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All The Latest News—Plus A Cartoon

All The Latest News—Plus A Cartoon

Newsreels are an all-but-forgotten relic of the moviegoing
experience in the first half of the 20th century, along with their
fascinating byproduct, the Newsreel Theatre. Yet at one time, almost every
major city had one or more movie houses devoted exclusively to newsreels. Most
of them leavened the onslaught of news with other short subjects, especially
cartoons. Whether or not the latest Bugs Bunny frolic was supposed to chase
newshounds out of the darkened theater or lure people in is hard to say.

Newsreels are an all-but-forgotten relic of the moviegoing
experience in the first half of the 20th century, along with their
fascinating byproduct, the Newsreel Theatre. Yet at one time, almost every
major city had one or more movie houses devoted exclusively to newsreels. Most
of them leavened the onslaught of news with other short subjects, especially
cartoons. Whether or not the latest Bugs Bunny frolic was supposed to chase
newshounds out of the darkened theater or lure people in is hard to say.

Newsreel theaters were often located in train depots, so
commuters who experienced delays could while away an hour or so. Chicago’s
Telenews  advertised itself as a place
“where shoppers meet and relax.” That big-city outlet, like the Embassy in
Manhattan (which was situated in Grand Central Station), went so far as to send
out postcards detailing their weekly lineup. Distributors even made up
one-sheet posters, hurriedly printing that week’s headlines within the borders
of a stock design.

Such theaters as the Trans-Lux on
Broadway, Hollywood’s News-View, and countless others drew on an abundance of
product from Paramount (“The Eyes and Ears of the World”), Fox Movietone,
RKO-Pathé  (later Warner-Pathé), MGM News
of the Day (formerly the Hearst-Metrotone News), and Universal (soon to become
Universal-International). If it seems odd that there were so many competitors,
remember that until the government stepped in at the end of the 1940s, several major
studios owned huge chains of theaters that automatically played their product—including
short subjects. In their heyday, the studios released two newsreels a week to
theaters around the country, long before the advent of Federal Express and
other overnight delivery services.

I have a dim recollection of newsreels from my earliest
theater-going experiences in the 1960s. They seemed awfully dull to me then,
and there’s a good reason: by that time, they were. Television had overtaken
newsreels, which for decades brought audiences in small towns and big cities
alike the sights and sounds of famous figures and distant places. But inertia
is a powerful force, and both Movietone and Universal stuck it out well past
their apparent expiration date in the 1960s.

Nowadays we rely on newsreel archives as our time-machine to
the past, but it’s rare to see the original ten-minute shorts in their
entirety. The notable exception is the Universal library, which was donated to
the National Archives years ago and is in the public domain. (That’s why it’s
used so often in those “highlights of the year” video releases.) Universal was
never the best example of the form, but at least one gets to see how a typical
reel was compiled, including notable events, sports highlights, personalities,
and “soft” feature stories. You can find examples HERE.

Incidentally, when I first visited London in 1971 I was
surprised to find a cousin to America’s newsreel theaters. They were known as
Cartoon Cinemas, and there were still two in operation, one of them inside
Victoria Station. I saw cartoons, a two-reel comedy, and even a serial chapter
along with a handful of  cartoons—and,
yes, a British Movietone newsreel. It was a little slice of heaven.

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