TV Notes'March of Time' Marathon (TCM)Time Marches... Backwards!
By Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times
- September 2nd, 2010A re-enactment of a Nazi storm trooper collecting funds from a housewife
in “Inside Nazi Germany — 1938,” from “The March of Time” series. The setting
was actually Hoboken, N.J., and the actors were anti-Nazi German-Americans.
I’ve learned to shrug off some fairly ignominious baggage associated with being a resident of New Jersey: the Burr-Hamilton duel, the Hindenburg disaster, “Jersey Shore,” the Nets’ 2009-10 season. But the news that my state was once part of the Third Reich — that was an unsettling surprise.
It’s one of the odd bits of trivia that emerge from the fresh look being taken at “The March of Time,” a series of short films created from 1935 to 1951, an era when people expected more than just previews and a feature when they settled into their movie theater seats. The Museum of Modern Art is in the midst of a week and a half of screenings of these illuminating curiosities, and on Sunday night TCM (in conjunction with HBO Archives) is showing a four-hour marathon of them, introduced by the film historian Robert Osborne (8 to 11PM ET, 5 to 9PM PT).
It’s hard to know today even what to call these films. (Raymond Fielding, a retired college educator who wrote a book about the series, told me that roughly 290 were made.) “Newsreels” seems inadequate; they are longer, more detailed and much more opinionated than the standard-issue newsreels that preceded them. “Documentaries” is closer, but the blaring orchestrations and outlandish voice-overs sound nothing like a modern documentary.
It’s tempting to give up and label these whats-its a mass-media Neanderthal — an evolutionary dead end; an attempt to merge the tools of newsgathering and filmmaking that had its moment but died out. Except that, once you watch a few and learn about how they were made, you start to see a little “March of Time” in almost everything: Fox News, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” the History channel, schlocky reality shows of the “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” variety, PBS’s “P.O.V.” “The March of Time” series, a creation of the folks at Time magazine, began as a radio broadcast but made the leap to film in 1935. It often tackled subjects and themes that audiences weren’t used to seeing — foreign affairs, social trends, public-health issues — and did so with a combination of panache and subterfuge that today seems either absurd or visionary.
The signature was the narration of Westbrook Van Voorhis: loud and urgent and Godlike, if you think of God’s voice as a cross between an evacuate-immediately announcement and a dentist’s drill. (“Time” — pause — “marches on!” was his ending punctuation.) And the images he was narrating over, though they looked as if they were actual events filmed as they happened, often weren’t: many were re-creations.
Which is how my state became part of the Nazi empire. Perhaps the most galvanizing film the series ever produced was “Inside Nazi Germany,” an examination of Hitler’s Germany that was shown in 1938, a time when isolationist sentiment was strong in the United States. Dr. Fielding explained that Louis de Rochemont, the mastermind of the series in its first decade, had gotten some rare inside-Germany footage from a cameraman named Julien Bryan but was disappointed with it; it looked too promotional and revealed nothing about the harshness of life under Hitler.
And so “The March of Time” crew went to Hoboken, N.J., where, as Dr. Fielding related in his book “The March of Time, 1935-1951” (published in 1978), there was a German-American neighborhood whose residents were strongly anti-Nazi and happy to help raise the alarm about Hitler. Scenes of German censors going through mail, a storm trooper pressuring a housewife for a monetary contribution and so on were staged with the Hoboken residents and cut into the finished film alongside Bryan’s footage.
New Jersey, alas, also had a very real connection to Hitler; the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group, had a strong presence in the state. But in the “March of Time” instance, at least, New Jersey’s moment as a Nazi colony was for a good cause, because “Inside Nazi Germany” helped force the American public to confront an issue it had been avoiding. “The March of Time” excelled at that. “You would have people yelling in the theaters” during “Inside Nazi Germany” and some of the other more incendiary films in the series, Dr. Fielding told me. “Occasionally you’d get a fistfight.”
As a young Marine just before the United States entered World War II, Maj. Norman Hatch was one of a number of servicemen sent to train as cameramen with “The March of Time” crews, and he shot his share of real footage, including the harrowing landing at Tarawa in the Pacific in 1943. But he saw a lot of sleight of hand as well; for instance the series made frequent use of an actor who bore a resemblance to Winston Churchill.
“You heard Churchill’s voice, but you saw a three-quarter back shot of this guy,” he recalled. “If you tried to do something like that today, you’d be run out of the market.”
But “The March of Time” didn’t always settle for actors: sometimes, Dr. Fielding said, the actual newsmakers involved would recreate their newsmaking moments for de Rochemont’s cameras. One film, about the making of the atomic bomb, showed James Bryant Conant and Vannevar Bush, two figures involved in the Manhattan Project, seemingly shaking hands in the desert after the first successful test.
“That shot was made on the floor of a garage in Boston,” Dr. Fielding said.
Stranger still, some prominent people would participate in these re-enactments even though they almost surely knew they might not be portrayed all that flatteringly; the exposure was too enticing to pass up. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” certainly come to mind here. Early on, perhaps, those shows lured guests they intended to mock simply because the guests didn’t get it; now, though, almost all probably know what they’re in for when they sign up, yet they go on anyway.
Also interesting about “The March of Time” is that none of its tactics were a secret at the time, though whether audiences bothered to distinguish between the genuine and the disingenuous is hard to know. Detractors materialized quickly; the films were being parodied almost from the beginning, with Orson Welles taking that trend to high art in 1941 with the “News on the March” bit in “Citizen Kane.”
So how silly and anachronistic does “The March of Time” seem in our sophisticated present? Let’s review:
¶Passing Hoboken off as Nazi Germany? Outrageous — until you view practically any documentary on History or Animal Planet or numerous other cable channels, where re-creations are a standard tool for bridging gaps in the archival narrative.
¶Delivering information with the Van Voorhis bray rather than Cronkitean dignity? Ridiculous — until you tune in Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, etc. etc. etc.
¶Getting newsmakers to re-enact historic moments? Yeah, O.K., you’re probably not going to see President Obama recreate the meeting at which he settled on Joe Biden as his running mate. But somehow it doesn’t seem so improbable that Eliot Spitzer, say, might perform his phone calls to sex-for-hire establishments. Because notoriety is addictive.
For Dr. Fielding there are two reasons to revisit “The March of Time” today. One is that so many of the people involved in making it went on to careers in the emerging field of television and took the lessons and techniques of “The March of Time” with them. The other is more subtle, yet simpler too.
“You can’t help but say: Wasn’t it interesting that they even photographed that,” Dr. Fielding said. “That they even presented that. That they even talked about that.”An earlier version of this article misstated a reference in the film "Citizen Kane." The bit in the film was called "News on the March," not "Time on the March."http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/mo...sreel.html?hpw