'March of Time' newsreels on Turner Classic Movies a gripping record of history

The Post's Tom Shales waxes nostalgic on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) four-hour special honoring the 75th anniversary of the newsreel.
By Tom Shales
Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sampling a few episodes from the archetypal newsreel "The March of Time," a viewer might think to himself, "I could watch this stuff all night." Be careful, as the saying goes, what you wish for. On Sunday night, Turner Classic Movies honors the 75th anniversary of the newsreel with a four-hour cavalcade of restored installments.

Fascinating, enthralling, enlightening -- many a superlative applies to these documentary shorts, which have gathered value with the march of time itself and have been rescued from the ravages of time by New York's Museum of Modern Art and the HBO Archive, corporate relative of the series's original creators. Even the herald of the opening credits is impressive in its way: "The Editors of LIFE Join with the Editors of TIME in presenting 'The March of Time.' " All giants then.

More famous, to those who can remember, is the closing tag always boomed by announcer Westbrook Van Voorhis (where did they get those names?) or one of his successors: "Time -- marches on!"

You can't argue with that truism, but one could beg to differ with some of what's shown on the screen in the guise of journalism, because what "The March of Time" didn't have footage of, it made up. Episodes are riddled with dramatizations and reenactments, though usually of everyday occurrences as opposed to impersonations of famous people or historic moments.

It's something of an irony that "The March of Time" may be less famous today than a bull's-eye parody of it -- a parody that millions have seen, many of them perhaps not even knowing that it is a parody or what it's lampooning. Does "News on the March" ring a bell? It's the title of the fake-out newsreel that begins the Orson Welles classic "Citizen Kane," and it includes wily duplications of all the "March of Time" trademarks, including the white-on-black transitional title cards, the wall-to-wall musical score and the bombastic narration.

Calling "March of Time" journalism, especially objective journalism, is also risky -- what about now calling it "history"? At the very least, it's part of the history of American photojournalism, a moment in which medium met message in a particularly compelling way, with each installment representing the creation and perfection of a style that seems lastingly influential.

Naturally the presentation of news in "March of Time" looks primitive by today's instantaneous standards, but its producers cleverly used the technology of the time. Produced monthly on a budget of $50,000 per, the films were shown in theaters among the cartoons, trailers for coming attractions and other "selected short subjects," as it sometimes said on the marquee. (Not surprisingly, the newsreels succumbed to competition from TV, and "Time" stopped production for theatrical use in 1951).

Here was a little burst, usually about 20 minutes, of reality, relatively speaking. In the case of "Inside Nazi Germany," released in 1938 and one of the most prominent of the "Time" capsules to be shown on TCM, most of the evidence on the screen has been all-too-well verified by time, and much of it is still chilling -- the story of how Adolf Hitler's blueprint for the future was put into practice largely by keeping Germans firmly in the grip of "the most concentrated propaganda campaign the world has ever known."

We see Hitler youths in training -- bare-chested Aryan boys and regimentally dressed girls -- plus shots of Hitler making appearances before vast armies of people, including his vast army, and many signs referring to "Juden," Jews, and restrictions placed upon them in prelude to the monstrous Holocaust. Jews even had to sit on special yellow benches in the park. Meanwhile, the average German was bombarded with positive propaganda about the fatherland and negative propaganda about such enemies of fascism as the United States: "65,000 freezing and starving in Cleveland."

The images of persecution are grimly iconic. Less well-known are activities of the German-American Bund, which "March of Time" says operated openly in the United States, recruiting transplanted Germans for the building of the Third Reich. According to the film, some 200,000 Germans were enlisted, many attending one of 25 summer camps scattered throughout the country. Revisiting such relatively obscure pieces of history is one of the rewards of revisiting "The March of Time."

Praised by government officials, "Inside Nazi Germany" played 16 weeks at Radio City Music Hall before the feature attractions. It indicates that more was known about Hitler's schemes than we often think. And the Germans denounced it, a sure sign of its veracity.

Shots that look obviously faked include one of nuns sitting behind bars in a segment about how Hitler opposed all religions, and a German hausfrau participating in an early version of recycling, handing her garbage to a uniformed worker who says bye-bye with the requisite "Heil, Hitler" and carts it away. But much of the footage of Germany was shot daringly by a cinematographer with a hidden camera.

Considerably less somber is the 1943 "March" called "Show Business at War," with footage of Walt Disney, John Ford, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Tyrone Power, Darryl F. Zanuck, Clark Gable, Linda Darnell, Irving Berlin, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard ("who gave her life" for the effort, dying in a plane crash while on a war-bond tour), among many others, doing their parts.

Although Joseph Goebbels and his state-enforced propaganda drive are depicted as vile, which they were, the work of Disney, Ford and others cooperating with the U.S. government to make recruitment films and domestic propaganda was by contrast a mission "to set the war record straight and to counter-act enemy propaganda." There is the hint of a double standard, yes, but why worry about that now?

The Russians are seen as friendly and cute in the 1943 film (soldiers enjoy a performance of the "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo"), but by 1950, when "The March of Time" observed "Mid-Century: Halfway to Where?," Joe Stalin was depicted as having enslaved 750 million people under Communism. This "March" has more footage with sound than the others, including Gen. Omar Bradley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, saying he is "convinced that war is not inevitable"; labor leader Walter Reuther trashing the commies; and Winston Churchill ending a speech with the words "fearing God and nothing else."

So much more passes in review, in just the handful of episodes screened, that it can only he hinted at. The report on the world at mid-century is among the most thoughtful and least hyperbolic of the episodes viewed, and it ends with David Sarnoff, chairman then of RCA, predicting a day when "people will see, as well as hear, around the world." Gee, ya think?

Four hours of The March of Time

will air on Turner Classic Movies

starting at 8 p.m. Sunday.

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