Time after Time

Left: Production shot from The March of Time (1935–51). Right: Still from The March of Time (1935–51). J. Edgar Hoover.

LONG AFTER ITS 1935–51 theatrical life, The March of Time short-subject series remained the parodic model for naive Chamber of Commerce–style ballyhoo. (One Simpsons take ended with a cart-tugging dachshund “pulling for Springfield.”) But on its seventy-fifth anniversary, these ephemera remain compulsively watchable beyond camp anachronism—appealingly eager to please, they stop at little to pack curiosities, celebrities (historical and Hollywood), intrigue, trend proclaiming, and pontification into each monthly dispatch. The loosely grouped selections screening at the Museum of Modern Art (joined by a marathon on Turner Classic Movies) show that this “new kind of pictorial journalism” reflected a version of the world back to America with a facility and a plenitude that anticipated television, ranging across Leadbelly, Palestine, bootleg coal, auto safety, World War II crises, “arson squads in action,” beauty regimes, strikebreaking, and, of course, “dogs for sale.”

The Lumièresactualités and both studio and collective newsreels preceded The March of Time, which has been aptly characterized as the “magazine” to its “newspaper” precursors. Launched by Henry Luce’s Time magazine and the brainchild of future Life publisher Roy Larsen, it existed first as a radio show, colorfully (even raucously) reenacting news of the day with actors’ voices. Later, as with documentaries of the period, voices ruddered Louis de Rochemont’s film version, guiding us through the antifascist exposés of “Inside Nazi Germany” or providing a teen’s inside-scoop commentary on “Teen-Age Girls.” Unlike mere compilations of footage, the productions involved research, reenactments, and music, becoming so elaborate that even with hundreds of theaters participating, March of Time lost money and almost shut down.

The March of Time template persists today in invent-an-arc documentaries and TV news. (The 1950 reel “Mid-Century: Halfway to Where” becomes a nearly ludicrous exercise in all-nighter-term-paper transition as it leaps from spectator sports to music to psychiatry to total war within minutes.) And while the series was progressive in some regards, it’s hard to forget Robert Coover’s jibe in The Public Burning (1977) at its parent magazine’s role as ridiculous national historian. But a lot can be forgiven by the sight of Marlene Dietrich, in “Show Business at War,” taken for a twirl by a star-struck soldier during a Hollywood visit for the boys. As each episode declared, admirably incontrovertible: “Time... marches on!”

“The March of Time, Seventy-fifth Anniversary” runs September 1–10 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.