Nothing really reminds me how much times have changed and then again how little it has, as looking through vintage magazines or watching old news reels. The March of Time is a little of both. Labeled "pictorial journalism" during it's hey-day, these 20 minute shorts, a combination docudrama and journalism, hit theaters every four weeks from 1935 to 1951 and were brought to audiences by Time, Inc., publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines under the eye of publisher Henry Luce. MoMA along with HBO will be screening a total of 9 programs from September 1st through the 10th. Topics range from politically risky 1938's Inside Nazi Germany, to lighter fare, such as 1950's The Male Look. The series is organized by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film and presented courtesy of HBO, Inc.
Last night I caught MoMA's Program 1, special event with a post panel guest line up, including an introduction and moderation by actor, film historian and host on Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne (how does one manage to grow thicker hair with age...).
Screenings are divided up into anywhere from about 4 to 6 episodes per program. I saw Program 1, which consisted of Inside Nazi Germany (Vol. 4, Ep. 6, 1938), Show Business at War (Vol. 9, Ep. 10, 1943), Teen-age Girls (Vol. 11, Ep. 11, 1945), Mid-Century: Halfway to Where? (Vol. 16, Ep. 1, 1950) and a special screening of The March of Time's 12 minute pilot, which we were told we thought to have been destroyed in a 1977 nitrate fire.
Inside Nazi Germany was particularly interested considering it was released in 1938 and was actually filmed by a freelancer with a hidden camera, sans some dramatizations here and there, which were - humorously enough - filmed in Hoboken, New Jersey. This was a hit for The March of Time. It ran for 16 weeks which was a record and was controversial as before the war the United States was divided on their position with Germany. The cameras are witness to some creepy stuff like yellow park benches designated by signage for Jewish persons only and is eerily similar to our own history of segregation in that way. Although Inside Nazi Germany is heavy handed, it's also quite something to see, especially the stuff that is actually inside Nazi Germany and this was before the war. There was a good laugh from last night's audience when German radio pronounced the many thousands of people that were apparently starving in Cleveland and other preposterous statements used to make Germans feel lucky to be German and comfortable being regulated to farm what the government tells them to and other laws of the kind. This 16 minute piece has value in many ways but I think the most important one is the historical document. While yes, some scenes are reenactments, many are not and it's chilling what a foreshadowing this episode was.
Show Business at War was especially entertaining. Marlene Dietrich dancing with a GI at the Hollywood Canteen and Carole Lombard selling war bond, while Clark Gable in uniform (real, not costume) after joining the U.S. Army Air Corps, speaks to another officer. Although there are awkward clips, like performers in black-face and then Al Jolson's performance seemed oddly uncomfortable, you still really get the feeling of what sort of genuine unity World War II brought to the American society. Everyone wanted to help and everyone pitched in. Somehow I doubt we could recreate a movement like that now. I don't see film stars enlisting to go to war in this day and age, but I suppose I could be wrong about that.
Teen-age Girls was charming. A young girl explains to fuddy-duddy professors and scholars what it is to be a teenage girls while the viewer is taken into her daily life of how she likes her bedroom, her social life with other girls her age and how boys fall fit into all that. Although a little silly, by my mother's account, it wasn't far from the truth. Although this film was from a time slightly earlier than her teenage years, it was close enough to be similar. Initiations into girl clubs with eggs cracked over heads, slumber parties and pressure to look like the popular girls at school. Hey, it doesn't sound all that different that today either.
Mid-Century: Halfway to Where? contained some pretty foretelling thoughts and ideas. One being the radio and television pioneer (and this is also mentioned in the MoMA/HBO program) David Sarnoff. He predicts that at some point in the not so distant future people will have pocket sized devises for communication and news. Enter the Smart Phone. Yipes, quite a prediction. Another man conveys how important it is to continue putting human rights before property rights (not verbatim, but you get the idea). In a world where water is getting privatized, this seems at particularly interesting statement, considering it was made in 1950.
Post screening panelists included Alan Brinkley, Professor of History at Columbia University and author of The Publisher: Henry Luce And His American Century and Richard Koszarski, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Rutgers University and author of Hollywood On The Hudson and Major Norman Hatch, The March of Time Cinematographer. All panelists and of course moderator, Robert Osborne were terrific but I must say that Major Norman Hatch was a real treat. Sharp as a tact and funny as hell, he told some great stories of his days with his colleagues at The March Of Time, including tales about the creators Roy Larsen and Louis de Rochemont. Mr. Rochemont, according to Major Hatch could sniff out prospective stories in far off land before they became history.
This series is celebrating it's 75th anniversary and it does show it's age with the voice of God narration to steer it's viewer in a certain direction (narration by the "Voice of Time", Westbrook Van Voohis - quite a name, no?) and slow cuts, but they are still effective. Slow cuts in my opinion shouldn't be considered dated. It just depends on where and how they're used. The sections that are acted out, yes they are obvious in some cases, in others not as much. In post panel discussion we were told that Mr. De Rochemont was of the school of thought that he had the same right to "clarify" news events with staged scenes as a re-write man on a paper had with words, to contextualize a reporters notes. Interesting theory and one I would think that would be well received today on cable news.
Although while watching The March of Time, I sometimes thought they weren't very sophisticated in their approach and execution of their material but I think that's just because of what kind of extreme exposure to news we have now. I know one thing, I'd rather sit through an old school newsreel or an episode of The March of Time any day over the commercials I now have no choice in watching when I go to see a feature film. The great thing about The March of Time series (although we were told they really didn't make any profits from it. They mostly served as promos for Time Inc.) is that people went to see these episodes on their own. These weren't typical newsreels that were played before the main feature. These were film shorts (slightly longer than a typical newsreel) were shown on their own and as Robert Osborne mentioned, when he was growing up and working at the Rose Theater in Washington state (hello, a former Northwest resident as well!) he would put The March of Time on the marquee every time they'd get an episode because they were a big draw. Sounds like a better choice then let's say Grown-Ups.
Check out The March of Time programs at MoMA here. It will also be shown on TCM in a marathon that will run on September 5th.