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. The library contains 75 million feet of news footage comprising tens of thousands of hours of footage featuring the biggest stories from the 20th century. The newsreel kept contemporary viewers abreast of world events twice a week, introducing American audiences to foreign cultures and traditions while sharing American pastimes with viewers in France, Germany, Australia and South America. The bi-weekly newsreel covered current events, politics, sports, technology and more often than not ended on a note of humor, thus establishing a format which by and large is adhered to in the nightly news broadcast. Fox Movietone News was one of the earliest and longest running of all American Newsreels, having been proceeded by it's silent forerunner Fox News. Fox Movietone News ran from November 1927 until October 31st, 1963.
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). Movietone, in the fall of 1927, became the first to newsreel to delight audiences with talking pictures, having 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). Veteran Fox News cameraman Ben Miggins was put in charge of Field Outfit Number One, the first sound-on-film (SOF) camera which which weighed in at an incredible 1,500 lbs and was said to require 3 capable men to move it from place to place. The novel union between sound and picture often meant that editorial decisions were dictated by sound alone. Editors ran stories featuring goats chewing laundry, gurgling streams, and fire engines 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!