A newsreel was a single film reel of topical news items, shown in cinemas across the world for much of the twentieth century. The term “newsreel” is too often loosely applied to mean any kind of cinema film depicting a news story, so that the topical films of the 1890s made by the Lumière brothers are sometimes misleadingly called newsreels. But the newsreel was a specific form that arose with the habit of regular cinema-going in the late 1900s, when a short reel of news stories came to be accepted as a suitable component of the emerging mixed cinema program.
Newsreels were thereafter issued once or twice a week, to match the changes in cinema programs. The first newsreel proper was Pathé Fait-Divers, subsequently Pathé Journal, first issued in France in 1908, although there were examples of regular programming of news film by some cinemas that preceded it. The form soon spread worldwide, encouraged by the spread of the French multinationals Pathé and Gaumont. The first newsreel in Britain was Pathé’s Animated Gazette, in 1910; the first in America was Pathé’s Weekly, in 1911. The newsreel achieved prominence during World War I, when its acceptance by audiences led the American, British, and French governments to create their own propaganda newsreel (as America did with Official War Review and France with Annales de la Guerre) or co-opt an existing reel (as the British did with Topical Budget). But it was in the 1920s that the newsreel rose to new heights of popularity and influence; by now it was a feature of most cinema programs, and benefited both from the general rise in cinema-going and from the giddy round of sport, celebrity, achievement, and disaster that characterized the decade.
Newsreels until 1929 were silent. Such commentary as they provided was in the form of titles preceding and then intercut into the action. The appearance of sound newsreels coincided with increased dominance by the major Hollywood studios. Fox Movietone, Paramount, and Universal began to be the names most familiar to newsreel viewers across the world, as local versions were issued in various countries. A newsreel was a difficult financial proposition for an independent, given the small part of the cinema program that they occupied (10 minutes or so), while they became a convenient part of the programming package that a major producer might offer, as well as being a branding tool.
World War II brought further prominence to the newsreels. There was no government takeover in Britain, as had been the case in the previous war, but there were specialist reels directed toward workers and the armed services. In America the five main newsreels (Fox Movietone, MGM, Paramount, Universal, and Warner-Pathé) continued to operate independently throughout the war, while each also contributed to a government reel, United Newsreel (1942 –1945), designed for overseas exhibition. In Germany, all of the newsreel production was subsumed under a single service, Deutsche Wochenschau (1940 –1945). In the years immediately following the war, an Anglo-American re-education newsreel, Welt in Film (1945 –1952), was exhibited throughout Germany. The war gave the newsreels a new importance, and in many ways represented the peak of the medium. But it also sowed the seeds of the medium’s decline, as audiences were exposed to issues and territories that widened their sense of what the news could be. In peacetime the newsreels, trapped in rigid formulae, would struggle to regain that same degree of audience respect.
Television spelled the end of the newsreels. The audience was moving away from the cinemas and into the living-room, and television news was simply quicker with the news. Early television news services, such as the BBC’s Television Newsreel (1948 –1954), followed the newsreel style, and often employed former newsreel staff, but evolution to daily news broadcasts and a presenter-led format made the bi-weekly newsreels seem old-fashioned in both presentation and news values. The newsreel had always favored the noncontentious, news as part of a cinema program whose prime purpose was to entertain. If the common perception of the newsreel as being fixated on trivia, sensation, and ceremony (“a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show,” in Oscar Levant’s cruel summing up) is oversimplified, it was nevertheless a medium whose time had gone. Gradually the newsreels passed away, the last newsreel in America, Universal News, closing in 1967, the last in Britain, British Movietone News, closing in 1979. Some anomalies remained (the Belgian Belgavox continued, with government support, into the 1990s), but essentially the newsreel ceased to be a vital medium by the end of the 1950s.
The newsreel was a powerful means of communication, whose historical significance has been sorely neglected. Newsreels were seen by hundreds of millions across the globe for several decades. Through this particular medium the public was exposed to the issues and personalities of the time, and introduced progressively to news matters beyond the confines of particular countries. It was also a communicative medium in the way its homely style and populist agenda suited the mass cinema audience. Newsreels, at their height, were produced with a sound understanding of what their audience was looking for.
This considerable power was, however, colored by a pusillanimous attitude that was eventually rejected by audiences who, postwar, expected more from a visual news service and found this in the newsreels’ logical successor, television news. But if the newsreels were a subservient medium, strongly criticized for their cautious approach and support of the political status quo, they were nevertheless immensely influential. Very much a twentieth-century medium, newsreels played a major part in conferring visibility on things, in making the visually emphatic newsworthy. If we judge things by appearances, by what our screens show us, and how people of influence comport themselves on those screens, then the newsreels were a medium of real historical importance, not least because their images of the twentieth century now lie in footage libraries and will continue to color our view of the past for as long as we still believe what we see on our screens.
- Fielding, R. (1972). The American newsreel. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. (2nd edn, McFarland, 2006).
- McKernan, L. (ed.) (2002). Yesterday’s news: The British cinema newsreel reader. London: British Universities Film and Video Council.
- Vande Winkel, R. (2006). Newsreel series: World overview. In I. Aitken (ed.), Encyclopedia of the documentary film. New York: Routledge.