Starting with the silent films in the 1900s and continuing with the sound reels in the late 1920s, the newsreels documented all types of people, places, things, and events, including those associated with the ups and downs of aviation, through the mid-1960s. Today, newsreels provide a unique moving-image documentation of our aeronautical heritage, stored on celluloid film, in magnificent black and white. Along with the photograph and the written word, the newsreel should be considered one of the premier tools in the aviation enthusiast’s research toolbox.
Only one of the five major sound newsreel companies that documented aeronautical stories during the 1929-1967 time frame is readily accessible, royalty free, and in the public domain — the Universal Newsreel. Over 14,000 reels of surviving edited stories and outtakes of this superb moving image resource are available for your research and viewing pleasure at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility known as Archives II, in College Park, Maryland.
QUIET ON THE SET!
When you start to explore this vast collection for Aviation Golden Age stories, it’s probably best to start at the first full year of the newsreel, 1930. That was an active aviation year and Universal produced 114 newsreel stories on the subject. Amazingly, 99 of those stories have survived these past 70 years, and video review copies of the black and white films are available at NARA. While the video copies are acceptable, the quality is, well, VHS-ish…most lack resolution and look a bit washed out.
Regrettably, they are also usually without sound. They’re silent? Weren’t these stories filmed in the era of the talkies? Yes, but…as was the custom at the time, Universal typically destroyed the narration and music tracks for silver recovery soon after a story was released. While they usually kept a couple release prints of the entire newsreel issue with the audio track intact for reference purposes, few of them survive today. As a result, the Universal Newsreel stories held within the NARA prior to the mid-1950s are usually silent and missing the golden-toned narration of Graham McNamee, and later, Ed Herlihy. Unfortunately, the only noise you may hear in the stories about Aviation’s Golden Age is the “sound-on-film” of speeches, statements made directly to the camera, and the occasional story that had “wild” or “natural sounds.” However, after some serious digging around in NARA’s files, “as-recorded” scripts of the narration were found for most of these stories and are included in the information below.
A sample of the aviation related story titles that made it into the Universal Newspaper Newsreel (as it was known back then) of 1930 include:
• 48 Die in Fiery Ruins; Destruction Marks End of Ill-Fated R-101
• Airplane parachute lands craft safely from 6,500 foot drop
• Army fliers blind “enemy” with smoke screen in war game
• Boyd and Connor hop to London in historic “Columbia”
• Elinor Smith, in swoon 6 miles up, sets new air mark
• Hawks fights gale as 3,000-mile dash in glider tow ends
• Hurl navy planes from catapult in sensational trials
• LINDY GETS A NEW “WE”
• news paragraphs - Arrowhead Safety Airplane
• Nippon flyer starts ’round-world flight mid colorful rites
• Use floating island as landing field for passenger ’planes
Let’s take a more in-depth look at a few of the other aviation related newsreel stories for 1930 as produced by Universal Pictures.
The first aviation release of 1930 was titled, AMERICAN PLANE WINS $100,000 SAFETY PRIZE. It documents the Guggenheim Award to the Curtiss-Tanager airplane on January 6th, at Mitchel Field, NY. The motion picture action is of a crowd in front of the Curtiss-Tanager biplane; two men as they stand in front of the plane and stage a large-sized check presentation; the plane makes a short-field takeoff; scenes of the plane as it maneuvers in the air; and a very short short-field landing. Over this action the script reads, “…in Long Island. That’s a nice piece of change to get right after Christmas. Vice President Land, of the Guggenheim Foundation, is giving the check to President Keyes of the Curtiss Company. Up she goes like a toy balloon. Now we’re sailing along 4,000 feet over the field. Almost a mile. Watch this fellow rock the boat. If you tried to do that with any other plane you’d go into a spin so fast that you’d think you were falling out of bed. No wonder they call this the safest little plane in the world. They say a child could run it and I believe them. Another great stunt is the short landing. Notice the speed he’s traveling at, but there won’t be any bump. Just nice and easy like falling into a snow pile.”
Then there is the story about the ARMORED, ALL-WING AIRPLANE IN FIRST THRILLING FLIGHT, which was filmed on February 8th at United Airport in Burbank, CA. This is the story of the first version of the Northrop Flying Wing concept and the first real “All Wing” airplane actually constructed and successfully flown. The plane is registered as X216H, and the test pilot for this flight was Eddie Bellande. The filmed action shows the pilot as he walks on the wing and gets into the cockpit; the engine is started; the plane taxis down the runway; the take-off run; aerial views of the plane flying. The voice over the footage says, “Every week it seems as if some new kind of airplane comes out. At first glance you’d say this one wasn’t finished yet, but it is. Everything is in the wings; motor, gas tanks, supplies, and the pilot. This cuts down the air resistance and increases speed. The little machine you see here made over 125 miles an hour. Tri-motored planes of this type are being built to carry 15 passengers. They claim the big fellows will travel from Coast to Coast in 15 hours. I wouldn’t argue with ’em about it. Time means nothing, these days, unless somebody steals your watch…”
In an April 16th release, there was an interesting story titled, Use speeding plane for bridge party in first mid-air game. The story summary states, “Society folk play cards half a mile above the streets of the city. The players are so absorbed in the bids that no one pays any attention to the dizzy heights.” The film shows three society ladies as they climb aboard a Ford Tri-motor; the plane takes-off; two groups of four ladies play Bridge; the pilot at the controls, poses for the camera; more card playing; a look out the window at one of the plane’s engine; another scene of the card game; the plane lands at the Cincinnati airport and taxis to a stop; the ladies deplane. The story’s narration stated, “What will these bridge players do next I wonder. Well, here they go on the first aerial card-party ever held. The game has started and everything’s quiet. Nobody’s trumped her partner’s ace yet. Hey, eyes front there. Look where you’re going. They’re up 2,000 feet so this game can’t be on the level. One of the ladies remarked that if anything happened to the plane they’d all get a grand slam. Here they come down and the winners are collecting their dimes while the losers are thinking how different it might have been. A great looking plane. What a giant. They tell me there wasn’t a single argument over the game. Well, you know when the motors are going in an airplane you can’t talk. Oh, that’s mean, isn’t it? I wonder if they played for high stakes.”
To read rest of the article and see photos that haven't seen the light of day in 80 years, please go to my website by clicking this link... www.pwstewart.com/uploads/Aviation_in_the_Newsreels_SKYWAYS_90.pdf