06 April 2010

News and Media: Newsreels

By Carrie Lofty

Before television, the nightly news, and goofy local weather forecasters, people only had one source of news that featured moving pictures: the newsreel. Generally brief and themed to a particular topic, newsreels were documentary films that covered world events, topical and local concerns, and entertainment gossip.

Invented in 1908 by the innovative production company Pathé Frères in 1908, newsreels premiered in Britain in 1909 as the Daily Bioscope. The concept of garnering news from movie pictures soon caught on, particularly in America and the British Commonwealth nations. Much like movie previews today, the newsreels preceded a feature film, or else were sandwiched between two features as part of the intermission. In the 1930s and 40s, newsreels were so essential that many large cities had dedicated newsreel movie houses, and even smaller movie houses had dedicated theaters that showed the latest newsreels on a continuous loop all day.

During the silent movie era, newsreels were accompanied by on-site piano music and narrative placards. Here's an example:

Later newsreels were fully narrated, such as this one from Castle Films about the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

During the Great Depression and WWII, Hollywood and the Allied governments employed the best writers of that generation to make the news more palatable and patriotic. For example, both Dylan Thomas and John Steinbeck wrote newsreel scripts.

No matter their importance to people of the early 20th century, newsreels did not survive the swift transition from radio to TV. Television brought newsreels right into living rooms, thus ending the need to leave home for one's current events. But for historians who study that era, newsreels continue to provide fantastic information about long-forgotten news events and, more importantly, the cultural attitudes that shaped its reporting.