The American Newsreel and the World as Spectacle
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020
Paperback. 263 pages. 21 b&w photos. ISBN 978-1517903688. $27
Reviewed by Scott Althaus
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The newsreel was part of a global visual news system that brought the far-flung world into dramatic and flickering view inside movie theaters across the United States from 1911 until 1967. Over the course of these 56 years nearly every film screening in every community across the country was accompanied by a 10-minute newsreel issued twice weekly with fresh content. Despite the cultural ubiquity of the newsreel, its well-deserved reputation for ephemeral frivolity along with contemporary difficulties in accessing surviving footage has left it largely neglected in academic research. Before the publication of Clark’s impressive volume, there had been only two previous book-length overviews of the American newsreel system: Raymond Fielding’s pathbreaking history of the newsreel industry and an unpublished PhD thesis by Adelaide Hawley Cumming* who had narrated women’s fashion segments for MGM’s News of the Day newsreel.
Against this paucity of academic analysis, Joseph Clark’s News Parade represents a major contribution: it is the first sustained effort to place the newsreel in a theoretical context that captures both its unique role in the cultural experience of generations of Americans as well as the social significance of its unusual style of re-presenting the world through the lens of documentary-based spectacle.
The book’s five substantive chapters offer a compellingly fresh and theoretically rich assessment of the American newsreel, focusing on its system of production and distribution as well as its twice-weekly presentation of the world as a “news parade” of sequentially-presented but largely unrelated visual mini-spectacles (chapter 1); how the newsreel’s unusual visual style combined with its use of voice-over narration that directly addressed assembled audiences in ways that positioned the cinema spectator as part of a collective community that privileged visual experience as a primary way of understanding the world (chapter 2); the widespread appearance of the newsreel cameraman as an icon of popular culture in the United States whose imperializing gaze and masculine form of looking undergirded the visual authority of the newsreel as a privileged way of knowing about the world beyond personal experience (chapter 3); how newsreel audiences reacted to these presentations and how they were invited into an experience of the authoritative spectacular through the architectural design of specialized theaters—once common in major urban areas—in which continuous screenings of newsreels was the only attraction (chapter 4); and a detailed analysis of ways that the task of racial uplift was woven into the All-American News, which was the only major regularly-issued newsreel targeting African-Americans during the era of Jim Crow segregation, focusing especially on its role in the “double victory” campaign during World War II.
Among the volume’s novel contributions and many strengths are its rich architectural analysis of newsreel theaters, its detailed assessment of newsreel coverage given to the famous Lindbergh kidnapping trial, its integration of academic work on spectacle and documentary film reception into the book’s theoretically rich conception of the “news parade” as a primary mode of cultural influence by the American newsreel industry, its theoretical understanding of “collective spectatorship” as a distinctive mode of audience reception for newsreel content, as well as its nuanced analysis of newsreel references in popular culture. Clark’s theoretical contributions are entirely original and his cultural analyses address important gaps in newsreel lore (e.g., the newsreels were long understood to have played important roles in popularizing and contextualizing the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, but to my knowledge Clark’s is the first sustained treatment of the case that systematically analyzes extant newsreel coverage).
As with any book-length treatment of a decades-long phenomenon, the volume also has some limitations. The most important of these is the book’s almost exclusive focus on the newsreel industry of the 1930s, the decade in which new sound, projection, and transportation technologies combined to bring the newsreel into its popular heyday as a distinctive cultural phenomenon. This focus is entirely appropriate to the book’s theoretical investigation, but as a result the volume offers little assessment of the emergence of the newsreel in its first two decades of existence during the silent film era and even less on its long period of decline starting in the late 1940s.
Clark’s masterful volume is highly accessible to non-specialists and will be indispensable to scholars interested in locating the newsreel industry within a theoretically rich and analytically compelling context. This exceptionally important contribution has at long last situated the newsreel into its rightful role as a major medium of visual news and cultural interpretation alongside newspapers, radio, and long-form documentary film. It is a must-read for any scholar who wants to understand the newsreel’s cultural significance in American media history.
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