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100 years of the newsreel

University Libraries preserves, digitizes Fox Movietone News collection

In 1919, moviegoers were laughing at Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and enjoying the first films from United Artists. They also witnessed the birth of Fox News (not that Fox News, but the newsreel version that people watched in movie theaters before television), which opened its first reel with an endorsement from President Woodrow Wilson.

That film and hundreds of others, along with millions of feet of outtakes shot by cameramen supported by the resources of William Fox’s movie studio, are collected at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collection. It's just one example of University Libraries' exceptional collections that support scholarship by the university's faculty and draw researchers from around the world.

“This is a snapshot of the world that nobody else took,” says Greg Wilsbacher, curator for the Fox Movietone News collection. “It is one of the most important global cultural heritage collections in the world.”

In the early days, the newsreels had no sound, but included title cards explaining the action to the audience. Musical accompaniment would come from the same source as the music provided for the movies — a local pianist, organist or, in some cases, a small orchestra.

Some of the most important events captured on the newsreels were technological advances, such as airplanes in flight, and modern skycrapers being built; oddities and diversions, including the magician Houdini suspended above a city street or a 1920s baseball game that most Americans would never have seen before.

One of the key films from this silent era of the Fox collection is a documentary about the 10th Cavalry Regiment — an early African American unit of the U.S. Army known as the original "Buffalo Soldiers."




The collection has been carefully preserved by University Libraries over the past 40 years, when 20th Century Fox donated the collection on silver nitrate film — a combustible material that Kodak stopped making in the early 1950s.

The bulk of UofSC’s Fox News and Movietone collection is outtakes, that is, material that was shot but never used in a newsreel that actually was seen in theaters.

“One of the things you wonder when you are looking at these clips is who was sent here, why were they filming this, what were they trying to communicate with this and what kind of story ultimately did it end up in,” says Laura Kissel, director of the School of Visual Art and Design and a media arts professor.

Kissel used outtakes from the collection for her 2005 film Cabin Field.

“I was looking for representations of labor, particularly from the perspective of African Americans,” she says, adding that she used clips to provide a flavor of what life looked like in the rural South of the early 20th century.

This cache of moments that have largely gone unseen over the past 100 years can be the collection’s greatest appeal.

Jennifer Pournelle, a research professor in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, has used clips from the Fox collection for several documentaries she worked on, including Blink Films' Secrets of Noah’s Ark that aired in 2016 as part of PBS’s Nova series.

Pournelle, a landscape archaeologist, says the outtakes were the parts of the collection she most treasured.

“The B-roll stuff was actually the most useful because that’s just taking pictures of what’s happening. It’s not staged,” she says. “So people ploughing with mixed teams of camels and donkeys and a stick;  people using oxen to power waterwheels — these clips document ongoing daily life.”

With the coming of sound, Fox News became Fox Movietone News, and Americans got their first look and listen at European heads of state, including England’s Winston Churchill, who filmed a spot at the end of a tour of America. The great orator can be seen, stopping and starting, aware that his words and mannerisms were being captured and would be shown across the U.S. in movie theaters. Fox also gave theater audiences their first slices of Americana, such as the Jenkins Orphanage Band out of Charleston, S.C.





MIRC works with documentary filmmakers, like Pournelle, to provide high-resolution clips for their projects.

“If you can be both clear and specific, but also bracket expansively with a vision, they will come up with stuff you never dreamed existed,” Pournelle says of the MIRC staff. “You can’t do that on your own, surfing the web. Even if the archive were exhaustively indexed, I never would have come up with these clips. Archivists know their archives.”

Still, MIRC’s ultimate goal is to make the films accessible to the general public for a better understanding of history.

For example, MIRC was able to secure funding to digitize all the Movietone films that actually appeared in theaters during the war and make those films available on the University Libraries website.

Much more of that funding will be needed to undertake the herculean task of digitizing the millions of feet of both completed newsreels and outtakes and detailed indexing to make the collection easily searchable. Putting the entire thing online will require a reliable streaming platform. While those tasks are neither easy nor inexpensive, Wilsbacher says, they are essential as the university seeks to maximize the value of the collection.

“Digitization will make the collection speak to its importance.”




Learn more

Celebrate the centennial of the first Fox newsreel by joining University Libraries' Moving Images Research Collections and filmmaker Bill Morrison at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Nickelodeon theater in Columbia. Fox Movietone News Collection curator Greg Wilsbacher will join the director after the screening of Morrison's "The Great Flood," which makes use of archival film footage from the university's extensive newsreel collection.

You can help

Visit the university’s giving website to help fund the preservation and digitization of Movietone News.