Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Hindenburg Disaster (1937)

Before nightly broadcast news coverage, let alone round-the-clock cable television news coverage, film news events were delivered edited in the can to movie theaters after the event was over. The Hindenburg disaster, which occurred 70 years ago on May 6, 1937, was one such event.

Five companies sent cameramen to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the German airship “Hindenburg” was to land 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 US and to South America from Germany, and this particular landing in New Jersey was considered to be routine. Fox, Hearst, Pathe, Paramount, and Universal were on hand, but nobody was prepared for what happened.

There had been warnings to the German Ambassador that a bomb was planted on the airship and would go off after it passed New York City, but there remain several theories in the controversy of the “Hindenburg’s” crash.

What we remember most is the frantic reporting from radio announcer Herbert Morrison. His graphic descriptions of the fireball were so graphic because he was a radio man. His account of the incident was not played until the next day, on radio. It was not originally part of any film footage. That came later, when Morrison’s audio was tacked onto the film footage, and became what we know as the Hindenburg film.

Here are a few links to the various stock footage of the disaster. One can see the difference Morrison’s audio adds to the film.

This is the Paramount (British) footage:

This is the Pathe version with Herbert Morrison’s audio tacked onto it:

Another version with Morrison’s audio:

Here is Morrison’s audio version alone:

Comparing the versions of Mr. Morrison’s live account with those that have the narration dubbed in, we instantly see a difference between live news and canned news, and how much less exciting it is to be told 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 film, but if you have Morrison’s audio along with it, it seems as if you are there.

Impressive is the sight of the airship flying over the skyline of New York City, an over 800-foot long football with a swastika on its tailfin, gliding slowly over the skyscrapers like something out of Buck Rogers, or so it must have seemed, very futuristic to folks on the ground looking up. Thirty-six people died when it crashed a little while later. One of the most affecting comments Mr. Morrison made in his audio description of the event was that 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!”

His reporting and this disaster have been parodied a lot, but one cannot help but still be affected by the footage, both audio and video.

That’s it for this week. See you Monday.


Anna said...

Great post and great links, that footage is chilling and you're right, no matter how often that clip is referred to and parodied, it still really gets to you!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Anna. It's remarkable how much that clip is parodied, and always comically. Thanks for stopping by.

Nathania - Classic Movie Lounge said...

That was powerful coverage by Herbert Morrison. You can hear the tragedy in his voice. What an unfortunate moment in history.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome Nathania. Love your site. Yes, Morrison must have lived with that vision in his nightmares for a long time.

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