Celebrating 'The March of Time'

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From the midst of the Depression in 1935 until the early 1950s, "The March of Time" was a regular, monthly feature in movie theaters. These were topical documentary-style films, produced by Time, Inc., that mostly ran under 20 minutes with stentorian voice-overs from a narrator named Westbrook Van Voorhis, who offered the same authoritative judgments found in the weekly magazine, then in its heyday, on matters great and popular. Now, to mark the 75th anniversary of the series (there were 290 films in all), HBO Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, and Turner Classic Movies have created a website where people can view a significant selection of them, as well as a Facebook page. Included is an especially powerful film from 1938 called "Inside Nazi Germany" that was so sharp in tone that some theaters refused to screen it. Alan Brinkley wrote in his recent biography of Henry Luce that the film was an "aggressive effort to mobilize the nation to the rise of fascism," which as late as the year before the European war began still largely seemed to underestimate the dangers of Hitler's vile ambitions.

The revival of "The March of Time" provides a fascinating view of the world in a period dominated by a clash of ideologies—fascism and communism—and technological advances that in some respects resembles our era. It is worth the effort to locate them from the HBO, TCM, and MoMA distributors. The release also offers an excuse to consider the role of documentaries in today's expansive realm of information. Of all the ways history has been recorded in the past 100 years, documentary films are arguably among the more valuable and least appreciated. Documentaries are awarded Oscars, Emmys, Peabodys, and honored at Sundance and other festivals. But their audiences are almost always small, especially those that are rolled out in theaters as distinct, say, from the heavily promoted PBS series that Ken Burns has done on wars, baseball, and jazz. I recently heard a plaintive public radio appeal from Amir Bar-Lev, director of The Tillman Story, a fierce new documentary about the military's cover-up of the death of ex-NFL star Army Ranger Pat Tillman who was killed in Afghanistan by what turned out to be "friendly" cross-fire instead of a heroic assault on the enemy. Bar-Lev said that unless the film attracted theatrical audiences of reasonable size in cities across the country, its chances for wide release in other formats: cable, DVD, and Netflix would be substantially reduced.

With the possible exception of writing drama intended for theatrical production, the making of serious documentary films is probably the most difficult of the creative arts to finance. There are stars in the field aside from Burns who until recently could count on General Motors for PBS backing. Among those with a theatrical track record are Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, which grossed $49 million, and the about to be released Waiting for Superman, showing the dismal status of America's public education system); Michael Moore, whose most successful populist diatribes have earned millions; Alex Gibney, who is prolific and won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side; and Errol Morris, whose revealing portrait of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War was an Oscar winner also.

There was a period a generation or so ago when the television networks did important (and expensive) documentaries, and some like CBS' Harvest of Shame, about migrant workers, have become classics. Those days are long gone. PBS's Frontline remains an outstanding source of documentaries, and public television still features impressive series like "American Masters," but they are in a never-ending scramble for funding. HBO also underwrites and screens documentaries on a regular basis and offers them on demand. So as hard as it is to get a documentary launched and viewed, the instinct to make these films remains strong, and they are deserving of support from institutional and private backers.

According to Brinkley's biography, "The March of Time"—which began as a radio series and continued into the 1960s on television—never made money. But the shows were valued as a meaningful extension of Time, Inc.'s philosophy, and, like the magazines, they "had one cultural standard that they used consistently to interpret and explain events: the progressive outlook of the Anglo-American world." A 1950 film called Mid-Century: Half Way to Where? is especially strong because it strikingly forecast many of the political, social and cultural battles that would dominate the rest of the twentieth century. Its prescience about the Cold War included the contest for the loyalties of countries such as India and Indonesia, and even suggested (in the words of RCA's David Sarnoff) what we now call cell phones and e-mail. But what impressed me was that, despite the strong evidence of Anglo-Saxon bias (only five years after the end of World War II), the film was neither racist nor especially patronizing about the rest of the world.

Over the years, "The March of Time" sometimes used actors and re-enactments as a device that today's documentaries could not include to be taken seriously. In fact, there are elements of these films that have the overdramatized style that fill countless hours of nonfiction programming on the cheesier cable channels. But the best of "The March of Time" was history through a particular filter done at high quality and with earnest intent. Documentaries give stories the texture that only film can provide and can shape our sense of events the way sophisticated historians and journalists do. "The March of Time" deserves the celebration it is getting.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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