The March of Time
THE MARCH OF TIME
Director: Louis de Rochemont
Production: Time Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: about 20 minutes per episode. First episode released 1 February 1935, New York, by First Division Exchanges, Inc. After 1935 The March of Time was distributed through RKO/Radio, and later 20th Century-Fox. The last episode was released in August, 1951. Cost: the first 3 reels cost approximately $40,000, while $150,000 was used to launch the series.
Producers: Louis de Rochemont and Roy Larsen, but during WWII Louis resigned and was replaced by his brother Richard de Rochemont; editors: Louis de Rochemont and Roy Larsen, Louis replaced by brother Richard during WWII; technical management: Jack Bradford and Lothar Wolff.
Cast: Westbrook Van Voorhis (Narrator).
Awards: Special oscar for the series' significance to motion pictures for having revolutionized one of the most important branches of the industry—the newsreel, 1936.
Bluem, A. William, Documentary in American Television, New York, 1965.
Elson, Robert T., Time Inc., New York, 2 vols., 1968.
Fielding, Raymond, The American Newsreel 1911–1967, Norman Oklahoma, 1972.
Barsam, Richard, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, New York, 1973.
Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, New York, 1974.
Fielding, Raymond, The March of Time 1935–1951, New York, 1978.
Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.
Newsweek (New York), 9 February 1935.
Cooke, Alistair, in Sight and Sound (London) Autumn 1935.
"Celluloid Censorship," in Time (New York), 1 June 1936.
Dangerfield, George, "Time Muddles On," in New Republic (New York), 19 August 1936.
"Freedom of Film and Press," in Christian Century (Chicago), 2 February 1938.
Galway, Peter, "Inside Nazi Germany, 1938: The March of Time," in New Statesman and Nation (London), 30 April 1938.
Frakes, Margaret, "Time Marches Back: Propaganda for Defense," in Christian Century (Chicago), 16 October 1940.
de Rochemont, Louis, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1941.
Anstey, Edgar, "The Magazine Film," in Penguin Film Review (London), May 1949.
Fielding, Raymond, in Quarterly of Film Radio, and Television (Berkeley), Summer 1957.
Fielding, Raymond, "Mirror of Discontent: The March of Time and Its Politically Controversial Film Issues," in Wisconsin PoliticalQuarterly (Madison), March 1959.
Barsam, Richard, "This Is America," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1973.
Lichty, L. W., and T. W. Bohn, "The March of Time: News as Drama," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C), Fall 1973.
Elson, Robert T., "Time Marches on the Screen," in Non-FictionFilm: Theory and Criticism, edited by Richard Barsam, New York, 1976.
Cook, B., "Whatever Happened to Westbrook Van Voorhis?," in American Film (Washington, D.C), March 1977.
Rollins, P. C., "Ideology and Film Rhetoric: Three Documentaries of the New Deal Era," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C), no. 2, 1977.
Fielding, Raymond, "The March of Time 1935–51," in FilmmakersMonthly (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), February 1979.
Martin, Marcel, in Ecran (Paris), 20 October 1979.
Lafferty, William, "A Reappraisal of the Semi-Documentary in Hollywood 1945–1948," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Summer 1983.
City Limits (London), 11–17 October 1983.
Dunlap, Donald, "The March of Time and The Ramparts We Watch (1940)," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, vol. 5, no. 2, 1985.
Hastings, M., "Time Marches On!," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1985.
Short, K. R. M., "The March of Time, Time Inc., and the Berlin Blockade, 1948–1949: Selling Americans on the 'New' Democratic Germany," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio andTelevision (Abingdon, Oxfordshire), no. 4, 1993.
Leahy, J., "Image, Meaning, History and the Voice of God," in Vertigo (London), vol. 1, no. 4, 1994/1995.
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The March of Time had the most substantial and sustained success of any documentary-like film series prior to television; it lasted from 1935 to 1951. It offered a new and distinctive kind of screen journalism, a cross between the newsreel and the documentary. At its peak, in the late 1930s and during the years of World War II, it was seen in the United States alone by more than 20 million people a month in 9,000 theaters. It was distributed internationally as well.
The MOT was sponsored by the Time-Life-Fortune organization of Henry Luce. The monthly film series was preceded by a weekly radio series of the same title. Roy Larsen of Time was responsible for the initiation of both series; Louis de Rochemont became the principal creator of the film series.
Though originating from a conservative organization, the MOT was identified with a liberal stance, more so than Time magazine. This was particularly true in foreign affairs; the films tended to be more conservative or erratic on domestic issues. Still, while features in the 1930s ignored or dealt only covertly with the Depression, MOT acknowledged the bread lines, unemployment, and political demagoguery that it gave rise to. Internationally, while the newsreel avoided controversial political and military developments, MOT tackled the machinations of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Tojo. One of the most politically controversial films in the history of American cinema was MOT's "Inside Nazi Germany" (1938). It examined in some detail (16 minutes) the regimentation of the German people, the control and consolidation of nationalistic allegiances, and the preparations being made for future military and economic expansion. This was at a time when the majority of the American public was still strongly isolationist and the government maintained a careful impartiality.
The success of The March of Time—fueled by the controversy it aroused by its press agentry as well as by its energetic innovations— encouraged imitations, especially after World War II began. Created along the same lines were the National Film Board of Canada's monthly Canada Carries On (1939–50) and The World in Action (1940–45). When the distribution of The March of Time moved from RKO to Twentieth Century-Fox in 1942, RKO replaced it with its own series, This Is America (1942–51). Immediately after the war, in England, the J. Arthur Rank organization produced and distributed This Modern Age (1946–50). The influence of March of Time extended into American documentaries of World War II as well, the most important being the Why We Fight series. MOT is the principal American model for what is now called the "compilation documentary."
A standard format for The March of Time was worked out early and varied little, regardless of subject. The fixed form may have been necessitated by the pressures of monthly production with modest resources; it must also have come to seem desirable given the considerable popularity of the series in the form in which it was offered. One of the most important ingredients was the voice and delivery style of its commentator, Westbrook Van Voorhis. His "Voice of Time" (sometimes irreverently referred to as the "Voice of God") was deep and commanding, ominous and reassuring at the same time. Spoken words carried the weight of the communication; the footage (largely stock), music (obvious and clichéd), and sound effects (sparse and highly selective) were cut to them. Often the pictures were given their meaning by the words, as part of "the dramatization of the news" that MOT practiced. An extreme close-up of a face and mouth at a telephone becomes "An angry refusal"; a long shot of a city street at night with a few electric signs becomes "That evening Shanghai is tense" ("War in China," 1937). Editing was the key. The pace is fast, with a hard rhythmic impact; a great deal of information is presented dramatically to capture the attention of the popcorn-chewing Friday night audience.
Structurally, each issue had four parts, with titles announcing each part. The first established the magnitude and urgency of the problem being dealt with. The second offered a historical survey of its origins and causes. Part three presented the immediate complications, confirming its newsworthiness. The concluding part looked to the future, stressing that the problem was a matter for continuing and serious concern.
By 1951 the losses of The March of Time had become too heavy for even the Luce organization to sustain. It was suffering from the competition of television news and public affairs programes, which could do the same thing as MOT films in theaters with much greater immediacy. It was suffering even more from rising costs and inadequate rentals paid for shorts by the theaters, geared largely to the selling of feature films. And finally it was no doubt suffering from its own fixed style and approach which, through repetition of 205 issues over 16 years, had lost much of the freshness and excitement of its earlier days.
The March of Time must be acknowledged, however, as an event in the history of popular American culture. Its influence has extended down to much of the documentary and public affairs programming on television today.
—Jack C. Ellis