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It’s forgotten today, but movie audiences of the Thirties were already entertained by the futuristic, soon-to-come possibilities of seeing distant news events as they actually happened. And they already knew it would be misused. Television news would be faked, in comedies to illicitly run up a TV company’s stock price, or in drama, to maliciously broadcast fictional “truth” to panic the public into avoiding the act of voting during a crucial election. They saw all this coming more than eighty years ago, theaters full of people who hadn’t yet seen so much as one TV screen in their entire lives.
Just about everyone born in the twentieth century still knows what newsreels are, or were, a long time ago: ten minutes of narrated news clips shown in theaters, part of a weekly program of novelties shown in between the movies, including coming attractions and a color cartoon. Mussolini, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler were each, in their way, masters of the newsreel cameras. It’s the main way the world outside their countries came to know them, and the reason we know their images so well today. Newsreels existed even in silent days, but it was sound that gave them influence and power, above all the sound of the spoken voice. Their 1930-‘55 newsgathering traditions, even the film crews, and camera equipment were passed on to the new field of TV news.
I’d like to introduce you to a pair of B movies, hour-long cheapies made by Republic Pictures, once John Wayne’s home studio for Westerns. First up: Exiled to Shanghai (1937), whose alternate title was the more relevant-to-us News Is in the Air, is breezy, screwball Thirties all the way, part of a once-thriving line of fast-talking, wise-cracking Hollywood workplace comedies about newsrooms, salesmen, detective squad rooms, and courtroom reporters on the Death Row beat. The leading man is Ted Young, a jaunty, popular newsreel reporter. He’s top dog in New York’s colorful mob of macho cinematographers of the streets, who, we are told, will take any risk to get a story on film.
In the background of the story, you get an idea of how rushed and industrialized the newsreel process had to be in order to rush something onto 400 coast-to-coast movie screens every week. New news film came off trains and steamships and was rushed to the labs. Film editors cut the picture in negative to save time. Music scores weren’t composed; they were taken from a small collection of cliché stock themes on 78 rpm phonograph records, lined up to instructions as terse as “20 feet, Lindbergh kidnapper in court. 20 feet, Leaves for jail. Music zing at 35”. The narration was written and recorded while the film was still being edited.
When it was done, a film printing machine could make a copy every ten minutes. The first ten copies were developed and each of them was taken to their own copy machine, each used to make 40 more copies overnight. As each batch of those 400 copies emerged, wet from the lab, they were trucked to Railway Express, the FedEx of its era, which could reach most American towns within two to three days. Theater chains booked trucks to take the metal cans of newsreel film from the depots directly to the theaters. It was a miracle of organization.
But dashing reporter Ted Young discovers to his chagrin that very soon, that days-long delay won’t be fast enough. The men of Worldwide Newsreels, Inc. face a new challenger, the ambitious boys of Supreme Television Company, who can put the news on the air instantly, just like radio but with all the pictures of a newsreel. After being bested by a double-crossing rival at Worldwide, Ted moves on over to Supreme, where he’s welcomed as a star. There’s a typical Depression-era madcap subplot about Nancy Jones, a lovely, innocent country girl who wins a Supreme Television slogan contest and gets mixed up with Ted.
He’s got an idea of how to solve TV’s biggest (real) technical problem of the time, the limited broadcasting range of high frequencies that can’t “bend” beyond the horizon. That zany wag suggests a chain of relay stations kept aloft in blimps. What a card! With Ted Young on board, Supreme’s Wall Street bosses are pumping the stock, fattening themselves up for a big payday.
But they’re concealing a big secret: Their TV cameras don’t work well outdoors yet, and they have no way to get the signal back to headquarters. Ted Young discovers that news events are “covered” by running faked film. Supreme almost got away with it, too, until they broadcast a routine zeppelin landing on May 6…well…did I mention it was 1937? You really have to hand it to Republic Pictures for integrating real news into the plot of the film so quickly.
The disconsolate hero-turned-goat flies to San Francisco to board a slow boat to China, when a radio telegram tells Ted that the crooks are in jail and he’s been vindicated. (He’ll later find out that his “wacky” TV relay via blimps idea works, and will probably make him a millionaire). He catches up with Nancy’s train, does an aerial transfer, straightens out all the misunderstandings, and wins her hand. All in a minute or two. Oh, and the title? As the picture ends, we see what purports to be the first live combat footage broadcast from Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of China. The hapless reporter under fire is Ted’s old rival at Worldwide.
Two technical notes: Unlike most Thirties films about TV, the cameras here are real, the same Farnsworth type used at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And Ted’s aerial relay scheme was actually used on a limited basis in the Fifties as “Stratovision”, done with planes instead of blimps. Eventually, microwave links and coaxial cable would finish the job.
Two years later, Republic Pictures made another fast-moving, low-budget B movie about the imminent arrival of TV news, and its potential to deceive, S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939). This time, though, the tone was much grimmer. The previous Halloween, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast a famous dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, covering it as if it were an actual news event. Despite clear warnings and reminders at station identification, it caused a celebrated national panic among audiences too dumb or frightened to understand what was going on. At the time, the CBS radio broadcast was said to have caused suicides, and scores of fatal accidents with jittery speeding drivers fleeing nonexistent Martians. Those stories were later debunked. But when S.O.S. Tidal Wave was released in 1939 they were widely believed and fresh in peoples’ minds.
Most of the film is a straightforward Depression melodrama about a crooked big-city political machine pitted against high minded, good government crusaders. This was a Hollywood cheapie with some thrills and a few interesting ideas, not a “message picture”. There’s the usual skullduggery about waterfront thugs cracking skulls and blowing up newspaper offices. Jeff Shannon is a pioneering New York TV newsman, another graduate of newsreels who’s moved over to the small screen. His friends urge him to use his news broadcast to expose the corruption behind the politicians running the city.
From a 1939 viewpoint, there’s nothing futuristic about this world, no flying cars or lightning bolt tunics. Except for one small thing: every place there’d be a radio in 1939, there’s already a TV set. A little screen in the parlor for grandma and grandpa, in the nursery, or tucked into the corner of a barbershop or soda fountain; a big luxurious TV in a penthouse or a street display, and a more formal one in an office or a classroom. In real life, it would be another fifteen or twenty years before TV was everywhere like this, even in the wealthy USA. But that ubiquity is an important element in the story.
At first, Jeff refuses to air the damning facts because it would be offensive, unprofessional, and improper for a broadcast reporter to express a personal political opinion. Finally, he relents and goes on the warpath. He puts together filmed proof of criminal activity at the very top of state and local government. His election day broadcast is disrupted by thugs who broadcast fictional scenes of a massive storm and tidal wave as if it were real, terrifying viewers and spreading panic. Polling places are empty as frightened people take shelter or flee. Hundreds of people are killed by accidents and other effects of mass fear during the election fraud.
It’s a Thirties movie. The bad guys lose. The good guys eventually triumph. The laws are changed. Rest assured, when TV does finally reach your living room, nothing like this could ever happen.
So what happened with the real newsreels? In the golden age of Hollywood, they were done to a ten-minute formula: a minute of a big news event, like a presidential speech or a highway opening. A minute of college marching bands. Overseas gets a minute, two if war breaks out. Baseball or football. Bathing beauties of Waikiki, or water skiers of Florida. A whimsical look at a sack race. A scientist claims a robot will be the next world heavyweight boxing champion. All rather neutral stuff, politically, and most of it requiring access from its subjects. It was not a formula for skeptical or probing news coverage. The early years of TV news followed that path. “Recently, President Truman shook hands with the poster child of this year’s campaign against infantile paralysis. A moment in the spotlight for a brave little fellow”.
Even by the late Thirties, there was a different strain of non-fiction filmmaking beginning to stir. Time-Life, a mid-century publishing giant, produced a monthly film documentary series called The March of Time, running about half an hour, three times the length of a normal newsreel. Ironically, it’s remembered now mostly because of a smart parody of it called News on the March, a newsreel segment of Citizen Kane (1941). Time-Life brought political attitude, in their case a strongly pro-capitalist, elite conservative attitude. Only mildly anti-union, at least on the surface, clearly anti-lynching, and totally pro-immigration, to most people they didn’t come across as right-wing. Democrats and others in the left frequently denounced The March of Time as Republican propaganda, but these programs were enormously popular in theaters.
This would become the fork in the road for TV news: facts or opinions? At seven o’clock, depending on where you were, you got straight news, at least in theory, the equivalent of the old newsreels. But in prestige, prime time timeslots, the likes of CBS Reports, NBC White Paper, and later, 60 Minutes would pursue the path of The March of Time, presenting cases to shape public opinion about segregation, sharecropping, organized crime inside labor unions, campus protests, automation, teenage pregnancy, or the nation’s puzzling and troubling new drug problem.
They were liberals of their times, and they were crusaders. No doubt some did see themselves in the heroic pose of George Reeves in the era’s The Adventures of Superman. “And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”. But if suddenly transported to 2020, I think that most of them would probably be as baffled and disturbed by some of the biases of today’s media as you or I are.Published in