High culture, movie-house style

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I take note of the coming to YouTube of British Pathé’s archival newsreel channel, and what it means for culture buffs. Here’s an excerpt.

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newsonthemarchUnless you’re a dues-paying member of the Greatest Generation, you might be momentarily confused by the second scene of “Citizen Kane,” which cuts abruptly from Charles Foster Kane’s shadow-shrouded deathbed to a stentorian screen obituary of the fictional newspaper magnate called “News on the March: Xanadu’s Landlord.” It’s a parody of “The March of Time,” a newsreel series shown in movie theaters in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And what, pray tell, was a newsreel? A film shown before the main feature that summarized the news of the preceding week. Such short subjects were hugely popular in pre-television days, especially during World War II. The London-based Pathé News, the first newsreel, was launched in 1910 and managed to hang on until 1970, when it was killed off at last by TV news and the demise of the double feature.

Now the entire 85,000-film collection of British Pathé, the producers of Pathé News, has been uploaded and is available for free viewing by anyone willing to go to YouTube, search for “British Pathe” and spend an idle hour panning for nuggets. You’ll need plenty of patience—many of the clips are poorly labeled—but if you know what you’re looking for, I guarantee a good time.

Pathé News, like its American competitors, pitched its wares to a mass audience of moviegoers, and so its newsreels rarely offered cultural fare. But when Pathé’s cameramen did cover high-culture events, they not infrequently brought back priceless souvenirs of the now-distant past….

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Read the whole thing here.

From a 1932 British Pathé newsreel, Flannery O’Connor (identified by the narrator as “Mary O’Connor of Savannah, Georgia”) shows off a chicken that she taught to walk backward. The sequence was filmed when O’Connor was five years old:

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