We watch an old newsreel, grainy black-and-white, fuzzy with age. It is about the airmail service in 1926. A child hands an envelope to a pilot in his cockpit, who grins briefly and turns to his work, and for an instant we see his profile.
It is Charles Lindbergh.
A year later he would be the toast of the world, but here, in this jerky glimpse, he is still Slim Lindbergh, a rather wild but utterly obscure young airmail pilot.
This is the fascination in old newsreels. Outtakes and all, they show us the past before it was edited into history.
Yesterday the Air and Space Museum started a campaign to save 800,000 feet of aviation footage, shot on volatile and deteriorating nitrate stock. That comes to 148 hours of film, and it is just a toenail to the entire cache of 65 million feet of Movietone newsreels owned by the University of South Carolina, which launched the campaign with the Smithsonian.
Sixty-five million feet of film would take about 14 months to pass before your eyes, nonstop. The strip would stretch halfway around the Equator.
It will cost something like $550,000 to transfer the aviation ld,10 footage onto safety film or videotape, said museum Director Walter J. Boyne, and various foundations and aerospace sources are being approached for help. Eventually, he said, the films will be available to the public in a special viewing room at the museum. Some may be seen now at the university. As USC President James B. Holderman put it, these newsreels, shot between 1919 and 1963, offer a history of the world, "the best living record" of those years.
The aviation footage alone is marvelous stuff. The first sound newsreel ever distributed happened to be the one that showed Lindbergh taking off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, N.Y., on the gray morning of May 20, 1927, while a few bystanders watched. A very ordinary takeoff -- yet the sight of the small plane bouncing clumsily into the air, the modest roar of the engine, is more stirring than it has any right to be.
Later we see Lindbergh being cheered and feted and his small plane being installed in the Smithsonian (he would visit it sometimes, peering into the cockpit, where his fuel calculations were still scribbled in pencil on the dash), but these are artificial events, arranged for the cameras as so many were to be from then on.
USC curators say that some of the best things are in the outtakes, comprising 95 percent of the old films: Franklin Roosevelt being helped into cars and onto platforms, a sight always edited out of contemporary news photos. Someone shaking a fist at the burning Hindenburg zeppelin as though he'd had something to do with its exploding. Hour-long interviews with Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others, from which only five minutes or less were used.
One would find George Gershwin playing the piano, rehearsing a musical. Or the amazing coverage of the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934, from the first grab-shot of the gunman leaping onto the running board of the official car, to the mounted guards cutting him down with swords, to the bewildered face of the dying king.
With five firms competing at the height of the newsreel era, crews went to incredible lengths to get scoops. For the coronation of King George VI in 1936, Movietone alone had 20 cameras on the scene. It had 15 on the job for the Spanish Civil War, covering all the factions except the Soviets, who wanted no part of it. Movietone's Truman Talley, the New York Times graduate who was to hire Lowell Thomas, the best-known newsreel voice, had a feeling that some day the Hindenburg would explode. He made cameramen cover every arrival of the great airship in New Jersey. On the day of the disaster, May 6, 1937, the zeppelin was late and some rival crews had gone home. Not Movietone.
In 1941 cameraman Al Brick was making a feature about the Pacific fleet for Movietone. He happened to be at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. He shot 10,000 feet, well over two hours' worth of film, showing the Japanese attack and the horrific aftermath. His pictures were kept from the public for over a year.
Some of the most intriguing footage must have seemed like routine feature material when it was shot. Joseph P. Kennedy rambles on about life; Amelia Earhart talks to reporters just before setting out on her last flight; Hitler harangues the thousands at Nuremberg early in the '30s; John Dillinger's body lies awaiting autopsy.
The Movietone newsreels, stored for years in New Jersey, are gradually being moved into ammunition bunkers at Ft. Jackson, S.C., to await conversion to safety film. Many of the cans haven't been opened in decades, and some have been found to contain nothing but dust. Exposure to air can make nitrate extremely flammable, even explosive, so that not just anyone may open the cans.
Luckily, early-day cameramen carefully listed the contents of each reel, and today USC has a library of 1.8 million index cards to help it find the most important material first. It will cost as much as $10 million to convert the entire stock and establish it at the university, a job that could take six years. One reason 20th Century-Fox decided in 1980 to give the collection to USC, by the way, is that the university's Thomas Cooper Library has pledged to computerize the catalogue.
The value of the gift has been appraised at more than $100 million, making it the largest corporate gift in U.S. history.
The 5,000 news programs, distilled from some 100 million feet of film, have been translated into 50 languages and shown in every corner of the world. Their style, derived from the avuncular but fast-talking manner of Lowell Thomas, has influenced modern television news coverage in ways we are barely aware of. The very idea of the commentator more or less originated in Thomas, though the irascible-sounding H.V. Kaltenborn, a pioneering radio announcer, anticipated him a bit.
For those raised in the day of the newsreel, the breezy march tune that brought on the Movietone logo with its montage of girl water-skiers, planes roaring overhead football players and nutty fashions, was as much a part of going to the movies as the Disney cartoon. We were told the nature of each item by the music: thunderous dark chords for flood coverage or some other disaster featuring wobbly overhead shots from a hired plane; strings and flutes for the bathing beauties; a jokey oboe for the funny bits, delivered by cross-eyed, gaptoothed Lew ("Monkeys is the cwaziest people!") Lehr.
That generation saw World War II on newsreels. It got its propaganda, like "The March of Time" and "Know Your Enemy," in the form of newsreels. It was trained to expect a rigidly apportioned mix of heavy and light, bad news and good, lowbrow and high, in each "show." When television came along with its "packaging," this audience was ready. It was also beginning to learn how to separate the real event from the managed happening.
Ironically, even some of those nonnews items have turned out to be valuable to us, all these years down the road. There is a shot of Albert Einstein made for some long-forgotten newsreel feature in 1921 in Germany. He stands outdoors, wearing a white lab duster, hands clasped diffidently behind him. He is 42, his hair still dark, and we can look at him and see, not the familiar wild-haired icon, but simply a quiet, intelligent man, a stranger to us, gazing back at the camera with sober curiosity.
It is easy to say something is "irreplaceable." You hear that word so often. When you see a picture like this, you understand.