Time Marches On At MoMA

Long before Jon Stewart’s success in dramatizing the news, the American public was captivated by The March of Time. Launched on radio in 1931 after Time Inc’s Roy E. Larsen hired actors to play up news items, The March of Time made the brash move to filmed newsreels in 1934. Larsen was confident he’d be reaching a larger audience through film, and he hired the highly innovative Louis de Rochemont to use his dramatic film techniques to depict current events.  What Larsen and Rochemont succeeded in doing was to ‘present a new kind of pictorial journalism.’

The Museum of Modern Art, in conjunction with HBO Archives and Turner Classic Movies, is celebrating 75 years of this groundbreaking news series by screening nine programs featuring news-worthy tropes like Beauty and Fashion, A World at War, and American Culture. (You can catch Turner Classic Movies’ special four-hour marathon this Sunday starting at 8pm EST.)

The series officially ran from 1935 to 1951 and in its heyday was seen by more than 20 million moviegoers each month. The March of Time mesmerized audiences with a fast-paced rhythmic style coupled with a deep-voiced narrative provided by Westbrook Van Voorhis. The series was unafraid to examine light topics like rising dog ownership, or hard-edged news like the human frailties of the Great Depression. For example, an early 1937 episode depicts the “Birth of Swing,” but a later episode talks about dogs, the Dust Bowl and Poland at war. War became a very profitable topic for De Rochemont and his crews, but it wasn’t always grim. 1943’s “Show Business at War” portrayed a cavalcade of celebrities doing their part for the war effort – Louis Armstrong performing for troops to Walt Disney directing Army and Navy instructional films.

However, no film in The March of Time series garnered more criticism than the profoundly controversial episode, “Inside Nazi Germany” from 1938. Theaters in New York banned the film, believing the film was pro-Nazi; other theaters across the country banned it for being too anti-Nazi. But many agreed that the film offered a fairly true portrayal of the Nazi Party and its escalating impact on the world for no could’ve expected that an American film crew would expose the ‘real’ Adolf Hitler or Nazi fanaticism. It gave Americans a foreshadowing, a harrowing look at was imminently coming. Some consider the film to be responsible for swaying America’s acceptance of the war. In fact, it was this single piece of film which affected how many would later approach motion picture news when detailing the events of the Second World War. “Inside Nazi Germany” was declared ‘culturally significant’ by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1993.

The March of Time may have succumbed to rise of television in 1951, but it left an indelible mark on documentary filmmaking and the news broadcasting process. The series defined the worldview of Time magazine, even if at times it was ‘fakery in allegiance to the truth’ in order to reach the conscience of the American people. The Museum of Modern Art’s special presentations scheduled from now through September 10th remind us that history, like time, marches on.

“Inside Nazi Germany” and “Show Business at War” can be seen at MoMA or on TCM. MoMA’s scheduled programs can be viewed here and TCM scheduled can be seen here.

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