From Paper to Newspaper (1919) A Silent Film Review

This 1919 Dutch documentary short focuses on the physical production and distribution of newspapers, from typesetting to printing to the sales and delivery methods. It’s all very technical and very fascinating.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.

Stop the presses!

During the silent era, the educational potential of the motion picture was of great interest and documentary shorts covering geography, art, culture and science were often included in an evening’s entertainment at the movie theater. Various industries quickly realized that movies were an ideal way to help establish their brands and they were quick to cooperate with film crews or were even inclined to commission their own films.

Just a few tons of paper…

From Paper to Newspaper opens with the announcement that it was made with the cooperation of the newspapers of the Hague, Netherlands. This access meant that camera could capture every step of the production process and as a result, the filmmakers produced a valuable time capsule.

The film opens with giant rolls of paper, 7,000 meters or about 23,000 feet, being rolled into the newspaper facility. We are then shown the advertising office, the department of newspaper production that was likely most familiar to viewers of the day.

Buying an ad.

Before the rise of internet ads, the classified section was a cash cow for newspapers. A few dollars for a few lines all added up handsomely. The advertising departments shown in this film are both small and cozy and large and well-staffed. The ads are all business, magnetic therapy and Swedish massage, but one could take out an ad for just about anything back in the day.

The film moves onto the more industrial aspects of production. Typesetting (physically laying out the columns of text) the pages and this was well before the computer age, needless to say. The newspapers in this film use both the old school grab-and-assemble-letters-from-a-box method for small ads and for the larger pages, the linotype machine. Using a keyboard resembling a typewriter, typesetters create lines of written word in cast lead—the slugs are hot to the touch.

Linotype. Line o’ type. Get it?

After the page is laid out, it’s off to the printing facilities for the manufacture of a printing plate. Again, lead is the material of choice. It’s easy to cast and easy to melt back down for reuse. Lead has a very low melting point, a mere 621 degrees Fahrenheit. (Carbon steel melts in the 2000s and wrought iron at nearly 3000.) For comparison, a home oven will go up to 500 degrees. Can you tell that someone in my family is into reproduction black powder rifles?

Meanwhile, last minute ads, stock reports and other details are being added and then the newspaper is ready to go to print. Thousands of copies, literally hot off the press, handed out to news criers and delivery boys. And we get to do it all again tomorrow!

Either a stock report or contact with an alien civilization.

(Incidentally, this film does not feature the “spinning headline” trope, in case you were interested in the origins of these things. However, I am keeping my eyes skinned for other early examples.)

Phew! That’s a lot to fit into just two reels!

Getting the plate ready for press.

Documentaries from this period were as varied as any other genre of filmmaking. There were some that boasted persuasive arguments and more sophisticated storytelling and there were others that were simply content to showcase their main subject. For example, South, released the same year as From Paper to Newspaper, will leave the viewers feeling that Ernest Shackleton was quite something.

While From Paper to Newspaper hardly has life or death at stake, it does nicely showcase just how much physical capital was invested in the daily production of the evening paper. The editors and reporters were supported by hundreds of laborers, from the typesetters to the printers. Movies tend to focus almost exclusively on journalists and newsies with a few shots of printing presses and other aspects of production for a bit of color. (You can see such scenes in films like The Power of the Press and Picture Snatcher, just to name two.) It’s fun to get a closer look at this aspect of the news business.

Hubba hubba

The documentary itself is all business, showing the different departments one-by-one. Many of the employees frankly stare at the camera but there are also some slightly staged moments, such as an advertising employee making like a Tex Avery wolf after accepting an ad from a comely masseuse.

The last scene of the film is completely staged and shows a husband and wife waiting for their evening newspaper and musing that it must not take that much work to produce a bit of paper. (Big wink to the camera).

Can it really be that hard to make a newspaper?

All in all, From Paper to Newspaper does exactly what it sets out to do: show audiences the inner workings of a day in the life of the Hague newspaper business. I had no idea that I needed to see the inner workings of the Hague newspaper business but I am very glad that I did. In the days of Photoshop and InDesign, seeing the physical nature of the news is a valuable reminder.

From Paper to Newspaper was the work of prolific, pioneering Dutch filmmaker Willy Mullens. Mullens would capture subjects both close to home and far abroad and tended to favor the short newsreel format, though he did venture into longer filmmaking with Holland Neutral (1917). This wartime picture sports a whopping two hour and forty-five minute runtime. And he didn’t stick exclusively to documentaries and newsreels. The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach from 1905, is one of his earliest films and one of the earliest surviving Dutch fiction films. You’re welcome.

Moar machines!

What From Paper to Newspaper lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for with access and footage to match. This would be an invaluable resource for anyone researching the period for either fiction or nonfiction, anyone interested in the history of the documentary and anyone who just likes to watch big machines in action. (Guilty on all counts here.) I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Where can I see it?

Available for free viewing courtesy of EYE. There are not yet English subtitles but the whole thing is pretty easy to follow, so I recommend watching it even if you don’t speak Dutch.

☙❦❧

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2 Comments

  1. Ross

    I wish that I’d been able to spend more time downstairs with the typesetters and compositors when I was a copyholder (proofreader’s assistant).

    But I remember the area well. Large containers of molten lead, even if well fenced off, were not to be ignored.

    Linotype machine keyboards were not QWERTY, but a layout of their own.

    James Joyce in his ‘Ulysses’ has a reference to the procedure whereby a linotype operator would indicate to the proofreader and compositor to ignore the previous line by setting a nonsense one from the keyboard.

    The union delegate of the site was called ‘The Father of the Chapel’

    ‘In the printing trade, a Chapel was the traditional name given to a meeting of compositors. The name originates in the early history of printing in Great Britain, when printing offices were controlled by churches’

    Much more interesting than dull old Microsoft Word etc..

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