz Singer premiered in 1929 and became a bona fide hit, proving that the future of movies was in sound, more theaters installed sound equipment and were able to show newsreels with sound, as well. In 1929, Fox introduced an all-newsreel theater in New York, and the concept really caught on in Europe and Asia.
Since the movie studios were responsible for the newsreels’ content, they occasionally slanted the news, and sometimes even staged events for their cameras. Several companies were guilty of this in World War I. However, many of the cameramen and reporters were honest journalists and came away with incredible footage of historic events. Most people felt that Paramount had the most balanced newsreels, while Hearst-Metrotone, released by MGM, were considered the most slanted.
The newsreel has an important place in the history of photojournalism, and also as a historical archive. Before network news reporters had video cameras on the battlefield, the newsreel reporters were in the foxholes, filming footage that accurately recorded history. Where else could the average person see movies of such events as the coronation of England’s King George VI or the signing of the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri? We consider it commonplace now, but 75 years ago, this was amazing. When the last Universal newsreel was released in 1967, it was truly the end of an era in the cinema experience.
In an era where going to the movies means sitting through 15 minutes of snack commercials and 20 minutes of previews, seeing a newsreel sounds like a cool thing to do.
I have Turner Classic Movies on my cable system and I always enjoy seeing the old newsreels as shorts. They really did serve an important function in helping audiences get current on the news of the day. For people in rural areas, where the newspaper was a six-page weekly, a newsreel might be the main outlet for their world news.
The other thing about newsreels is how they serve as a slice of life in the time when they were made. Nothing tells you about life in the 40s like a good newsreel or two.
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