“A series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show” is how American wit Oscar Levant characterized the newsreels. Well known for their triviality and light touch, newsreels have often been dismissed as ephemeral and unimportant. However, before the widespread advent of television in the 1950s, the newsreels were the only form of moving image news available to the general public.
They were viewed in the cinema alongside a programme of entertainment that might have included more than one feature film, trailers, cartoons and shorts: cinemagoers expected a full night’s varied entertainment, an experience very different from modern cinemagoing. It was a popular pastime: every small town had a cinema and cities had dozens.
Audiences watched moving images about news stories they had probably already heard about on the radio or through word of mouth, or read about in the press. Nevertheless, the newsreels provided the moving images to illustrate the stories, personalities and events unfolding all over the world. Cinema news was deemed to be particularly powerful since it was watched as part of a group and individuals could be influenced by the responses of those around them. In the early days of cinema, audiences were often very vocal, especially before sound, when the literate members would read intertitles aloud for those in the audience who were illiterate. Boohing, cheering and shouting at the screen was not uncommon. During wartime the cinema and the newsreels offered governments a useful and effective propaganda outlet and they were thoroughly exploited for this purpose.
By the 1930s the newsreels were at the height of their popularity. The advent of sound in the late 1920s brought fast paced commentary and upbeat music, no matter how tragic the story.
It’s easy to look back on the newsreels of this era as trivial, clumsy and outdated, but in fact, they remain important documents of what audiences were shown of events, politics and personalities.
Many of the values of modern news – particularly an obsession with sports and celebrity, a tendency towards sensationalism and a lack of any meaningful political context – emerged in cinema newsreels and have carried through to current news provision on a variety of platforms.