Silver Screen, Golden Years
Long before the era of nightly television broadcast news, let alone round-the-clock cable news coverage, already edited filmed news stories were delivered in the can to movie theaters after the event was over. The Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937, was one such event, but the announcer’s panicked, impassioned reporting made this tragedy seem personal, and everyone in the theater felt they were there. The famous film became a flashpoint of history and American popular culture. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the crash of the Hindenburg and the end to the era of dirigibles.
Five newsreel companies sent cameramen to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the German airship Hindenburg was to land at the Naval Air Station after a two-and-a-half-day Atlantic crossing. The luxury zeppelin was in its second year of service, had made many safe crossings to the U.S. and to South America from Germany, and this particular landing in New Jersey was expected to be routine. Crews from Fox, Hearst, Pathé, Paramount, and Universal studios were on hand to film the news for movie theater audiences, but nobody was prepared for what happened.
Just as the great airship hovered, nearly still, above the airfield, ropes dropping from its nose as the crew prepared to tie down to a mooring mast as it loomed just under 300 feet over the ground, a sudden shocking explosion blew the great elliptical balloon apart. Black smoke streamed from it, and fingers of flame instantly crawled up the metal framework, peeling away the canvas skin. It became one of the most iconic images of the first half of the 20th century.
There remain several theories in the controversy of the cause of the Hindenburg crash, including sabotage, and static electricity, which today is the accepted solution, but that calm and intellectual discussion came in the months, even decades after.
What we remember most from the very moment is the frantic reporting from radio announcer Herbert Morrison. His description of the fireball was so graphic — because he was a radio man, trained not to rely on a visual image to tell the story, but creating an image in the mind of his listeners through his words. However, his report was meant for radio station WLS in Chicago. His account of the incident was not aired until the next day, and was not originally part of any film taken on the scene. That came later, when Morrison’s audio was tacked onto film footage to be shown in theaters, and became what we know as the Hindenburg film.
Comparing the newsreel versions of Mr. Morrison’s “live” audio inserted into the film footage, with other versions that have standard narration voiceover, audiences were impressed with the difference between the sound of “live” news and “canned” news, and how much less exciting it is to be told of an event after it has happened than to hear of it while it is occurring. To be sure, the audience in the theater already knew that the Hindenburg exploded and crashed by the time they saw the processed film, but Morrison’s dramatic and emotional audio gives the impression of being “in the moment.”
The sight of the airship flying only hours before over the skyline of New York City – an over 800-foot-long hydrogen football with a swastika on its tailfin – gliding slowly over the skyscrapers was like something out of Buck Rogers, or so it must have seemed to folks on the ground looking up. Thirty-six people died when it crashed only a little while later. One of the most affecting comments Mr. Morrison made in his audio description of the event was his most personal, most subjective remark in the form of a choking sob, “I’m going to have to step inside a minute…Honestly, this is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed!”
There had been 97 people on board including 36 passengers and 61 crewmen, and among them there were 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen). One worker on the ground was also killed. Morrison sobbed for them, for “oh, the humanity!” that suffered in the terrible moments as the airship crumbled, its twisted framework tumbling to the ground in less than a minute.
His reporting and this disaster have been parodied over the decades, but one cannot help but still be affected by the stunning marriage of audio and video footage. The fireball image is iconic, but it is the announcer’s voice, his heartfelt sorrow and honesty of his emotions, that remains indelible.