Title: The March of Time
Release Date: 1935-1967
Writers: Richard and Louis de Rochemont
Created By: Roy Edward Larsen
Run-Time: 30 mins.
When I was kid growing up in Connecticut, our local PBS station used to run a show called “Matinee at the Bijou,” which was intended to be an accurate reproduction of what it was like to go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon in the 1940s.
The show took up most of a Saturday afternoon, including as it did, a cartoon, a newsreel, a serial and then a feature that ran 90 or so minutes.
It was a great way, as a 10- or 11-year-old kid, to be introduced to the wonders of moviegoing. And it was an even better way to bond with my Mom, a child of the 1940s, who attended those Saturday matinees in theaters in Hartford, Conn., when she was a little girl.
“The March of Time” is pretty typical of newsreels of the era, so much so, in fact, that Orson Welles even saw fit to parody it in “Citizen Kane” in 1941.
Produced by publishing giant Time Inc. as a way to promote its print product, “The March of Time” ran in monthly installments for 16 years, totaling about 200 episodes.
On Memorial Day this year, Turner Movie Classics ran a mini-marathon of the 30-minute newsreels, and what emerges (after protracted viewing) is a kind of “60 Minutes” of its day.
The DNA of what we’ve come to know as the modern news magazine show is all here: dramatizations, stentorian voice-overs, and a tendency toward the sensational.
One of the episodes I watched, from November 1943, focused on the toll that extended overseas deployments were taking on the children of American servicemen and women.
With little more than assertion to back up its findings, Time’s faceless narrator concluded that young men were running wild — disobeying their parents and sneaking joints in dark corners with their friends.
Young women fared little better — the newsreel depicts them (what else?) turning into brazen hussies patriotically throwing themselves into the arms of sailors home on shore leave.
Another newsreel, focusing on life behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany, provides a fascinating look at the highly regimented and strictly controlled German culture at the middle of the 20th century.
While the newsreel offers some condemnation of Hitler’s government, an unsettling thread of what feels like admiration also runs through it. But footage of a German-American bund sympathetic to the Nazi junta is particularly unsettling.
In an age before TV, when radio and newspapers still reigned supreme, it’s important to remember that these newsreels were the way that many Americans stayed informed during the 1930s and 1940s.
You can view some of the newsreels here (registration required).
And here’s the show-reel from YouTube: