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The Fascinating Era of Newsreels: A Glimpse into the Past

"Showdown in Vietnam", a February 8, 1965, war propaganda newsreel by Universal Newsreel, with narration by Ed Herlihy. Newsreels, once the primary source of news, entertainment, and cultural events for millions of moviegoers, offer a...
"Showdown in Vietnam", a February 8, 1965, war propaganda newsreel by Universal Newsreel, with narration by Ed Herlihy.

Newsreels, once the primary source of news, entertainment, and cultural events for millions of moviegoers, offer a captivating look into the past. These short documentary films, popular between the 1910s and the mid-1970s, provided audiences with a blend of current affairs and information in a cinematic experience. Over time, advancements in technology, particularly the rise of television, would eventually lead to the decline of newsreels. However, their significance as historical artifacts remains undeniable, preserving audiovisual records of cultural moments that might have been lost otherwise.

Evolution and Impact

The history of newsreels traces back to the late 19th century when silent news films were first shown in cinemas. In 1909, Pathé, a renowned production company, began producing weekly newsreels in Europe, subsequently expanding to the UK and the US. Newsreels became a staple in North American, British, and Commonwealth countries, engraining themselves into the fabric of cinema programming until television news broadcasts took over during the 1960s.

Trade advertisement for the Universal Animated Weekly, a newsreel series created by Universal Pictures in 1913

Newsreels played a significant role during times of conflict, such as the First and Second World Wars. Governments utilized carefully edited newsreels as a form of propaganda to shape public opinion. They combined authentic news reports with selectively curated content to serve their respective administrations' goals. Notably, Nazi Germany's Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda produced the newsreel series "Die Deutsche Wochenschau" from 1940 to 1945 as a vehicle for disseminating favorable stories.

In different countries, newsreels adopted unique approaches. Some featured music as background accompaniment, adding depth to on-site film footage. Narrators in certain regions injected humor into their commentary when covering lighthearted or non-tragic stories. In the United States, notable newsreel series included "The March of Time," "Pathé News," "Paramount News," "Fox Movietone News," "Hearst Metrotone News," and "Universal Newsreel."

The Decline and Legacy

With the advent of electronic news-gathering and the subsequent rise of television news, newsreels gradually faded out. Technological advancements rendered them obsolete, as television broadcasting offered more immediate and comprehensive coverage. Despite this, some countries, including Cuba, Japan, Spain, and Italy, continued producing newsreels well into the 1980s and 1990s.

1931 Pathé newsreel of Mahatma Gandhi arriving in London.

Newsreels have not been forgotten, as they continue to be commemorated through retrospectives in film and documentary projects. The 1978 Australian film "Newsfront" explores the business of newsreels, while the 2016 Irish documentary "Éire na Nuachtscannán" delves into the Irish audience's interaction with newsreels, primarily focusing on Pathé News. These endeavors celebrate the cultural impact and historical significance of this bygone medium.

In conclusion, newsreels were more than just a source of information and entertainment. They provided a unique perspective on the world's events and cultural shifts. While the era of newsreels may have come to an end, their legacy lives on, reminding us of the power of visual storytelling and the ever-changing landscape of media.


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