Fox Movietone News: It Speaks for Itself!
"That's what makes this newsreel racket the swell thing it is. New places, new faces, queer customs"
-Newsreel cameraman Charles Peden, 1931
The Fox Movietone News library is one of the most comprehensive news film archives of the twentieth century. Running from October 1927 to October 1963, Fox Movietone News was one of the earliest and longest running of all the American Newsreels (and was itself a spinoff of its silent progenitor, Fox News). The library contains 75 million feet of news footage featuring the most important stories from the 20th century. Twice a week, the newsreel kept American audiences abreast of current events while introducing them to foreign cultures and traditions. Around the globe, international audiences were presented with American pastimes and stories of regional interest. The bi-weekly newsreel covered domestic and international politics, emerging technologies, fashion, sports and human-interest stories, often ending on a light humorous note and thus establishing a format that newscasters continue to follow to this day.
The Introduction of Sound
Prior to Fox Movietone News, newsreels shown in movie theatres were all silent - moving pictures without sound (discounting the live musical accompaniment of course). That all changed on the evening of May 20th, 1927 when the Roxy Theater in New York projected footage taken early that same morning of Charles A. Lindbergh piloting the ‘Spirit of St. Louis down the runway at Roosevelt Field on his way to becoming the first person to successfully complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (8 years later Movietone would cover the trial of the century, in which Bruno Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh’s baby boy Charles Jr.). Although prior audiences had been given a sneak preview of the new ‘Movietone’ system, this was the first breaking news event in history to unify both the picture and the sound in one complete package.
In spite of the historic flight being photographed by competing newsreels, nothing could match the excitement generated by the Movietone crew’s sound version of Col. Lindbergh’s plane taking off. The film was wildly successful and propelled the notoriously press shy Lindbergh and Fox News (routinely shy of the industry leader French Pathè News) into the history books.
Previous attempts to marry picture with sound were attempted by various studios over the years. The Vitaphone system relied on a phonograph (record player) and a key frame to synchronize the sound but as the human brain has a very low tolerance for error to achieve the illusion that the two are in union, it was only marginally successful. Movietone founder William Fox licensed the optical variable-density sound technology from Ted Case and Earl Sponable, two inventors working out of labs in Auburn, New York (an idea first espoused by Eugene Lauste, an inventor woking in Edison's Lab).
Field Outfit Number One, the first sound-on-film (SOF) camera weighing in at an incredible 1,500 lbs (and was said to require 3 capable men to move it from place to place) was first operated by veteran Fox News cameraman Ben Miggins. In the early months that followed, the novel union between sound and picture dictated Fox Movietone’s editorial decision making. Stories featuring goats chewing laundry, gurgling streams, and young women riding fire engines were chosen simply because these scenes had never been presented to the public without the audio component.
'Oh the Humanity!'
While most breaking news stories are by their very nature unpredictable, there are occasionally circumstances which invite disaster. The German Zeppelin Hindenburg was a case in point. The Producers in the New York offices, believing that a large blimp filled with hydrogen gas was bound to be trouble, had instructed their cameramen to film the arrival of every airship landing in New York (interestingly the crown of the Empire State Building was originally envisioned as a mooring mast for this type of air travel). For the cameramen involved this task became a grind, both literally and figuratively. As the story goes, one of the cameramen from one of the competing newsreels of the time (Pathè, Hearst Metrotone,or Paramount) had departed for the saloon early and missed the shot. His fellow grinders saved his bacon by offering to share a copy of their footage with him - an early example of what today we might call 'pool coverage'.
While at any one time there may have been multiple newsreel crews covering stories around the globe, there were often instances where Movietone was the only outfit on the scene. Thanks to cameraman Al Brick, for example, Fox Movietone was the only newreel to capture the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Al's raw footage was confiscated by the U.S. Government and later released back Fox. Other exclusive footage includes Marilyn Monroe singing a smoldering rendition of Happy Birthday to You to President John F. Kennedy at New York's Madison Square Garden. Strangely, the footage of the singing portion of the event only exists as a telecine recording. The camera original was either confiscated or was otherwise 'borrowed'. We hope one day for that footage to be repatriated to Movietone.
The End of an Era
Sadly, the newsreel era came to an end on the eve of one of the most tragic moments in our nation's history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This event ushered in the nightly television news broadcast and spelled the end of film newsreel production. The JFK assassination was the first 24hr news event in history and it kept American audiences glued to their T.V. sets for days. Although the Movietone offices limped along for a number of years in a much reduced capacity by October 31st, 1963 it was all but over. Now, as we embark on a new mobile news platform of smartphone consumption, Movietone is as relevant as ever. As we approach the 100th Anniversary of Fox Movietone Newsreel it's worth noting a key feature with respect to the worlds oldest moving images - overlooking the inherent lack of chroma, the resolution value is equivalent to modern 4K digital imagery. Thanks to the now familiar oscillation between image quality and speed of transmission, Movietone footage is far superior to anything broadcast on television to this very day, and no wonder since these images were meant to be viewed in movie palaces with seating capacities in excess of 3,000!