May 24

Beaten by their own Scoop: Fox Movietone News and the Orteig Prize

The following blog is adapted from a presentation delivered by MIRC Curator Dr. Greg Wilsbacher to the Orphan Film Symposium X (April 7, 2016, Library of Congress, National Audio Video Conservation Center, Culpeper, VA).

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Example of Movietone’s variable density optical sound track recorded directly onto film negative.

“Movietone” sound was a patented system first perfected by Theodore Case and Earl I. Sponable at the Case Research Labs in Auburn, New York.Movietone’s variable density optical sound track was recorded directly onto the original camera negative, making it an ideal system for synch-sound newsreels. In 1926, movie mogul William Fox purchased rights to use the technology, creating the Fox-Case Corporation. Through the fall of 1926 and early winter 1927, sound recording in New York studios were the principle objective, but the time was also ripe for sound films to break out of the curtain and felt-lined walls of the early sound studio and move out into the world.

In March of 1927 the Fox-Case Corporation, working within the structure of Fox Film’s New York operations, traveled north to West Point to film the cadets of the United States Military Academy. The filming probably took place on Wednesday, March 16th (the 125th Anniversary of the academy). It was the first field trial of the complete Movietone mobile sound truck. Once this test was deemed a success the truck and cameraman Ben Miggins were sent off to Europe to film heads of state and other notables. A month later, on April 27th, the synch-sound film of the West Point cadets was screened to Fox employees.2 On the 29th it premiered to the public at the Roxy, a palatial new theater on Broadway already outfitted for Movietone sound by Fox. Almost another month would pass before a Movietone truck found what it was looking for… news.

Shortly after seven in the morning of May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis struggled off the muddy runway of Roosevelt Field into a still gloomy sky. When Lindy landed in Paris 33 hours and 30 minutes later he had become an international celebrity. In New York, newsreel companies scrambled to assemble special reels to carry the breaking news into theaters.

Fox Film’s silent newsreel, Fox News, however, held a wild card—the Fox-Case Movietone film of Lindy’s take off. The Roxy Theater screened this film to packed audiences in the days following. The New York Times reported that over 6,000 theater goers arose in spontaneous cheer as they saw and heard the Spirit of St. Louis roar down the field.

FOXNEWSMovietone-LINDY-5-24-1927p8 copy copy

While Fox was tinkering with optical sound trucks, aviation crews throughout the spring of 1927 were tinkering in hangers to finalize plans for the first New York to Paris flights. The Orteig Prize was established by Raymond Orteig to reward the first air crew to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. It had been on offer since 1919. In the spring of 1927, the great explorer/navigator Admiral Richard E. Byrd was favored to beat the competition. He was backed by merchant mogul Rodman Wanamaker, had brought together a top notch crew to fly the Fokker tri-motor airplane (the same model plane he’d used in his arctic expeditions). However, on April 20th his heavily modified plane nosed over on landing during a trial flight, injuring members of the crew and causing substantial damage. Any hope that Byrd would fly in April was dashed. In the following month three other teams tried to cross the Atlantic, but went down, killing four aviators. Their misfortunes further stoked public interest in the prize and renewed hopes that Byrd’s team could still claim the prize.

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Still image of the christening of Byrd’s plane, from Fox Movietone News story 1-311.

Byrd scheduled an elaborate christening ceremony carefully orchestrated by the public relations expert, Grover Whalen. Bunting was raised and bottles of water from the Delaware River were broken over a propeller by two of Wannamaker’s nieces. A large crowd gathered along with the press and members of the American Legion to see the spectacle of the great plane, The America, duly anointed and ready for its presumed place in aviation history. Fox-Case was present to ensure that a sound newsreel special on Byrd’s historic flight would contain each element of solid news story: interviews, b-roll, and the event itself. But history would get in the way of Fox News and Fox-Case’s well laid plans. The christening of The America took place on May 21st—quite literally as Lindbergh was landing at Paris.

What was supposed to be a preamble for a historic flight turned into an almost meaningless stage drama fully documented with cutting edge media technology.

Even as the Movietone camera was rolling at Roosevelt Field that afternoon, Fox News’ editors must have been scrambling to compile coverage of Lindbergh’s triumph.If Fox News had envisioned a comprehensive and well-scripted news feature focusing on Byrd’s historic crossing of the Atlantic it now had no option but to run with an unscripted, somewhat chaotic, and short piece of sound film that barely captured Lindbergh’s plane while it began its sprint down the runway. Fox had not made Movietone sound interviews of Lindy or anyone affiliated with him to fill out the piece or highlight the synchronized sound technology… and as it turns out… nobody at the Roxy that weekend seemed to care. One minute of engine noise was enough to thrill the crowds.

When Lindbergh returned home in June he was already the biggest news story in the world. Cameras followed his every move and newsreel editors and audiences couldn’t get enough of Lindy… Had the world forgotten about Admiral Byrd and The America? What would Fox do will all the film shot for the feature story that never was?

The negative films for the coverage of Byrd’s attempt are part of the University of South Carolina’s Fox Movietone News Collection. These include multiple sequences of The America taking off and sound interviews with Byrd, three members of his crew and the plane’s designer, Anthony Fokker. Multiple takes of the interviews were intermingled with all the rest of the Byrd materials. One reel, Fox Movietone News story 0-199, contained one copy each of the interviews and had modern leader separating them noting that titles had been present. All but one of the titles were located in MIRC’s vaults. Obviously, this was a reel of assembled negative. Two questions followed this discovery:  (1) when were the interviews made? and (2) was the reel as assembled ever screened for the public?

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Still image from New York to Paris Flyers–outtakes, Fox News story B9061…B9064.

Dating the Movietone interviews was made easier by analysis of the Fox News silent outtake (Fox News story B9061…B9064), that documents events surrounding Byrd’s crew at Roosevelt Field. The silent cameramen seem at pains to capture the operations of the Movietone crew, a crew that is personally overseen by Movietone technical pioneer Earl Sponable of Fox-Case, who appears in two of four scenes.

The first sequence features Grover Whalen with Byrd, Bert Acosta, and George Noville. It is a nice sunny day. The second sequence shows Earl Sponable directing an interview with Anthony Fokker, the designer of the plane and an aspiring American citizen—he’s holding an American flag to wave. The film crew are wearing overcoats. The third sequences features the pilot Bert Acosta and closely resembles the second—it is the same location but Earl Sponable has removed his overcoat. The fourth sequence is the most distinct. The entire scene is photographed from the side and framed in a way so as to capture the interview subject (Admiral Byrd) as well as the Movietone crew—which again features Earl Sponable. The ground is muddy and the temperature, judging by the attire is clearly on the chilly side—note the fur coats.

The first sequence was shot, I believe, on or about June 29, the day of Byrd’s flight, but the other sequences are clearly from an earlier date. Based on the clothing and weather, the interview with Byrd in the final sequence clearly pre-dates the first sequence; this sequence probably even pre-dates Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris based on comments Byrd makes about the historic nature of the flight. A New York Times article published early on the morning of May 20, 1927 notes that a Movietone crew made interviews of Fokker, Bert Acosta and George Noville on May 19th. While the NYT piece doesn’t mention the interview with Byrd, the negative edge numbers for the Byrd interview indicate that the same cache of unexposed film stock was used for the Fokker interview (they are within 500 feet of each other), so they are most likely from the same day. I believe the Byrd interview could not have been made later than the morning of May 20th. 

Were these interviews ever screened to the public? I had originally thought this reel had been made up and never printed because of Lindbergh’s sudden triumph. Careful scrutiny of the trade press uncovered a references in Variety to an early July screenings at the Roxy of a Movietone of Byrd and his crew each being interviewed along with Anthony Fokker.

Beyond this brief appearance at the Roxy, the Byrd Movietone interviews appear never to have been shown again. For all the effort put into its production, the resulting story was clearly a let down. Had the Fox-Case Movietone crews not been so focused on orchestrating an elaborate feature story about Admiral Byrd they in all likelihood would not have had a sound camera present at Roosevelt Field that gloomy morning when Lindy flew into history.

~Written by MIRC Curator Dr. Greg Wilsbacher

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For the history of Fox-Case’s optical sound film technology see, Przybylek, Stephanie (1999). Breaking the Silence on Film: The History of the Case Research Lab. Auburn, NY: The Cayuga Museum. See also Earl I. Sponable “Historical Development of Sound Films, Part III” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 48.5 (May 1947)”407-422.

April 27th also appears to be the date on which Miggins made his first recording of a European head of state, Benito Mussolini.

For an overview of Lindbergh’s flight as well as the atmosphere surrounding the competition for the Orteig Prize see, Charles Jablonski, Atlantic Fever (New York: MacMillan) passim. The linked video includes both Lindbergh’s take off and the sound recordings of his return to the U.S. in June. The Fandor site hosting it erroneously credits the film to Lee De Forest—whose optical sound film was inferior to Fox-Case. While De Forest did record President Coolidge and Lindbergh in June, no De Forest crews were present for Lindbergh’s take off on May 21st.

Fox News cameraman Roy Anderson even cabled from St. Louis to say that he had filmed Lindy a year early and that the film was in their New York vaults.

USC staff probably first prepped the negative in the late 1980s or early 1990s. On the rare occasions when titles were found they were often removed because title stock was known to decompose faster than camera negative nitrate. All extant titles are now kept together for reference.

“Lindbergh is Set to Fly at Daylight if Weather Conditions Remain Good.” New York Times 20 May 1927: p. 1.

“Film House Reviews.” Variety 6 July 1927: p. 26 and “Film House Reviews.” Variety 13 July 1927: p. 26.

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