Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Newsreels

Funeral of Vera Kholodnaia (1919)

This Soviet-era newsreel footage is something of the “end of an era” in Russian filmmaking. Evgeni Bauer had died between the revolutions, and most of his important colleagues would soon flee Russia for Paris. The great, innovative movies of the Tsarist period were quickly forgotten as new experimental styles were developed by Vertov, Eisenstein, and others. But now, Vera Kholodnaia, known as the “Queen of the Screen,” succumbed to the flu epidemic that killed millions of Europeans in the year following the First World War. There were immediate speculations about poisoning and Bolshevik plots, with nothing ever proven. Despite the deliberate destruction of many of her films by the State, she had been rehabilitated as a kind of revolutionary heroine, and a large ceremonial funeral was authorized in Odessa. Thousands attended, and the Soviet newsreel footage of her coffin being taken to its final resting place may be the best-known movie of her today. It begins with a title card with her name, followed by seemingly random clips from her movies, then an image of her lying in state with the date of her death superimposed. Then the funeral procession is shown, with the streets of Odessa filled with mourners, and an ornate white coffin lifted by six pallbearers.

Director: Peter Chardynin

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Vera Kholodnaya

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Babe Ruth Kinogram (?)

This may or may not actually qualify as a Century Film, but it seemed pointless to wait until one could be certain before reviewing it. It is a light-hearted piece of “human interest” from a newsreel starring a famous figure.

The opening intertitle establishes that the audience can expect a “surprise,” but the film imagery begins with a prosaic view of an experienced potter at his wheel. As the clay spins, it takes on new forms under his skilled hands. The apparent ease with which he transforms it seems to recall thousands of years of the development of his trade. After only a few seconds of this, the “surprise” is announced: “Who should drop in by Mr. & Mrs. BABE RUTH.” They stand behind the potter and watch him at work on a smaller pot, both appearing completely absorbed in watching his hands at their work. Babe removes a glove and touches the potter’s shoulder and a new intertitle says that he “turns from swatter to potter.” The final image shows Babe working on a very simple pot with both his hands, while his foot pumps away to keep the wheel turning. He looks up at the camera and the scene ends. Read the rest of this entry »

On to Washington (1913)

This short clip of newsreel footage gives us a look at a significant event in women’s history – a march on Washington that culminated on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

The movie begins with a title card that tells us that 14 “suffragettes” will march from Newark, New Jersey to Washington DC, then shows a series of shots of the march – which appears to have attracted many more than 14 individuals, including many men. We also get a two-shot of the leaders of the march: Rosalie Jones and Elizabeth Freeman. Jones wears a heavy cloak and carries a large walking stick. One shot begins by showing a police escort on horseback, and it’s not clear how many of the people marching are involved, sympathetic, curious, or even hostile to the intent of the march, though no unruliness is depicted. One man waves awkwardly at the camera, possibly indicating a wish not to be photographed (or possibly saying, “hi, Ma!”). It ends suddenly, and might be incomplete.

The event shown here is really the kickoff of the march in Newark, so we don’t see the nation’s capitol or the reported 5000 marchers that turned out on March 3, the day of Wilson’s inauguration. This event represents a shift in American suffrage tactics from attempts to win the vote state-by-state to a national strategy. The two women shown represent the alliance between “respectable” wealthy women (Jones) and working-class activists with a more hard line approach (Freeman). There were counter-protestors, as well as politicians and pundits who spoke against them, but the march was seen as effective in raising awareness and sympathy. Wilson at the time was cautiously supportive of women’s right to vote, but he only really came out in favor after the First World War.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Rosalie Jones, Elizabeth Freeman

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

Censorship in 1916

There is a lot of confusion today over what “censorship” means, much of which I think is because the word itself has fallen out of fashion and become an accusation rather than a useful description of anything. One hundred years ago, people who felt that they had the ability to judge what other people should read, watch, or experience were far less shy about calling openly for censorship, and this kept things more honest. Today they call for “ratings systems” and laws for the “protection of children” (how could anyone be against protecting children?), which makes it all much more slippery.

CensoredNo industry wants to be restricted from doing business as freely as possible, and in a capitalist society censorship ultimately means placing restrictions of some kind on the ability of cultural industries to sell their wares. Whereas the publishing industry was an established force in the early twentieth century, the embryonic motion picture industry had less power, prestige, and legal protection. As a new technology, it was ripe for criticism from all quarters. People really weren’t sure what the long-term results of exposure to moving images would be (any more than they are today about the long-term effects of texting or the internet). Would children’s eyesight be damaged? Would their literacy suffer? Would they lose respect for parental authority? Would they all become criminals? No one knew, but some were willing to suggest the most dire of possible consequences.

Of course the motion picture industry didn’t take all this lying down, small and new though it was at the time. Motion picture exhibitors, distributors, and producers were making money hand over fist and they used some of that money to protect their own interests by forming associations and leagues dedicated to fighting motion picture censorship. One of their strongest allies was the magazine Moving Picture World, which I frequently cite in my reviews. The Moving Picture World was created as a news magazine for exhibitors, the owners of nickelodeons and movie palaces (and chains of such venues), so that they could keep up with trends in the industry, hot new titles, and technical advances. It also became a strong advocate against censorship, as we can see from this editorial page from the first issue of 1916 (click on it to blow it up so you can read it), where it talks about censorship at the local, State, and federal levels:

MPW EditorialIt opens with concerns about local censorship in Oregon, my state of residence. I regret that it doesn’t specify the towns it mentions: one in which local exhibitors called for censorship to forestall worse censorship and one in which “young girls” comprised the censor board. Still, it exemplifies the frustration distributors had to feel when faced with different standards of censorship for each town where they wanted to sell their product. This also led to multiple different re-edited and re-cut versions of each film being distributed, infuriating the creators and confusing historians to this day. In a later paragraph, news about an exhibitors’ convention in New York is an entry to a call for visible opposition to State-wide censorship bills soon to be introduced in Albany. One of these bills would close all movie theaters on Sunday, one of the most profitable days for exhibitors, but also a contested day because of its association with church-going. In speaking about the “modern Sunday,” the editor means the secularization of leisure time, still an important issue at the time. The editorial ends with a petition against Federal Censorship, and by encouraging readers to find “citizens who are not in any way connected with the motion picture industry” to sign it. While dealing with local and State censorship is egregious, the MPW claims that Federal Censorship would “drive not hundreds, but thousands of exhibitors out of business.”

What they aren’t mentioning in all of this is the critical Supreme Court decision of the previous year. On February 23, 1915, the case Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was resolved in the State of Ohio’s favor. Ohio had set up a State Censorship Board in 1913, and Mutual, sick of having to re-cut films for each and every state they sold to, took them to court. In the decision, the Court stated, “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.”

SCOTUS-oldsenateThis is really important: so far as the highest court in the land was concerned, motion pictures had no free speech protections. This remained the case until the decision was overturned in 1952. So, during pretty much the whole “studio era” or what is now often called the “Classic” or “Golden Age” of Hollywood, movies could be legally censored by governmental organs. Which has a lot to do with what was produced and why, but we can get into more of that history as this project continues. For now, I want to look at some aspects of the court’s decision.

The biggest distinction they’re making is that films are businesses, and not therefore “part of the press…or organs of public opinion.” This is at least as bizarre to me (but also the reverse) as the Citizen’s United decision that spending money is the same thing as free speech. For some reason, the fact that newspapers are profitable businesses is completely ignored. They are elevated to a public good, treated as something apart from the business interests, as if they were publically-funded institutions like libraries or the post office, which by this interpretation would also presumably qualify for free speech protection. It’s unclear how the Court found this distinction between “press” and “business” in the Constitution in the first place, but the implications are staggering. Apart from this, they are ignoring (probably because Mutual’s lawyers never brought it up) the existence of documentaries and newsreels, which would become an important “organ of public opinion” within a few years, and had also been seen as the major purpose of motion pictures by many (including the Lumière Brothers and J.P. Chalmers, the author of the article for Moving Picture World) just a few years before.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThere’s another aspect to all of this, which is the question of “movies as an art form.” While directors, actors, and others were arguing fervently that cinema should be taken seriously as a new art form, this doesn’t seem to have even entered into the conversation. Again, I believe this is because the lawyers for Mutual didn’t broach it. It says something about how the industry’s leaders saw themselves: they presented themselves to the Court as a business, and the Court responded in kind. Talk about “art” was all very well for the rubes, but they didn’t expect the idea to be taken seriously at a higher level, is how I read this.

A different decision by the Court a year earlier would have meant a very different editorial for January, 1916. Instead of calling for greater organization to fight hundreds of local censorship ordinances, the focus would have been on clarifying the constitutional limits of government interest in free expression and in local cases that still had not been resolved. The question of film as an “organ of public opinion” or an art form could have been taken more seriously, becoming a matter for serious, high-level discussion, rather than semi-serious ad copy. And, I would say, the growing dominance of the United States film industry would have been a more positive thing, as more creative and innovative product might have become available to inspire artists all over the world. But, history is the study of what did happen, not what didn’t, and from here we study an era in which censorship was an accepted fact of movie making life in the United States.