NEWSREELS

Barrie King

Before 1956, the news was read in newspapers, heard on ABC radio or seen on the screen during the weekly or more frequent visit to the local movie theatre. The newsreels seemed to be an essential part of cinema programmes in Australia for over four decades and only started their decline, as in other countries, after the advent of television.

The Australian newsreels were issued weekly and with occasional exceptions, reached the screen a few days to a week or more after the event. If they lacked immediacy, they still enabled the public to feel some of the excitement of the events that they had read about a few days earlier.

The cinema programme of the 1930s and 1940s commonly consisted of two features (shorter than today's), one or two newsreels, a cartoon and one or two trailers. One of the newsreels would usually be either Cinesound Review or Australian Movietone News, and the other, a so-called 'International Edition' of an American or British newsreel. These included the US. based Paramount, Metro, Universal and Movietone and from the UK., British Movietone and Gaumont British. Why so many? Each came through a major distributor as part of the programme package. It simply wouldn't do for a distributor to have a rival's newsreel showing with his features.

There are few records of early newsreel production in Australia, but by the 1920s, it was thriving. There was the Australiasian Gazette, Pathe's Animated Gazette and Paramount Gazette as well as numerous local and regional newsreels. By late 1926, Australiasian had reached issue No. 820, and Paramount No. 490. Australian newsreel producers of the time apparently had little archival sense and, unlike their contemporaries in other countries, thought little of the future and almost nothing of their pre-1930 output survives.

The coming of sound meant the end of the smaller, independent newsreel producers. The equipment needed was much more expensive, higher quality film processing was essential, and the producers lacked the access to the larger market required to cover the higher production costs. By 1929, Fox was distributing their International Movietone News in Australia and incorporating an occasional local item. The first of these was an interview with Prime Minister Scullin and the second, perhaps not surprisingly, the 1929 Melbourne Cup (One of the first 'news' items filmed in Australia was the 1896 Melbourne Cup).

From January 1931, the Australian Edition of Fox Movietone News began as a weekly newsreel. Also in 1931, the Melbourne Herald newspaper joined with Herschell's Films to introduce The Herald Newsreel, the first edition appearing on September 21. Union Theatres, not to be outdone, rushed their Cinesound Review into production and it was ready in time to include the Melbourne Cup in its first issue. Apparently, there wasn't room for three sound newsreels in Australia and Cinesound absorbed The Herald Newsreel late in 1932. From that time on, Australian newsreel production was based in Sydney. The Herald had tried to establish a broad base for its newsreel, tying its name to that of a local newspaper. In WA., it was The Western Mail Newsreel, named after a popular weekly paper of the time. After the takeover by Cinesound, it was known as The Herald Cinesound News Review in Victoria for many years.

Cinesound was staunchly Australian, styling itself 'The Voice of Australia'. Its managing editor for twenty five years, Ken Hall boasted that Cinesound was the 'all-Australian newsreel - we never used a foreign story except during the war and all those war stories involved Australian servicemen and were made by Australian cameramen'. Its competitor couldn't claim to be all Australian and simply used the title 'Fox Movietone News - Australian Edition'. Movietone had established a vast newsreel empire, with production centres established in London, Paris, Brussels, Rome, Prague and Tokyo as well as Sydney. The international edition was released in forty seven countries, in more than a dozen languages and was reputed to be seen by more than two hundred million people each week!

By 1956, the golden age of the newsreel in Australia was over. Television had arrived and by the 1960s both Cinesound and Movietone were under pressure. First the length of the reels began to shrink from the customary ten or eleven minutes to six, and then in 1970, the two companies merged, bringing to an end almost forty years of continuous production, to be replaced by Australian Movie Magazine which was a bold venture when newsreels had been closing throughout the world. Five years later, on November 27 1975, the last issue of Movie Magazine appeared. What is surprising is that the Cinema Newsreel lasted so long in Australia.

In the US. Warner Pathe News had closed in 1956, Paramount in 1957, Movietone in 1963, Metro News of the Day in 1967 and finally, Universal on December 26, the same year. British Movietone lasted until 1979.

We look back at the cinema newsreels of twenty or thirty years ago with fascination. What was it about them that was so different from today's TV. news? Did the newsreels reflect public opinion or mould it? There is not the space here to pursue the answers to these questions, but a quotation from the editor of Motion Picture Herald in 1937 was thought to reflect a widely held industry view:

... newsreels have no social obligation beyond those of the amusement industry and theatres they are supposed to serve. Newsreels have no obligation, if they are to be surveyed as entertainment in theatres, to be entertaining. They have no obligation to be important, informative. They can successfully present neither one side, both sides, nor the middle of any social condition or issue.

Certainly, the content of the newsreel was sometimes bland, but this was probably little different from the afternoon papers of the day. What may have been bland thirty or forty years ago, today provides us with a priceless record, not only of how people looked, behaved, or amused themselves, but also from the commentaries, we learn something of the attitudes of the times. At their best they recorded the great disasters and tragedies, and the outwards signs at least, of the great political events.

The main emphasis of both Cinesound and Movietone was on the most populous states but both retained freelance cameramen in the other states and were able to provide a coverage of the whole country. The distant centres were not provided with sound equipment, but Movietone was apparently more courageous in moving this heavy and bulky equipment around the country, with a number of items being filmed in Perth in pre-war years. Occasionally, the content of an issue was varied from different parts of Australia when an event of intense local interest occurring in one State was not considered to be of interest in other parts of the country and was replaced by a different item. The retirement of WA's Lieutenant-Governor Sir James Mitchell in 1951 was shown nationally, but the item about his death only a month later was seen in WA. only.

While Cinesound and Movietone dominated the Australian scene, the story would not be complete without a mention of Westralian News, which as far as is known was the first and only independent cinema newsreel to be issued in Australia between the demise of the Herald Newsreel and the closing of Australian Movie Magazine. Westralian News began its short life in 1947 when a new newsreel theatre (a phenomenon popular in the thirties and forties) was preparing to open in Perth. The distributors denied the theatre access to Cinesound and Movietone Newsreels and the management was concerned that a newsreel theatre without Australian newsreels would do poor business. They boldly decided to produce their own, setting up a company called Southern Cross Newsreels Pty. Ltd., later changed to Southern Cross Films Pty. Ltd.

It was a formidable task; Perth had no processing labs, no sound or film recording facilities. One man was given the job of cameraman and producer. That was Leith Goodall, a former cinema projectionist and freelance cameraman for Movietone. He made all the necessary arrangements with the labs in Sydney, and after producing some pilot items, the first reel was ready for the opening of the Mayfair Theatrette on March 11. Thereafter, it appeared regularly each Friday for a total of 35 weeks. Shot on 35mm film, generally the quality was quite good, and if it appeared a little ragged at times, the fact that editing and sound recording were being done thous-ands of miles away from the cameraman was sufficient explanation.

There was a general similarity in the format of newsreels the world over, and it was understandable that the contents of Westralian News tried to emulate the major newsreels. The July 18 issue included 'The Drawing of a Lottery', 'Cycle Races at Maylands' and 'Cigarette Paper Manufacturing'. The magazine nature of these items may have reflected a lack of more newsworthy events but this was remedied a week later with 'Field Marshall Montgomery Visits Perth', 'Country Week Hockey' and 'Scenes at the ~oo'. The major newsreels often had topics similar to these; like the newspapers, a sporting item was obligatory, fashion and novelty items helped when hard news was lacking.

The newsreels provide a rich resource for study and for documentary film production. Sadly for WA., Westralian Newslasted only thirty five weeks, but an almost complete run is held at the WA. State Film Archives and at the National Film and Sound Archives in Canberra. Much of Cinesound and Movietone's production survives, some in Sydney at the Cinesound-Movietone vaults at Rozelle and some at Canberra. Only one complete issue and a few individual items are all that remains of the Herald Newsreel. Overall, the cinema newsreels have a much better record of preserving their production than does television. Film in some overseas newsreel archives goes back to 1896. When you next see historic news film in a documentary or compilation film, remember it was very likely that those weekly cinema newsreels made it possible.

References

  1. Edmondson, R. (March-April 1976) 'The Last Newsreel', Cinema Papers.
  2. King, B. (July 1977) 'Westralian News',Cinema Papers. Fielding, R. (1972) The American Newsreel 1911-1967, Norman, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press.
  3. Hall, K. 11977) Directed by Ken G. Hall. Melbourne, Lansdowne Press.