When Newsreels Stood Still

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The Colorado farmer opened the barn door for me. There, hanging from a nail on the back wall, was an empty 35-mm reel. With that excitement peculiar to collectors, I asked if there were any films left. “I reckon so. Since maybe sixty years ago when my daddy give up his road showin’.”

There were eight deeply rusted 35-mm film cans draped with cobwebs. I pried them open. In the.first the film looked wonderful. Holding frames over a flashlight showed them to be—what else?—early Westerns. But the seventh can felt too light, as though the film might have disintegrated to brown powder. I carried it outdoors and opened it gingerly. There was no film—instead, glass lantern slides.

Holding one up to the sky, I could scarcely believe what I saw: a hand-colored photograph showing the survivors of the Titanic . That wonderful can and one other contained a whole collection of 1912 “current events” lantern slides for movie theaters, the only examples of this rarest of cinema memorabilia to turn up in my forty years of collecting. Song slides, coming attractions, and comic suggestions that women remove their hats have all survived from the days of the nickelodeons. But the current-events transparencies were considered too transient to be worth saving. Fragile and quickly dated, they Were tossed aside like newspapers.

Theater owners could subscribe to them from Hinton-Fell-Elliott, Inc., at 1326 Broadway in New York City, getting four slides a day for twelve dollars a week; an extra five dollars brought three 14-by 17-inch posters for outside display. The American Press Association and Underwood & Underwood supplied the news photographs to the slide makers.

By the First World War the hand-colored lantern slides were giving way to filmed news events. The newsreels persisted through the 1950s; then they, in turn, were completely supplanted by television. By that time, of course, nearly all the news slides had long been destroyed, but the few survivors shown here give a good sense of the genre—and of the era it hastily recorded.