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Eyes and Ears of the World in the Arms of a Museum

July 18, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A rooster crowing, a man behind an Akeley sound camera with the words The Eyes and Ears of the World across the lens, a montage of dancing girls, marching troops and airplanes in flight.

These were newsreel logos. From the 1920s into the '50s, moviegoers would get a newsreel with their feature films.

A 10-minute newsreel would show footage of the major happenings in the world within hours or a day or two after the events occurred, plus sports, fashions, comedy and features. Each newsreel production company produced two reels a week.

Then television news was launched in 1953, and within a few years newsreels--originated in France by Charles Pathe in 1909, brought to the United States the next year--went the way of the Dodo bird.

Five major Hollywood film studios had camera and soundmen based throughout the world filming newsreels--Fox Movietonews, Pathe News for RKO and later Warner Bros., Hearst Metrotone News for MGM, Paramount News and Universal Newsreel. Time magazine produced the March of Time.

In addition to newsreels shown in every neighborhood movie house in the United States, there were special newsreel theaters in cities throughout the country where patrons would drop in to see an hour of newsreels--like watching an hour of television news.

For the first half of the 20th Century, 2,000 newsreel cameramen roamed the world. This national treasure is stored away in film cans in warehouses and university archives utilized by scholars, by television news programs as flashbacks in time and in feature films and documentaries.

Today there is only one newsreel theater left in the United States, a permanent exhibit of the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum here in Columbia. The university's Movietonews Gallery, open to the public seven days a week year round, shows rotating newsreel clips from the school's collection.

In 1980 the university was given 11 million feet of Movietonews footage by 20th Century Fox, newsreel outtakes from 1919 to 1934 and both the newsreel and outtakes from 1942 to 1944.

A theater in the museum features films put together by the school from old newsreels. "Those Amazing Men and Their Flying Machines," the current feature, shows footage of early American airplanes and the men who flew them.

In an adjacent viewing room is a console with an index of 26 two-minute Movietonews newsreel aviation segments viewers may choose from, including Amelia Earhart, the explosion of the German dirigible Hindenburg while landing at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937, crop-dusters in the 1920s and China Clipper service to the Orient.

The newsreels and outtakes are being indexed for scholarly research, instruction and educational exhibits at the university. Three federal grants totaling $400,000 have been received to develop a computer catalogue for the material.

Professors check out videocassettes of outtakes and newsreels for classroom study. The school receives income to support the collection from television networks and film producers provided copies of newsreel footage at fees as much as $1,000 a minute.

The McKissick Museum also has the complete run of the March of Time from 1937 to 1945, a gift from John Shaw Billings, a native South Carolinian, first managing editor of Life magazine and later director of all Time Inc. publications.

Fox Movietonews was the largest of the newsreel companies. Its first sound newsreel was of Charles Lindbergh's takeoff in 1927 on a solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris. This preceded the first sound feature film, "The Jazz Singer," by six months.

Interviews of world notables like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller were made for the newsreels.

Lowell Thomas was Movietonews' chief commentator for years. The Lindbergh kidnaping trial, wars in China, Spain and Ethiopia, the rise of Hitler and Stalin, Pearl Harbor and World War II were vividly portrayed in the twice-weekly film magazines.

Fox Movietonews during its 44 years of existence produced 4,576 edited newsreels, two per week, 104 per year, each 10 minutes long plus 600 short special features on people, places and sports, said Glenn Smith, director of McKissick Museum's film and television division. He said cameramen shipped 80 million feet of film to Movietonews' headquarters in New York, only 5% of which was used in the edited newsreels.

The outtakes were labeled and stored in film cans, nearly all received by the university unopened since the original editing was completed.

Fox Movietonews continues to exist as a New York City stock footage library licensing the use of old newsreels to network television shows, film studios, independent film production companies and anyone else that has use for the historic footage. It has an estimated 70 million feet of newsreels and outtakes in storage left after the gift of 11 million feet of coverage to the University of South Carolina.

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