When Actors Were The Anchors

Mar 4, 2014

Modern moviegoers are used to experiencing trailers, concession advertisements and, of course, a reminder to turn off their cell phone before the main attraction hits the screen.

But it wasn’t always that way. Until the 1950s, you got a good dose of news before you escaped into a Hollywood fantasyland. Beginning in 1935, “The March of Time” started replacing silent news reels in movie theaters, and it was a welcome change.

The audience was already familiar with the show long before it hit the big screen – “The March of Time” began first as a radio show.

Radio Roots

The radio version of “The March of Time” premiered in 1931 by the creators of Time and Life magazines.

Radio actors were hired for their ability to impersonate newsmakers. Orson Welles played Sigmund Freud, Agnes Moorehead was Eleanor Roosevelt, and Maurice Taurplin was Winston Churchill.

Promotional photograph of sound effects team for 'The March of Time' radio series, CBS Radio, circa 1931.
Promotional photograph of sound effects team for 'The March of Time' radio series, CBS Radio, circa 1931.
Credit From Wikipedia

One of the actors imitated Franklin D. Roosevelt so well, the president finally asked the producers to stop portraying him. His political advisors kept calling to ask him about statements he never actually made.

Dramatizing the news isn’t acceptable anymore; you won’t see Denzel Washington giving the State of the Union address on the morning news. But in the early 1930s, radio had to invent scenes. The technology to report live from the scene didn’t exist yet.

The radio show was scripted, but “The March of Time” did respond to breaking news – throwing out scripts and writing new ones an hour before airtime. And this lead to a new kind of actor, one that could perform a script perfectly having never seen it before.

Welles became a master at this, and he considered the show “the greatest thrill of his life.” Later, his movie “Citizen Kane” featured a parody of the show.

News As Entertainment

When transferring the show onto the big screen, the show’s creators wanted the news to feel alive, like it was happening to the viewer at that moment.

So they recreated the news with hired actors and wrote scripts that imagined real events, then added in voice-overs and real news footage.

Just as in filmmaking, scenes of Nazi Germany might be shot in the United States. An actor might play the president in a closed-door meeting. Sometimes, actual lawmakers appeared, as themselves, in the re-enaction of something they lived.

These tactics weren’t a secret. Henry Luce, head of Time-Life Fortune, Inc., called it “fakery in allegiance to the truth.”

'March Of Times' Inspires March Of Dimes

Perhaps the strangest remnant of “The March of Time” is the charitable organization The March of Dimes, which was originally started by President Roosevelt to combat polio.

The president originally called his organization The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis – not as catchy as the parody nickname the radio comedian Eddie Cantor came up with. The nickname stuck and the foundation used it to encourage children to donate a dime of their own money to help.

And even though President Roosevelt had an issue with the way “The March of Time” portrayed him, in a way that show gave him his own coin. He became so associated with The March of Dimes that his picture is now on all of the dimes in your pocket.