Newsreels and Screen Magazines: The Canadian Story | Curator’s Perspective
Newsreels were first shown in movie theatres around the world in the 1910s. In Canada, there were very few companies making these, and most of what was shown came from the United States or Great Britain. With the creation of the National Film Board of Canada, newsreels with a fully Canadian perspective would finally be produced. In this blog post I will discuss the NFB’s Newsreel unit, which existed for more than 25 years.
Newsreels are short documentaries consisting of news stories and/or items of topical interest. They were mainly shown in movie theatres before features. This practice continued until the late 1960s, when television news supplanted the use of newsreels. Today, it is possible to get news images from a variety of sources, including television and the Internet, but back in the 1940s and beyond, newsreels shown in commercial cinemas were the only way for people to actually watch the news.
The Canada Carries On series, which was launched in April 1940, is not technically a newsreel series, although it did include newsreel footage. It was the first theatrical series produced by the NFB, and it offered a Canadian view of the Second World War. Like the other major WW2 series, The World in Action, it was produced to convey a message from the Canadian government about what Canada was doing in the war, including on the home front. These were propaganda films, pure and simple.* I’m including Atlantic Patrol (1940), the very first Canada Carries On episode, here to give you an idea of the type of film made in this series.
The actual Newsreel unit at the NFB was created in September 1942 to coordinate all the footage that was being shot by NFB cameramen in Canada. It was also there to stimulate Canadian production and increase Canadian content in newsreels distributed here and abroad. Since there were commercial companies producing newsreels already, the NFB signed an agreement stipulating that NFB filmmakers wouldn’t film anything that was strictly news; they instead devoted their energies to short feature subjects, capturing images of Canadian life across the country.
A great deal of what was filmed by the Newsreel unit was sold to these commercial companies, while some footage was integrated into NFB films, including in the Canada Carries On and World in Action series.
Several newsreel series devoted to the war were produced by the NFB for the Department of National Defence, including Canada Communique, which was distributed exclusively to the fighting forces overseas, and Eyes Front, shown in army camps in Canada only. These were not shown to the general public.
On the French side, the Actualités canadiennes series was released in theatres throughout Quebec and New Brunswick on a monthly basis as of July 1941. Each episode, lasting about 12 minutes, contained four to six short reports. This series was made specifically for French-speaking audiences, as opposed to Canada Carries On, for which English films were subsequently adapted and versioned into French. In March 1943, Actualités canadiennes was renamed Les Reportages and produced at the rate of three per month. The number of stories per episode was reduced to two, resulting in longer reports. The new series bowed out in 1945 after 114 episodes had been released.
At the end of the war, the NFB released the Canadian Screen Magazine series, whose episodes were, as the title implies, “screen magazines” consisting of several news items. The fourth episode (embedded below) focuses on five stories, including the conversion of a military transport airplane into a commercial airliner. It also features a short report on wounded veterans receiving artificial limbs. This series was produced for use in the rural circuits (travelling projectionists, trained by the NFB, would play the films in many small towns and rural areas from coast to coast). The series was produced for two years.
In 1947, the NFB launched the Eye Witness series, composed of several reports on different aspects of life in Canada and the world. It was originally distributed in the non-theatrical market (public libraries, community centres, service clubs, etc.), but proved to be such a popular series that theatres started to request it. As of February 1950, all new episodes went straight to cinemas. The series was released simultaneously in French under the title Coup d’oeil. Episode number 30, released in late 1951, included a story about the Prime Minister of Canada’s new residence at 24 Sussex Drive.
Episode number 47, released in December 1952, included a story on the relatively new (at the time) World Health Organization, led by Canadian Dr. Brock Chisholm, and its programs to conduct mass inoculations and help prevent epidemics.
Films in this series were released to theatres on a monthly basis, with a total of 102 made by the time the series was cancelled in 1958. The cancellation of Eye Witness / Coup d’oeil came as no surprise. Television programming had grown considerably, including the introduction of news broadcasts. It was certainly easier for people to get their news at home. In response to this, the Newsreel unit created a new series for television and the non-theatrical market. Simply called Screen Magazine, this series came out in 1958 and usually included two or three reports that were linked in some way.
Along Newfoundland’s Shores (1962) is a typical episode, containing three stories. The most interesting is the third one, about an isolated outport community that’s being moved to a larger, more central location. Not only are the people moving, but they’re also moving their houses. This is accomplished by sliding them down a hill on greased logs and putting them on rafts so that they can be floated the 13 kilometres to their new community!
This series continued until 1964, with a total of 43 episodes released. The Newsreel unit continued to film stories across the country (including a great deal of footage shot at Expo 67 that was sold around the world) until it was disbanded in 1969. There was simply no longer a need for the unit. Movie theatres had stopped showing newsreels many years before. People were getting their news on television (in the United States, the last newsreel was released to theatres in December 1967).
These newsreels and screen magazines fulfilled their mandates, and then some. Viewed today, they provide an incredible window into our country’s past (and the world). Discovering that the first director general of the WHO was Canadian or seeing the Toronto subway being built (Eye Witness No. 29) are just two examples of the incredible richness of this collection.
Enjoy the films.