Wall Street Journal: MoMA Marches to the Beat of History
By KRISTIN M. JONES
The faux documentary on Charles Foster Kane that follows his death at the beginning of Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" (1941) is one of the cleverest pieces in the movie's brilliant puzzle. With its mix of pristine and artificially aged footage, sternly detached narrator, newsreel-style editing, quirky grammar and grandiose title, "News on the March" sends up the newsreel series "The March of Time," which entertained American moviegoers from 1935 to 1951.
The Museum of Modern Art is marking the 75th anniversary of that ground-breaking series—which brashly mingled actuality with Hollywood-style narrative techniques—by screening nine programs containing dozens of episodes, organized by curator Charles Silver. The retrospective is being presented in collaboration with HBO Archives, which has been managing and restoring the films. (On Sunday, cable viewers will be able to catch Turner Classic Movies' four-hour "March of Time" marathon.)
Mr. Welles had been a gung-ho performer on the radio version of "The March of Time," which launched in 1931 after Time Inc.'s Roy E. Larsen had the idea of hiring actors to dramatize news items. The catchy title came from a Harold Arlen song written for Broadway, and such actors as Everett Sloane, Art Carney and Agnes Moorehead were enlisted to impersonate newsworthy figures like Adolf Hitler and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (though the FDR skits were dropped after the president complained). Hugely popular, the broadcasts were a publicity gold mine for Time magazine.
The move to a film version was even more inspired. In 1934, Mr. Larsen hired the maverick cameraman and producer Louis de Rochemont—who had worked for Fox Movietone News and had a passion for using dramatic narrative strategies to portray current events—to develop the "March of Time" movies. That fall, The New York Times announced that if the series were to be produced, it would have the same relationship to the typical newsreel "as a discursive magazine bears to the newspaper."
What they came up with was unlike any other newsreel of the period. In his book "The March of Time, 1935–1951," Raymond Fielding writes of Time Inc. co-founder Henry Luce's reaction when he viewed a sample reel: "'It's terrific, but what is it?' he said to Larsen in a memo. 'Please spell it out for me; what is this all about?'"
It still seems a fair question. De Rochemont blithely combined authentic newsreel footage with staged scenes shot using actors and nonactors—a practice that was far less unsettling to audiences and critics than it would be today. Episodes ended dramatically, with the narrator's sonorous "Time—Marches On!"
Perhaps the series' most remarkable aspect was its early and energetic attacks on fascism. De Rochemont's films, Mr. Fielding writes, "consistently championed the racially oppressed and doggedly exposed theater audiences to the emerging horrors of anti-Jewish persecution and genocide." The most controversial episode, "Inside Nazi Germany" (1938), screened at New York's Embassy Newsreel Theatre for 16 weeks. It incorporated footage shot in Berlin and smuggled out of Germany, re-enactments, and grim narration.
Later the effervescent "Show Business at War" (1943) depicted a parade of celebrities mobilizing in support of the war effort—from Walt Disney directing Army and Navy instructional films to Louis Armstrong performing for troops and Marlene Dietrich dancing with a grinning sailor. In the anxious and more clichéd "Mid-Century: Half Way to Where?" (1950), Gen. Omar Bradley speculates on the nature of future wars and RCA chairman David Sarnoff predicts coming innovations that sound a lot like email and cellphones.
Whether examining rising dog ownership, wartime battles or juvenile delinquency, "The March of Time" riveted viewers each month with its urgent pace and tone. The narration was not immune to the infamous "Timestyle," with its concision, snappy vocabulary and inverted syntax. "Through the White House, bigwigs and littlewigs come and go," the narrator intones in one episode. In another he dubs Variety's founder "osteopath of the English language and inventor of some of the most unfettered journalese ever to be set in type."
By the time it succumbed to the rise of television, "The March of Time" had changed news broadcasting and documentary filmmaking. A highlight of the MoMA series will be the chance to see one of the experimental pilots made in 1934—never screened theatrically—along with a panel discussion featuring historian Alan Brinkley, author of a recent biography of Mr. Luce; "March of Time" cinematographer Major Norman Hatch; Time Inc. archivist Bill Hooper; and film historian Richard Koszarski.
Time may still march on, but "The March of Time" offers a compelling reason to look backward.