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Movietone at War: when news stories were hard to come by

27th September 1939 – The newsreels had been asking the Ministry of Information to allow them to film the embarkation of the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force) to France.   They had been stalled at every turn.   Then the Ministry of Information issued them with 3,000 feet of film on the embarkation. But, the material was badly dated and worse still, the newsreels guessed that the story had been shot by the G.P.O. (General Post Office) Film Unit.

Movietone’s Editor Gerald Sanger wrote: It smelt like the thin end of the wedge to oust the news-reels, and we recalled loudly and melodramatically all we had done to help the Government and the nation during the past years of stress.

Some weeks earlier Russell Muth, 20th Century Fox’s Director of Distribution in Europe, was called back to America.   They was no obvious reason for this.  On September 29th, Muth returned to Europe via the American ship Washington which was to call in at Southampton.  The ship had sailed from New York with all lights ablaze and the name of the ship painted on each side between two huge Stars and Stripes.

Gerald Sanger and Sir Gordon Craig, Movietone’s General Manager, went down to see him.  They needed special permission to get to the dockside at Southampton.

Muth was surprised at their visit, but knew what they were going to moan about.  He admitted that the supply of newsfilm from the Continent (for which he was responsible) was lousy.  The film that Paramount had received (on the Russian-Finnish War) should have also reached Movietone via Bill Murray of 20th Century Fox.  He was based in Belgium where he was editing a Belgian reel and also clearing film from Germany for distribution to the U.S.A. and other countries including Great Britain.

No explanation was given as to why this was not happening.

English: Senate House, Bloomsbury. This buildi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2nd October 1939 – Bob Harley, Movietone’s American Managing Director, invited Sir Gordon Craig and Gerald Sanger to lunch at Claridges.  This was to discuss their meeting with Russell Muth.   They spotted, at a nearby table, Sir Joseph Ball, director of Film Publicity at the Ministry of Information.  After they had eaten, they joined him at his table.  Knowing what they were going to say, he countered “You are in very grave danger of forfeiting your representation with the Expeditionary Force” .

Sir Joseph Ball said “The War Office are furious”.

It seems that Movietone were issued with movie film of an event, the subject of which was not revealed.  Movietone in turn offered The Daily Mail, a parent company, a slection of stills to be made from the movie frames.   They then received a letter from the M.O.I to say that the material could not be used.  This information was relayed to The Daily Mail who then sent the pictures back to the M.O.I. who passed them for publication.  (What a shambles ! One has to ask how Movietone could have got their hands on classified material in the first place).

When this explanation was offered to Sir Joseph, he replied  “That’s all very well, but is does not dispose of the fact that Sir Gordon Craig knew that the War Office retained the copyright of all its films”

“Not of film taken in this country, Joseph” said Craig “That’s too absurd”.

The Movietone pair then pointed out the infamy of using the G.P.O. Film Unit to shoot material that should have been the preserve of the news-reels.

He denied that they had been used and that it was just a coincidence that the film had arrived in cans with G.P.O. Film Unit labels on them. (It was never revealed who had shot the material)

Sir Joseph went on to blame Hore-Belisha * who had issued an order on September 10th which forbade every form of independent photography.  “I am trying to do everything to help you”.  Craig and Sanger disagreed with him.  Sanger said “You’re just acting as a screen for the Service Departments”.  He replied “Why don’t you tackle the Service Departments then ?”. Sanger replied “Because they shuttlecock us back to you”. Sir Joseph’s response: Well, if you are clever enough to see what’s happening, why blame me?”   Sanger: ” Because you are our contact, the only one we can get at”.

* Hore-Belisha was Secretary of State for War, but he was removed from office after a number of gaffs.

All retired unhurt

28th November 1939 – Gerald Sanger received a phone call from Russell Muth * in Paris.  He told him that some film from Amsterdam was on its way to Movietone.  The story was that of The Munich Beer Cellar which, on November 8th, had been the scene of an explosion which took place a few minutes after Hitler had left the building.

* It should be noted that 20th Century Fox was an American company and were still trading in Germany.   The Americans would not enter the War for another two years.  Their man Robert Hartmann was manager in Berlin.  It was common practice to inform recipients of shipments before they arrived rather than three weeks later.

It had been a tradition of the German National Socialist Party to celebrate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch of November 8th 1923. It had been customary for Hitler to deliver a lengthy speech to his followers.  On this night, fog came down and he was unable to fly back to Berlin.  He had to take the train.  This meant that he started his speech thirty minutes early.  He left the building at 9.07pm.   The explosion took place at 9.20pm

Eight people were killed and sixty were injured.

It appears that the package destined for Movietone had been held up by customs at Shoreham.  Shoreham Airport is situated a little over a mile west of Brighton at Lancing. Shoreham was an airport where flights that would normally have used Croydon were diverted soon after the War started.

Somehow Movietone managed to get the film released in spite of the “Trading with the Enemy” regulations.

Movietone House

Movietone House

When they screened the material at Soho Square, it was immediately decided that the story should be the subject of a pre-released special.  Movietone’s General Release for November 30th had already been completed.

Movietone had an exchange agreement with Gaumont British  and they were obliged to offer the story to them.

Movietone pulled a Lavender Print for Gaumont and a slash* for themselves.

*The reason that Movietone pulled a “slash” for themselves is that they were holding the original negative, which must have been rather lengthy, otherwise they would have cut the original negative without a slash.  A slash print is otherwise known as a one-light print.  A print made without full grading to save time.

Gerald Sanger rang Castleton Knight just before one o’clock to tell him.

Sanger writes: “Is it good ?”, he asked “You won’t put it out for tomorrow, will you ?”

“Not for this issue”, I said guardedly, “but judge for yourself”.

The Gaumont British lavender was ready by 2.30pm, but they did not pick it up until 4pm.

Sir Gordon Craig, knowing about the plan to pre-release the story said to Sanger “I don’t mind what they think about me, but I think you ought to keep your name clean”.

Sanger rang back to Gaumont to tell them what he intended, especially as he had heard that Paramount News were going to receive the same package.  He spoke with R.S. Howard, the Editor of Gaumont British News who tried to get Sanger to change his mind.  Howard rang Paramount who denied they had the story.

Later Castleton Knight phoned Sanger to tell him that they could not put the story out early because at 5pm all the laboratory staff had gone home.   This would mean that Gaumont could not release the story until 24 hours after Movietone.

Sanger pointed out to him that the Gaumont lavender had been available at 2.30pm and that he, Sanger, had fulfilled his obligation by telling Castleton Knight of his plan.

Movietone released the story a day ahead of Gaumont and none of the other newsreels had received the story.

Sanger wrote :….the commentary we attached to it was so hot in its insinuations against Hitler that I don’t suppose Russell Muth will get anything out of Germany for us again. Cecil Burge wrote it and its terms nearly took my breath away, building up to the last scene where Hitler takes the hands of the widows. “Does he honestly sympathize or has he deliberately murdered this woman’s husband ?” the commentary asks at the close of the diatribe based on the assumption that the Nazis engineered the Bomb Drama themselves.

The Movietone At War articles are based on extracts and research for my forthcoming book: “Movietone At War”.

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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