Most people who watch the opening segment of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a faux newsreel called “News on the March,” don’t realize that it is a very precise parody of The March of Time, the innovative documentary short-subject series that played in theaters, while an equally popular radio show of the same name blanketed the airwaves. Both were narrated, in stentorian fashion, by Westbrook van Voorhis, who was imitated almost as often as the public figures whose voices were replicated on the radio series by such versatile actors as Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire, Elliot Reid and, yes, Orson Welles.
Unlike newsreels, which in those pre-television days covered warfare, baseball games, and Presidential speeches, The March of Time provided insightful, often in-depth stories about current trends and—
—big-picture news, rather than headlines. Early entries had several magazine-style pieces per “issue,” but the series hit its stride covering single topics in a twenty-minute format.
Both the radio show and the movie series were pioneers in dramatizing real-life incidents, a tricky business that has reached its nadir in recent years on television. But The March of Time courted controversy on a regular basis, not the least because it had a definite point of view: that of its founder, Time magazine publisher Henry R. Luce.
As much as newsreels of the day, and sometimes more so, the series serves as an invaluable time capsule (no pun intended) of its era. That’s why I’m glad its 75th anniversary is being celebrated in a number of ways. If you live in New York, you can attend screenings between now and September 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by longtime film department curator Charles Silver. For more details click HERE.
If you watch Turner Classic Movies, be sure to tune in this Sunday night for a marathon showing of key March of Time episodes. For the full schedule and interesting background material, click HERE.
Best of all, we all have access to scores of segments and full-length episodes at the web page organized by HBO, a Time Inc. company that now owns the series: www.hboarchives.com
Don’t go to this site unless you’re ready to get sucked in: the series, which ran theatrically from 1935 to 1951 before transitioning to television, covers an incredibly wide range of subject matter, from current events to trends in show business.
Fortunately, the various Time Inc. employees who have kept guard over the March of Time archives all these years have done a terrific job. Not only did they preserve the finished episodes but the raw material that was shot by its cameramen around the world. Modern-day documentarians have dug into this collection many times for nuggets of pure gold.
Incidentally, should you want to explore further, I wrote about the film series in my book The Great Movie Shorts, and the radio show in The Great American Broadcast.