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The Kefauver Crime Investigation

The Kefauver Crime Investigation(1951)

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NOTES

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According to contemporary reviews, this documentary contains a specially filmed prologue and epilogue featuring Democratic senator from Tennessee Estes Kefauver, in which he explains the committee's mission. The Senate Committee to Investigate Crime and Interstate Commerce, or the Kefauver Committee, as it was popularly known, was formed on May 10, 1950 to investigate organized crime. The committee traveled the country from January 1951 through March 1951, held sessions in 14 cities from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and interrogated hundreds of witnesses. The committee investigated many aspects of crime, from organized syndicates, illegal gambling and political and law enforcement corruption.
       Several local television stations decided to broadcast the proceedings, and as noted by Motion Picture Herald and Hollywood Reporter news items, the resulting broadcasts achieved sensational ratings. Of particular interest to the public were the hearings held in New York City, beginning March 12, 1951, during which Frank Costello, Virginia Hill (who was known by her married name, Virginia Hill Hauser, at the time) and William O'Dwyer testified. Costello, who objected to the proceedings being televised, insisted that his face not be photographed, and subsequently, only his hands appeared in the broadcasts. [In The Kefauver Crime Investigation, however, Costello's face was shown, as no provision had been made for newsreel cameras not to photograph him.] Hollywood Reporter and Motion Picture Herald articles reported that due to the high viewership of the New York broadcasts, local businesses were affected and movie attendence dropped during the hours of the telecasts. Some movie theaters showed the telecasts on large-screen televisions and were very well attended, as were the neighborhood bars, restaurants, stores and blood banks that aired the broadcasts.
       On March 20, 1951, Hollywood Reporter noted that "Broadway film houses were off as much as 25 percent last night and some neighborhood theatres reported Monday's take off as much as 40 percent as the Senate crime inquiry went into a nighttime session glueing millions to television receivers in homes, bars and other public places." It was estimated that the total television audience in the New York area alone was over five million viewers, and that over twenty million viewers were reached through relays across the Eastern seaboard. Kinescopes of the day's events were sent around the country to other television stations that played them in the evening to similar high ratings. Modern sources point to the crime committee broadcasts as a crucial point in both political and television history, as they illustrated the wide drawing power of live coverage of political events. The hearings inspired both dramatic and satirical recreations in movies, television programs and commercials for many years.
       Fox Movietone News, the newsreel division of Twentieth Century-Fox, had been filming the sessions, and the studio decided to release a feature-length film compilation of the newsreels. The film was edited quickly and released very soon after the completion of the investigations. Contemporary news items report that by March 27, 1951, 350 prints of the film had been struck and were being rushed to fill the many orders already received for the subject. According to March 30, 1951 Los Angeles Daily News and Hollywood Citizen-News articles, the feature was booked in 165 Fox West Coast theaters throughout California and Arizona, and was to receive "top priority over the regular feature attractions...in the interest of good government."
       In a May 2, 1951 article, Hollywood Reporter noted that the newsreel and television coverage of the proceedings "were commended" by the Kefauver Committee in its report to the Senate. The committee also raised the question of the "possible implications of future use of Television as a medium," and recommended "that a code of Congressional procedure should be worked out so as...to insure the continuing dignity and maximum effectiveness of legislative proceedings which might be televised as well as preserve the constitutional rights of citizens."
       Kefauver (1903-1963) went on to head several other investigatory committees, including one concerned with juvenile delinquency and the possible effects of movie violence on teenagers in the mid-1950s. The immense popularity he received as a result of the televised crime investigations prompted him to author a book, Crime in America, and to run as the vice-presidential candidate in 1956, on the Democratic ticket with Adlai Stevenson.