The first installment of Time Inc.’s newsreel series March of Time premiered at New York’s Capitol Theatre in February 1935. Presented through a mix of news footage and re-enactments, topics included Japan’s power struggles, the 21 Club’s speakeasy history—and a sympathetic profile of York, Pennsylvania, small businessman Fred Perkins in his Supreme Court fight against New Deal–imposed minimum wages, predicting Time publisher Henry Luce’s increasing Republican sympathies. A project tackling such comprehensive subjects over such a timespan—16 years of monthly newsreels—could have no single author or thesis, but Luce and Time Inc.’s boosterish view of America-in-the-world is a constant.
Occasioned by the project’s 75th anniversary, MOMA screens nine programs of restored March material, displaying the genius of director Louis de Rochemont, an independent filmmaker and cameraman who brought to the newsreel form—up until that time, collages of stock images and stilted interviews explained by a nattering narrator—a new level of dynamism and verisimilitude. International archival footage was integrated with dramatic re-creations starring actors—or the figures under discussion themselves. Narration was provided by Westbrook Van Voorhis, who’d hosted CBS’s half-hour radio news show of the same title, intoning in the colorful, inverted-sentence house style of Time magazine (Time‘s traditional obituary line, “Death, as it must to all men, came last week . . . ,” was later parodied in the News on the March introduction of Citizen Kane).
March‘s most famous episode may be 1937’s “Inside Nazi Germany.” Instructive soundtracking and Van Voorhis’s leading narration accompany prosaic smuggled footage of the Reich’s citizens (“who show no signs of dissatisfaction with the Fascist dictatorship that controls their lives”). More blatantly sinister goings-on were supplied by Hoboken re-shoots, with kids wearing their swastikas to the dinner table. American Nazi leader Fritz Kuhn looked sufficiently sinister to play himself, so we cheer when he’s denied a building permit for a Bund Camp . . . by a dramatized Connecticut town hall meeting straight out of Frank Capra. Each monthly March soon reached 20 million Americans, and 1943’s “Show Business at War” boasted that Goebbels’s crudities didn’t have a chance against the combined Hollywood might of Darryl Zanuck, Walt Disney, John Ford . . . and, implicitly, de Rochemont.
March was undaunted by any topic. 1950’s “Mid Century—Half Way to Where?” set out to comprehensively enumerate the uncertainties that preoccupied our finest post-Hiroshima thinkers. MOMA itself appears (“creatively reflecting the anxious temper of the times”) in an overview of mankind’s dilemma that travels from ennui to inevitable cautious optimism, as March hosts nubby, ghoulish British Commie Harry Pollitt, J. Robert Oppenheimer, French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritaine, and RCA’s David Sarnoff, who predicts our information-at-hand present. And wherever we eventually arrived, Luce’s vision of America and the staccato of Van Voorhis helped set the time for our march.