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All The Latest News—Plus A Cartoon

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin March 6, 2014 at 1:26PM

Newsreels and their fascinating byproduct, the Newsreel Theatre are an all-but-forgotten relic of the moviegoing experience.
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Newsreel postcard-300

Newsreels are an all-but-forgotten relic of the moviegoing experience in the first half of the 20th century, along with their fascinating byproduct, the Newsreel Theatre. Yet at one time, almost every major city had one or more movie houses devoted exclusively to newsreels. Most of them leavened the onslaught of news with other short subjects, especially cartoons. Whether or not the latest Bugs Bunny frolic was supposed to chase newshounds out of the darkened theater or lure people in is hard to say.

Newsreels are an all-but-forgotten relic of the moviegoing experience in the first half of the 20th century, along with their fascinating byproduct, the Newsreel Theatre. Yet at one time, almost every major city had one or more movie houses devoted exclusively to newsreels. Most of them leavened the onslaught of news with other short subjects, especially cartoons. Whether or not the latest Bugs Bunny frolic was supposed to chase newshounds out of the darkened theater or lure people in is hard to say.

How much did newsreels become part of our pop culture? This cover of a 1930s pulp magazine should answer that.
How much did newsreels become part of our pop culture? This cover of a 1930s pulp magazine should answer that.

Newsreel theaters were often located in train depots, so commuters who experienced delays could while away an hour or so. Chicago’s Telenews  advertised itself as a place “where shoppers meet and relax.” That big-city outlet, like the Embassy in Manhattan (which was situated in Grand Central Station), went so far as to send out postcards detailing their weekly lineup. Distributors even made up one-sheet posters, hurriedly printing that week’s headlines within the borders of a stock design.

Such theaters as the Trans-Lux on Broadway, Hollywood’s News-View, and countless others drew on an abundance of product from Paramount (“The Eyes and Ears of the World”), Fox Movietone, RKO-Pathé  (later Warner-Pathé), MGM News of the Day (formerly the Hearst-Metrotone News), and Universal (soon to become Universal-International). If it seems odd that there were so many competitors, remember that until the government stepped in at the end of the 1940s, several major studios owned huge chains of theaters that automatically played their product—including short subjects. In their heyday, the studios released two newsreels a week to theaters around the country, long before the advent of Federal Express and other overnight delivery services.

Newsreel ticket-680

I have a dim recollection of newsreels from my earliest theater-going experiences in the 1960s. They seemed awfully dull to me then, and there’s a good reason: by that time, they were. Television had overtaken newsreels, which for decades brought audiences in small towns and big cities alike the sights and sounds of famous figures and distant places. But inertia is a powerful force, and both Movietone and Universal stuck it out well past their apparent expiration date in the 1960s.

Here’s a typical one-sheet poster for a Pathé newsreel release of the early 1930s and a stock one-sheet for Universal’s newsreel, still hanging on in the 1960s
Here’s a typical one-sheet poster for a Pathé newsreel release of the early 1930s and a stock one-sheet for Universal’s newsreel, still hanging on in the 1960s

Nowadays we rely on newsreel archives as our time-machine to the past, but it’s rare to see the original ten-minute shorts in their entirety. The notable exception is the Universal library, which was donated to the National Archives years ago and is in the public domain. (That’s why it’s used so often in those “highlights of the year” video releases.) Universal was never the best example of the form, but at least one gets to see how a typical reel was compiled, including notable events, sports highlights, personalities, and “soft” feature stories. You can find examples HERE.

This faded signage still exists behind the Palace Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles, heralding a period when the majestic cinema became a newsreel emporium
This faded signage still exists behind the Palace Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles, heralding a period when the majestic cinema became a newsreel emporium

Incidentally, when I first visited London in 1971 I was surprised to find a cousin to America’s newsreel theaters. They were known as Cartoon Cinemas, and there were still two in operation, one of them inside Victoria Station. I saw cartoons, a two-reel comedy, and even a serial chapter along with a handful of  cartoons—and, yes, a British Movietone newsreel. It was a little slice of heaven.

This article is related to: Journal, Film History, newsreels