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75th Anniversary of The March of Time
Remind Me

The March of Time Introduction

At its peak, The March of Time provided news on current events for over 20 million people per month in 9,000 theaters throughout the United States. Lasting from 1935 through 1951, the series experienced the most sustained success of any documentary-like programming before the age of television, and it was recognized with a special Academy Award in 1936 for "having revolutionized one of the most important branches of the industry-the newsreel." Its format and approach to depicting news events became a major influence on news documentaries and public affairs programming.

Time-Life-Fortune, Inc., which was headed by Henry Luce, sponsored The March of Time under the watchful eye of Roy Larsen, but it was Louis de Rochemont who innovated the techniques and structure that defined the series. De Rochemont, who had a lifelong passion for true-life dramas, was the director of short films for Fox Movietone News when he brought the idea for what he termed "pictorial journalism" to Larsen. He based his proposal on a radio version of The March of Time, which he felt could be re-created on film. Larsen and de Rochemont began work in June 1934, and the first episode debuted at the Capitol Theatre in New York City on February 1, 1935.

The March of Time modernized and updated the newsreel, which had declined in craftsmanship and popularity after the coming of sound. Companies that made newsreels usually did so as a sideline, meaning they invested little money, effort, or personnel into their productions. They did not staff actual journalists to write scripts or to organize the footage, because they were looking to turn the most profit with the least amount of money. Newsreels were sold as part of a package deal to studios or distributors, and they consisted of film snippets of disasters, sporting events, beauty contests, or crazy fads. Producers stayed away from world events, especially those that generated controversy. In contrast, Larsen and de Rochemont wanted to produce a new film each month that dealt with the type of contemporary events and issues found in the pages of Time or Life magazine. Their approach was to turn a topical event or issue into a story with a beginning, middle, and end so that it could be easily understood to all audiences. Each episode cost between $25,000 and $75,000 in an era when the average newsreel was produced for $8,000 to $12,000.

The goal for The March of Time was to present an event or situation so effectively that viewers felt like they were experiencing the real thing. To accomplish that goal, de Rochemont combined archival footage, re-enactments, interviews, and dramatic voice-over by the deep-throated Westbrook Van Voorhis. He became so associated with the series that he was billed as the Voice of Time--and occasionally mocked as the Voice of God or Voice of Doom. His voice of authority was particularly memorable at the conclusion of each episode when he emphatically pronounced, "Time marches on!"

The narrative thread and thematic meaning of each episode of The March of Time were communicated through Van Voorhis's voice-over, with the stock footage, music, and sound effects cut to the spoken words. The voice-over directly told the viewers what they were seeing, because most of the time the images were generic representations and not actual footage of the location or event. For example, viewers who watched an episode titled "War in China" saw a generic shot of a city street at night as Van Voorhis revealed, "That evening, Shanghai is tense." Viewers assumed they were seeing a troubled Shanghai on the verge of war, while the present tense of the voice-over gave the story immediacy, suggesting viewers were right there in the thick of the situation. Also, March of Time crews had no qualms about asking the notable and the notorious to portray themselves in re-enactments. They stage-directed politicians, labor leaders, religious figures, and others so that famous moments could be re-created for the camera. At first, The March of Time team relied heavily on re-enactments of events, in addition to the stock footage and dramatic voice-over. But as the series matured and the staff's resources expanded, the producers incorporated more interviews and fewer re-enactments, while still depending on the archival footage and narration to carry the weight of the narrative. It didn't matter to Luce, Larsen, and de Rochemont if their episodes showed authentic locations or actual events. It mattered only that the cameramen and Time-Life journalists faithfully "reflected" the facts of the event. Luce described this approach as "fakery in allegiance to the truth."

Despite the primacy of the spoken word, editing was crucial to The March of Time style and the editing created a fast pace, with a hard, rhythmic impact to synchronize with Van Voorhis's vocal delivery. These techniques dramatized the news so that the information provoked an emotional response in the viewers.

To ensure clarity, episodes were structured into four distinct parts, generally with intertitles to announce each new section. The first part established the importance of the event or urgency of the issue; the second offered a historical context of the origins and causes; the third noted any current complications, which underscored its topicality; and the final part concluded by looking toward the future. This linear structure made the finer points of each topical event or issue easy to grasp in the ten to twenty-minute running time.

From the perspective of the public, The March of Time's most important achievement was to introduce subjects of controversy or significance via the mainstream film industry. In its first year, the series tackled such international topics as the impact of the Depression around the world, the re-arming of Germany, and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. On the home front, The March of Time profiled controversial figures such as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin and covered hot-button issues like strikebreaking and unemployment. Paradoxically, Hollywood lured patrons to luxurious, air-conditioned theaters with movies that promised an escape from the problems that plagued their daily lives, while, in those very same picture palaces, The March of Time hit them where they lived.

Perhaps the most controversial episode was "Inside Nazi Germany" from 1938. At a time when a large part of the American public was still sticking to an isolationist stance, and the Roosevelt administration was maintaining a guarded impartiality, this sixteen-minute episode offered a close look at the impact of the Nazi Party on Germany. It exposed the strict regimentation of the German people, the preparations for military expansion, and the consolidation of allegiances with other countries, among other revelations. Despite its lack of open editorializing, "Inside Nazi Germany" succeeded in criticizing Nazism through its use of descriptive images coupled with a dramatic voice-over. Film critics of the day took note, including Otis Ferguson of The New Republic, who lauded the episode for standing for democracy and against suppression, nationalism, and just plain "shoving people around." "Inside Nazi Germany" was declared "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1993.

Under the influence of Henry Luce, Time-Life-Fortune, Inc. was considered a politically conservative organization, and some of the episodes of The March of Time dealing with domestic issues reflected a moderate outlook. However, several of the journalists working for Luce held liberal values, and when covering international events and issues, the series consistently supported freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other civil liberties by showing parts of the world where these rights were being undermined by fascist governments. At a time when the United States was not ready to take sides in the growing conflict that became World War II, The March of Time stirred the hearts and opinions of Americans in a way print journalism could not. The series helped define and solidify American values by contrasting them with those of future enemies of the United States, which shaped public opinion on international events.

The March of Time ended in August 1951, partly due to competition from the new medium of television and partly due to rising costs. While today's media pundits might scoff at Luce's "fakery in allegiance to the truth," Louis de Rochemont's techniques remain standard in compilation documentaries, History Channel series, and public affairs programming.

Producers: Louis de Rochemont and Roy Larsen, 1935-1943; Richard de Rochemont and Roy Larsen, 1943-1951
Technical Management: Jack Bradford and Lothar Wolff
Editors: Louis de Rochemont and Roy Larsen, 1935-1943; Richard de Rochemont and Roy Larsen, 1943-1951
Cast: Narrator (Westbrook Van Voorhis)
1935-1951 B&W 10 to 20 mins. per episode

by Susan Doll