Nearly 4,000 Universal Newsreel Release descriptions have been added to the National Archives Catalog, the result of a unique, multi-year collaborative effort by NARA staff of the Moving Image and Sound Branch and Citizen Archivist Phil Stewart. The project’s goal was to systematically transcribe the content of the twice-weekly synopsis, or release sheets, for each year. The descriptions provide the release date, titles and brief summaries of the individual stories in each release for the film reels in NARA’s holdings, which date from July 1929 to December 1967, when Universal ceased operations.
NARA’s Universal Newsreel Holdings
The Universal Newsreel Collection is the largest donated newsreel collection in NARA’S Moving Image and Sound Branch. The popular collection includes nearly 6,000 reels of edited releases (which were originally shown in movie theaters), as well as 8,500 reels of unedited outtakes.
MCA/Universal donated the collection to NARA in 1970, and deeded the collection’s rights and title to the United States Government in 1974, although the films may still contain material which is protected by copyright or other proprietary rights and restrictions.
The collection provides a wealth of information; however, there are some notable gaps. Many of the original separate sound and music tracks had been disposed of by Universal prior to their donation to NARA. For this reason, it is common for some of the edited reels prior to 1957 to include a mix of silent and sound stories. NARA had also further appraised outtake footage, and deemed some of it to be of little research value at the time of the donation.
Most dramatically, a fire broke out in the nitrate vaults in 1978, resulting in the loss of most of the edited releases from Volumes 14, 15 and 16 (1941-1943), as well as some releases from Volume 17 (1944), and about 12.6 million feet of outtake footage dating from 1930-1950. The Library of Congress holds copyright deposit prints from several years of Universal Newsreels, including prints of releases which were destroyed in the 1978 fire.
The collection also contains original subject cards, which have been digitized both from microfilm or from the original paper cards. These have been added to the Catalog to improve searchability of the Collection. Available to onsite researchers are Universal’s original production files, which contain technical information about the films shot and background information including scripts, caption sheets, and ephemera such as newspaper clippings, photographs, event programs, shot lists, and “dope sheets,” which were created and collected by the camera operator about the stories they covered.
The Description Project
Despite its popularity, the Universal Collection was never fully described in the National Archives Catalog, and despite efforts over the years to complete the painstaking task of creating descriptions for all the releases, the result was inconsistent or incomplete descriptions, which proved difficult for researchers to discover and access.
However, a new comprehensive description project began in earnest over six years ago, when Citizen Archivist Phil Stewart, who also collaborated with NARA to similarly describe the Ford Motor Company Collection, and who has written a number of books and articles about NARA’s film holdings, began verbatim transcription of each of the Universal release sheets, starting with Volume 1 (1929).
With the shift to telework due to the coronavirus pandemic, NARA staff from the Moving Image and Sound Branch joined the effort, and began transcribing release sheets for later Volumes. This data was then collected and prepared for upload into the Catalog, to replace legacy descriptions that contained outdated information.
The descriptions were made live in the Catalog in February 2022, and digital video files and any tags which were originally added to the legacy descriptions have been added subsequently.
To see what a film looks like and it’s corresponding Catalog description, see this example:
The film: Universal News Volume 18, Release 387, Stories #1-4, April 5, 1945 and its description in the Catalog: Universal Newsreel Volume 18, Release 387.
Want to learn more about Universal? We invite you to dive in in the Catalog!
It is also well represented in the Unwritten Record:
The descriptions recently added to the Catalog reflect both the original content of each release and the style in which it was presented, as written by Universal Newsreel editors. The synopses were added, without alteration or editing, to the scope and content section of each item description. Some of these descriptions may include language or terms which are now considered to be outdated, inaccurate, biased or offensive. For more information, please see NARA’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Content.