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6. Detroit News Newsreels, 1923-1928 (30)

To offer a unique perspective on the Twenties, six collections of primary materials are presented in Theme I, each from a single source—newsreels, cartoons, political cartoons, animated cartoons, subway posters, and a 1931 retrospective. We encourage you to mix and match materials from two or more collections as a device for studying the period; a collection discussion guide is offered to stimulate study and analysis. Let's proceed to this section's collection—silent newsreels produced by the Detroit News for regional theaters.

As the photograph added visual presence to news reporting in the mid 1800s, the newsreel, introduced in the U.S. in 1911, added immediacy—a you-are-there quality that only motion could provide. A posed photo of Charles Lindbergh surrounded by dignitaries is one thing; film footage of his plane being rushed by French enthusiasts in Paris is quite another. The typical newsreel consisted of eight to ten brief news segments woven together with title panels—a visual spectacle designed to entertain as well as inform. Often it teamed up with a cartoon or two to warm up the audience before the feature film. The newsreel remained a staple of the moviegoing experience until well into the 1960s.

From the collection of Detroit News Pictorial newsreels archived by Wayne State University, we present thirty newsreels produced from 1923 to 1928, reporting local news that reflected national issues and trends—traffic safety, aviation feats, crime, illegal aliens, college fads, beauty contests, new cars, new skyscrapers, new airline service, new radio towers, new street lighting, and, of course, sports, celebrities, children, and animals. Choose eight to ten segments to view in one sitting. Imagine viewing them in a movie theater with piano or theater organ accompaniment. How did they convey news in an entertainment setting? How did they differ from newspaper coverage with photographs? How did they engage the audience without recorded sound? Notice the content and tone of the intertitles (black-panel text); are they dramatic, humorous, conversational, pedantic? What current news or social network medium most resembles the newsreel?

- "Old and New Detroit": five downtown sites then and now, 1923

- "Cities United by Air Line": first Detroit-Cleveland passenger air service, 1923

- "First Negro Jurist Visits Detroit Court": first elected black judge in Illinois visits the city, 1924

- "Movie Caravan Reaches Detroit": screen tests for beauty contest winners, 1925

- "Looking at Detroit from Cloud Regions": dedication of a new skyscraper (with a dancing flapper), 1925

- "Motor Truck Crashes with an Interurban": two killed in auto-train wreck, 1925

- "'Devil Dogs' Meet Wolverines": football game between the Quantico Marines and the University of Michigan, 1925

- "Children Guests of Rotary Club": Christmas party for "unfortunates," 1925

- "Winter Air Trials a Great Success": testing military airplane skis in frigid weather, 1925

- "WWJ Takes New Leap into Air": new radio towers, mid 1920s

- "They're Going Back to the Old Country": deportation of illegal aliens, mid 1920s

- "Jackie Coogan Visits Detroit": child star on fundraising tour for Near East relief, 1926

- "Detroit Boasts World's Best Lighted Thoroughfare": dedication of new street lighting, 1926

- "Toils on Birthday": Henry Ford examines his new "air flivver," 1926

- "All the World Waited for It": new Model A Ford, 1927

- "Motorists Try Brakes for Police Department": checkstop for auto brake safety, 1927

- "City of Birth Greets 'Lindy'": welcome for Charles Lindbergh, 1927

- "Construction of a High Rise": skyscraper construction, mid 1920s

- "These Mechanics Disregard Altitude": skyscraper construction, 1927

- "Police Confiscate 'Smoke Screen' Car": auto rigged to deflect police, 1927

- "Police Submerge Confiscated Guns": robbers' guns thrown in river, 1928

- "Youngsters Imitate Animals at Circus": annual children's festival, 1928

- "Wolverines on Display in Wolverine State": nine wolverines in Detroit Zoo

- "Sophomores Initiate U. of D. Freshmen": college ritual at the University of Detroit, 1928

- "Fireworks 'n' Everything at Chinese Dedication": Chinese benevolent association, 1928

- "Boy Scouts in Safety Parade": demonstration of city's traffic victims in 1927, 1928

- "Plane Falls into Street Demolishing Automobile": no injuries, 1928

- "Proving Ground for Ford": automobile suspension test, 1928

- "Governor Scans Dynamic Detroit": 50,000th passenger in a sightseeing plane, 1928

- "Aces of Aviation Gather at Show": airplane exhibition, 1928

Discussion Questions

  1. Characterize the Detroit News newsreels of the 1920s. What themes did they treat? What do they reveal about the decade?
  2. How did they differ from newspaper coverage with photographs? Compare how a newspaper reader and a newsreel viewer would experience the news.
  3. Which events in the newsreels would be covered by television or Internet news today? Which were distinctly of the 1920s? Why?
  4. How did the newsreels function as news? as entertainment?
  5. How did they engage the audience and convey immediacy without recorded sound?
  6. What aspects of current video news reporting did they introduce?
  7. Describe the content and tone of the newsreel titles and intertitles (black-panel text). What made them effective for the time?
  8. What features of the silent newsreels disappeared with the introduction of sound?
  9. Compare the silent newsreels with sound newsreels of the 1930s (see Supplemental Sites below). Why might sound newsreels have been welcomed by some and disliked by others?
  10. If you had to judge only by these newsreels, how would you characterize the concerns and interests of Americans in the 1920s?
  11. What current news or social network medium most resembles newsreels? Why?
  12. Combine the Detroit News newsreels with other single-source collections in this Theme, e.g., with another news medium (Chicago Tribune political cartoons) or with silent entertainment films (Felix the Cat animated cartoons). What unique insights can be gained by studying single-source collections from a period? What limits do they present? [See collection discussion guide for THE AGE.]

Framing Questions

  • How are the Twenties immediately familiar to 21st-century observers? In what ways does the decade seem remote and old-fashioned?
  • Identify and explain four characteristics of the Twenties that most differentiate the decade from the 1910s and the 1930s.
  • What are benefits and downsides of snapshot views of a historical period?
  • What research would you conduct to test a hypothesis about the 1920s gained from these snapshot views?

Supplemental Sites

The History of Movie Newsreels (MovieFanfare)

History of the Newsreel (personal site of Steven Schoenherr, professor emeritus, University of San Diego)

Moving Image Source Research Guide (Museum of the Moving Image)

Newsreel archives with online digital collections
Newsreel archives with online collection information

Images: Stills from Detroit News newsreels, courtesy of Wayne State University.
– "Movie Caravan Reaches Detroit," 1925.
– "Winter Air Trials a Great Success," 1925.
– "Looking at Detroit from Cloud Regions," 1925.
– "'Devil Dogs' Meet Wolverines," 1925.
– "City of Birth Greets 'Lindy,'" 1927.
– "These Mechanics Disregard Altitude," 1927.

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