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All The Latest News—Plus A Cartoon

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by Leonard Maltin
March 6, 2014 1:26 PM
14 Comments
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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.

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.

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

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

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.

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14 Comments

  • gary meyer | March 11, 2014 7:36 PMReply

    It was a surprise newreels were still being made and shown by the late 1950s and into the mid 1960s because of television. But it is a tribute to the distributors’ local branch sales teams that they got theaters to keep signing up for an annual contract for a weekly reel, just as they did for cartoons and shorts. And the newsreels continued to be in black and white even as the rest of the program was in color.

    If the double feature at the Uptown in Napa was youth oriented you can bet the audience on Friday and Saturday nights got noisy. I can remember the opening of BEACH PARTY preceded by a newsreel. The packed 1300 seat house became a place of near anarchy as my peers yelled at the screen and threw things, resulting in a free-for-all in the auditorium.

    The manager, Gibb, later told me that was a signal to them that they needed to be more careful about what they showed with features.
    -------

    The beautiful Paramount Theatre in Oakland has a Friday night classic movie series where the feature is preceded by a Wurlitzer organ concert, cartoon and coming attractions (plus Deco-O-Win wheel ) and a 35mm newsreel (all for $5!).

    A few weeks ago they showed a 1967 MGM newsreel that included a magician restaging a Houdini escape while hanging from the Tribune tower a few blocks away. The audience went wild.

  • Gary Meyer | March 11, 2014 7:34 PMReply

    What a terrific piece.

    As a kid I was fascinated by the Telenews in San Francisco.
    I can remember when I was about ten years old and was standing in the outer lobby where there were giant photos of naked African women. I guess if they were natives of color it was considered alright a la “National Geographic.” I can only tell you that the two African American boys about my age and I had our curiosity on full alert.

    Owned, along with its neighbor the Esquire, by a fraternity brother of my father named Eugene Friend, I got passes a few times in my pre and early teen years. The shows were pretty boring but there were lots of military men, especially sailors, who had been away from most forms of communication for weeks and months so they could catch up on what they missed.

    Opened in 1939 San Francisco’s Telenews was the first is the chain, featuring footage of the Nazi invasion of Poland in its first program.

    By 1948 the owners of Telenews felt TV would supplant their theaters some day for news coverage and they started to offer their footage to broadcast stations. CBS had a contract to be the first to show the news movies.

  • Ron Hall | March 11, 2014 12:44 AMReply

    That serial chapter you saw in London, 1971, was from "Bruce Gentry" (Columbia, 1949).

  • Claude Wolf | March 8, 2014 3:41 PMReply

    Your comment about the cartoon theatre in Victoria Station brings back some wonderful memories from my childhood in the 1970s. My father would take me there as an occasional treat. You would walk into a tiny room and watch classic cartoons, one after another on a continuous reel until you reached the first one you'd seen on entering. It gave me a love of animation that lasts to this day. Who could have thought that a train station could be so exciting?

  • John | March 6, 2014 7:58 PMReply

    The newsreel theaters were great if you were between trains or planes, waiting for a bus or just wanted to rest your feet for an hour or so after shopping or walking around in the big city. I spend many happy hours in the Telenews on Market Street in San Francisco and a similar newsreel theatre on Broadway in Oakland. Arriving by train at Grand Central Station on my first trip to New York City in 1959 my first stop was the cozy little newsreel theatre in the station. The Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty could wait, I needed my short subject, newsreel and cartoon fix!

    As for the 6 minute newsreels themselves, a staple in almost all mainstream theaters for decades they did indeed become outdated and irrelevant after TV became entrenched in our homes. By the time I was a teenager I couldn't wait until the newsreel ended and the cartoon and preview reel would come on. However when I was stationed in Korea during my US Army service in 1959 & 1960 at at a post way out in the boondocks with no TV service I found renewed appreciation of those Movietone & U-I newsreels which preceded the feature twice a week at the post theatre, even if they were a month old by the time they reached us.

    As for the San Francisco Telenews it got displaced and demolished in the mid 1960's during the construction of BART, our rapid transit system in the Bay Area. By that time it's days showing news and shorts would have been extremely numbered anyway. Adult films would most likely have been it's future which was just the case at the Oakland newsreel theatre. After a run as a mainstream triple feature grind house called the Peerlex, it turned to adult fare and later became a part of the Pussycat chain before being demolished in the late 1980's.

  • mike schlesinger | March 6, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    I'm just old enough to remember the tail end of the era (mainly the Universals). It's also worth noting that the early Cinerama travelogues performed a similar function; in those days before long-distance travel became common, both were the only way many could experience the people, sights and sounds that lay far beyond their home state.

  • evan jeffrey williams | March 6, 2014 4:48 PMReply

    Chicago's TeleNews Theater later became the Loop Theater which played such disparate fare as VIXEN, Otto Preminger's SKIDOO, and EVEL KNIEVEL. I still have an an old reel of film left over from when it was a newsreel house.

  • Nat Segaloff | March 6, 2014 3:58 PMReply

    I lost interest in theatrical newsreels on January 29, 1967 when the one they were running at the Langley theatre in suburban Maryland extolled the upcoming launch of Apollo 1 two days after television had grimly reported the death of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee two days earlier in a launch pad fire. You'd-a thunk somebody would have called or sent a wire to the theatre to cut that item out.

  • Norm | March 6, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    LM is spot on. If a picture is worth a thousand words , that makes these "NewsReels" priceless. Imagine seeing a far off place and recognizing someone close to you. It really hits home when the world is brought to you. Lost art of film...maybe...Where is Marshall MccLuhan ?

  • Lee | March 6, 2014 12:14 PMReply

    I've seen some old Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons that featured spoofs of newsreels. "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter" depicted Warmer News (tagline: Sees All, Knows Nothing).

  • Robbie | March 6, 2014 11:19 AMReply

    My dad grew up near Glasgow, Scotland and when he was a kid in the 1930s he'd go to the cinema on Saturdays and he says it was FILLED with kids, and for whatever small price they paid, they saw a cartoon, a serial (with a cliffhanger!) and a feature film, and got a bit of candy too. I don't know if they ran newsreels for the kiddie shows. What my dad remembers, mostly, is that it was loud -- not from the movies, but because most of the kids were there on their own without their parents and screamed a lot at the screen. He always smiles telling me about it.

  • Terry Bigham | March 6, 2014 10:55 AMReply

    The best known newsreel series of all was Time magazine's "The March Of Time". Orson Welles structured "Citizen Kane" around a spoof of it called "News On The March" and the search for extra dirt on the title character. (Powell and Pressburger kicked off their "Oh, Rosalinda!" with a faux-newsreel too) And most likely the newsreel would be followed by a cartoon that parodied the great newsreels (especially Warners, most memorably in "Porky's News Reel")

  • top cat james | March 11, 2014 1:08 AM

    Terry, that's "Porky's Snooze Reel".

  • Tony Caruana | March 6, 2014 4:04 AMReply

    I remember them well. My first time was in Aldwich, London, in 1957 at the age of 13, when I was taken by my father. They died out in the 60s here in the UK as well.

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