A Moving Image “Newspaper”: Universal Newsreels at the National Archives

Before the advent of televised network news programs and the 24 hour news cycle on cable and the internet, newsreels were one of the main sources people had for news.  One of five major newsreel companies, Universal Studios produced and released newsreels which were shown in movie theaters, twice a week, from 1929 until 1967. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length, for a total length of six to ten minutes.

The newsreel stories featured national and international news and events, politicians, celebrities, performing animals, sporting events, the latest fashions, fads, trends, and other “oddities.”  Sometimes a “local” was also included and shown only in the city where the story was filmed. Local stories might show politicians, parades, football games, beauty contests, or other community activities.

In 1974, Universal Newsreel deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), without copyright restrictions, although users should be aware that some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights.

Soon after the donation, NARA’s Motion Picture Branch and the Motion Picture Preservation Lab began processing and making accessible millions of feet of footage from this collection. Due to its popularity, the Universal News Collection was one of the first major series to be completely available on videotape in the National Archives’ research room. The collection is still accessible for self-service in the research room at Archives II in College Park, MD.

Unfortunately, the collection is not complete. The National Archives suffered a nitrate fire in 1978, destroying most of volumes 14 through 17 (covering the years 1941-1945). In addition, Universal disposed of many separate music and narrative soundtracks of the period 1929 to 1956 before donating the collection to NARA. (Our Motion Picture Preservation Lab duplicated the remainder of the collection–about 15,000 reels–in a massive film-to-film preservation project completed in 2010.)

Most of the gaps in content can be filled by perusing the large volume of textual records that Universal included with the donation. These records contain narration scripts, release sheets, and background materials, or “dope sheets”, such as the cameramen’s notes, shot lists, newspaper clippings, magazine articles and event programs which were used by the cameramen and editors to assemble their stories.

The liberal access, vast size, and broad content of the collection provide a wealth of footage for documentary film makers, educators, and historians, making the Universal Newsreels one of our most used motion picture collections.

You can see Universal newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlistStay tuned as we feature historical news stories in our series “This Week in Universal News” throughout the coming year. In addition, we’ll have more information about the preservation of the Universal Newsreel Collection in a few weeks. 

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