NEWSREELS, once a staple item at movie theaters, faded away in the '50s and '60s, finally disappearing from the screen altogether in 1967. It seems fair to say that the news has never been the same since. Radio, newspapers, even television, pale by comparison with the march of events as it was presented each week (along with the cartoons and the coming attractions) in thousands of American movie houses over some four decades.
The newsreels were noisy and vivid, filled with fire-belching battleships, raging dictators, surrendering Japanese generals, grinning athletes, sweating orators, suffering peasants, rampaging sectarians and giggling young women in shorts on whatever pretext. They were accompanied by dramatic music and narration that could, when the occasion merited it, sound like the very voice of doom. All in all, it was not hard for movie-goers -- especially the reduced-admissions crowd at the Saturday serials -- to picture the great world as a place of constant dread and excitement.
Now the Cable News Network is attempting to bring back the newsreels, beginning with experimental showings at a few theaters in New York. As described in this paper last week, it is a tentative venture: the reels are much shorter, the stories so far primarily light features, and (this is CNN's hope) it's possible that they will eventually come with commercials -- not exactly the stuff of great events.
But it occurs to us there may be an even greater obstacle to this revival attempt. In darkened theaters of the past, the likes of FDR, Truman, Babe Ruth, Gandhi, Ike, Churchill, Douglas MacArthur and the King of England all stood literally 10 feet tall (add a foot or so for de Gaulle), while Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were overwhelming presences with a scariness about them that no withered ayatollah or seedy tyrant-on-a-balcony could hope to match today. Perhaps it was just the big screen that made them so, but as we observe the parade of currently well-known characters -- from the admirable to the wholly repulsive -- the wavering six-inch image on the TV screen seems about right. It's a subjective judgment, to be sure, but for better or worse, it doesn't seem to us there are that many newsreel-stature figures around these days.