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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Birth of the News
by Donald Levit

Especially in view of the current runaway rebirth rate of non-fiction film -- mostly repetitious in format, at that -- it is informative to cast a backward glance at its first, twenty-million-plus-audience heyday. Over ten days the Museum of Modern Art is offering a diamond anniversary smorgasbord selection of advocacy journalism-agitprop-cheerleading The March of Time, Time, Inc.’s dramatized CBS radio series first adapted to the screen in 1935 and famously satirized in Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, who had been among the airwaves voices.

Leaving behind earlier popular travelogue and historical “reconstruction” shorts, the Louis de Rochemont-produced series fused newsreel and documentary procedures, added the research and reporting capabilities of the Henry R. Luce business empire and, most importantly, mirrored that publisher’s conservative Republican views and credo that impartial reportage was an oxymoron. Clarifying events with additional staged but unacknowledged recreations à la newspapermen’s fleshing out from hasty notes, the monthly series strove to be provocative -- and succeeded, as evidenced by its being prohibited in the Axis countries and Soviet Union and censored elsewhere (partly in hopes of appeasement). Westbrook Van Voorhis’ confident narration bordered on the arrogant in each installment’s several topics, over time boiled down to a deeper focus on one single item per -- the first such was Inside Nazi Germany (1938) -- and leaving RKO’s This Is America (started 1942) to handle smaller fry. Soon, Britain began its equivalent in This Modern Age.

Setting off the golden age of newsreels, the openly editorializing, omniscience-cloaked ten-to-twenty-minute news bites received a controversial Oscar in 1937 and, undeniably adventurous and even dangerous in its reporting, continued to inform and mold public opinion until the appearance of rival television news in 1951.

“Volumes” and “Episodes” in the Museum’s nine “Programs” are themed as “Selected Highlights” (1938-50), “Beauty & Fashion” (1945-50), “American Culture” (1935-47), “A World at War” (two “Programs,” 1939-44), “Post-War American Lifestyles” 1946-49), “Covers the World” 1939-51), “World War II’s Aftermath and the Cold War” (1945-51), and “The Early Years” (1934-37).

The totality offers insight into the often-erroneous assumptions and attitudes of the last mid-century that have led to the perilous world situation of this decade. More inclusive in chronology and geography than the others, Program 7: “The March of Times Covers the World” is still representative of the Republican, vehemently anti-Communist leanings of the entire eclectic assemblage. Ironically, its second, longest (eighteen minutes) segment is the most pussyfooting, for 1943 “Inside Fascist Spain” was vetted by Franco’s Falange and took care not to alienate a fascist generalissimo whose armies might thus have been brought into the World War.

The accompanying four other segments are more boostering and, in light of subsequent events, even more important to some understanding of current events.

Each including a thumbnail run through the subject’s recent history, they are “Mexico’s New Crisis” (1939), on President Lázaro Cárdenas’ “socialist-communist” indigenous pride and socialization of agriculture and foreign-owned industry and oil fields; “Inside China Today” (1944) glorifying dictator Chiang Kai-shek in the struggle against Japan and Mao Zedong’s Communists and, while condescending in praise of the then-half-billion peasants, way off the mark in dismissing as hopeless the country’s industrial capacity; “Asia’s New Voice” (1949), on the Hindu-Muslim enmity and resultant bloodbath partition into India and a divided Pakistan; and the last, “Crisis in Iran” (1951), about Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi, Prime Minister Mohammad Mussadegh, and the decisive nationalization of London-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil.

Luce himself characterized The March of Time as “fakery in allegiance to truth,” obviously his own side of the truth, and the series was not infrequently wrong in the horses it bet on. Nevertheless it did great service, not least of all in that it fostered new audience interest in world as well as domestic issues, in keeping with the publisher’s avowed internationalism as opposed to prevalent ‘30s isolationist attitudes. 

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