A newsreel cameraman’s life is plenty
thrilling—and this is why.
from the Movie Action Magazine December 1935
ABOUT ten years ago. it seemed to Webber Hall, 19-year-old sandy-haired tornado that he was, that there weren’t enough exciting things happening in Memphis. Life was tough enough when it was exciting, but when it was boring — gosh!
So he hopped on a train and came to New York.
The big city, in 1926, was even deader than Memphis, and Webber was almost on his way back when he happened to pass a camera store. There in the window was a moving-picture camera with a price tag saying “$2,250.00” hanging from its expensive lens. Young Hall strode boldly into the store and demanded to know more about the exhibit in the window.
A bewildered camera salesman, a short time later, saw his not overly-prosperous looking customer walk out of the store with the $2,250 camera. Webber had argued until he got it for a down payment of fifteen dollars, the balance to be paid “in convenient installments”!
His next stop was at the main office of one of the principal newsreel companies. “Gentlemen,” he told them, “I have here one of the, most expensive cameras made. I have just bought it for myself. I want to use it. and I want you to pay me for using it. In short, gentlemen, I want you to give me a job making your news-reels. How about it?”
And that’s the way one of the world’s ace newsreel cameramen crashed his first assignment!
Today, Webber Hall is Southern Assignment Editor and Chief Cameraman for Fox Movietone News, working out of his old home town of Memphis and covering everything in the way of exciting pictorial news in the southern part of the country. If you don’t think that a man with titles like his can be kept busy, suppose you review his activities for a week a short time ago.
AT two in the morning. Labor Day, September 2, 1935, “Web” was rudely awakened by the jangling of a telephone bell. Answering, he heard a faint voice shouting:
“Hello, Webber, this is Dan Daugherty in New York. Put on your pants and get down to Miami in a hurry! There’s a ship on the rocks—the Dixie—and a hell of a hurricane blowing! Get everything you can, and stand by for further orders!”
Half an hour later, Web had located a sleepy aviator who didn’t seem to care particularly when he was to be killed — then, or later. For a certain sum, the airman agreed to fly the cameraman as close to Miami as their luck and his old crate would take them. They piled in and took off into the murky blackness.
Hall admits that he doesn’t know what happened for a while after their take-off. “I tried to catch some of the sleep I was missing,” he drawled, “but it was just about the same as trying to doze off on a roller coaster! It was too dark to tell where we were at any time, and only the pilot knew how much altitude we had. That’s providing, of course, that his altimeter was working. Now that I look back on it, I’m not too sure about it.”
Along about the time that he figured the dawn should be breaking, Webber was becoming used to his jouncing. It was then that a giant, unseen hand reached from the heavens and slapped the plane sideways, almost tearing off its antiquated wings! He felt—rather than heard—the pilot shouting at him, trying to get his attention. The aviator was pointing toward the ground, asking his permission to land.
“I was just about to be hard-boiled about it,” Hall admitted. “I know how tough it is to pilot an old crate through a mild storm, let alone the beginnings of a hurricane, but, gosh, I didn’t have to do the work. I was all set to tell him to ride it out when another hunk of wind almost tore our propeller off! I changed my mind in a hurry!”
On the ground once more, Hall didn’t wait for daylight. He scouted around until he found a house, roused the owner from a comfortable bed, and offered him twenty dollars cash in advance to get him to the nearest big town in a hurry.
The town happened to be Tampa. Webber took out time enough to report by phone to New York, drink a cup of black coffee, and buy a ticket on the first train to Miami. Then, figuring that he could beat the train time if he drove, he sold his ticket back to the railroad company, hired a taxi for a 250-mile dash,
and set out on the last leg of his trip to Miami.
THEY told him at the airport in Miami that no plane would be allowed to take off until the storm let up. He couldn’t rent a boat to take him out to the stricken liner for any amount. Stumped for the moment, his fast-paced mind started thinking ahead to the future.
He was one man, alone, sent to cover a vast assignment. He had to cover a shipwreck from every conceivable angle. Aboard the Dixie, some one—maybe several people—would have made amateur movies of stirring scenes. He would have to buy them. The survivors—if there were to be any—would be taken aboard several different rescue ships. He would have to interview and photograph some from each group. He would need aerial shots and shots from rescue ships, featuring the Dixie, the storm, and the lifeboats as they crossed the treacherous waters.
He alone was responsible for the accomplishment of all these things, and he realized, now that he had time to reason them out, that it would be an impossible task for one man. He set about to collect a crew.
He picked up two free-lance cameramen with whom he had worked on big assignments before and who happened to be in Miami at the time. He supplied them with liberal expense money and told them what he expected of them.
Then there was a girl Web knew. She was recruited to buy up all film shot by passengers showing the storm, the wreck, and all other subjects pertaining to the catastrophe. Buy regardless of price, but get it all! And, most important, get it before any of the rival newsreel companies beat her to it!
This done, Webber Hall resigned himself to making life miserable for one and all the Miami airport. They still talk about “that pest, that newsreel guy!” As the precious hours slid by, he made his demands for a plane more and more insistent until, at last and—so we are told — in self-defense, they agreed to let one plane up.
It was a closed cabin job, and in order to get a “set-up” for his camera, Web was forced to lash the door to the cabin open. He placed his camera so that the lens pointed through the generous opening, and then tied his safety belt to one of the interior fixtures. With nothing but a worn piece of rope to keep him from hurtling through the open doorway of the plane, Webber Hall took off to photograph one of the most dangerous assignments in his career!
He swears that, in circling the stranded liner, they flew so close to the boiling seas that spray whipped in through the open doorway. Skimming over the mountainous waves, they shot an adequate amount of film and even dropped words of encouragement in hastily scribbled notes onto the deck of the Dixie, itself!
That task completed, the pilot turned to Webber for further orders. Should he turn back to Miami?
Most decidedly he should not, was Webber’s emphatic reply. He disengaged himself from his belt, moved his camera to comparative safety, and then ordered the pilot to fly on south, directly into the storm that was still raging!
Before taking off, Webber had heard rumors of death and destruction among the Florida keys. If there was any more story to be photographed, he was going to shoot it at once!
SOMEWHERE just north of the Keys, by the kindness of the special Providence that watches over newsreel cameramen, they were able to make a landing despite the terrific gale. Once more dismissing
his plane with instructions to get the shots of the Dixie to New York City as fast as they could be flown, he set out alone to record the gruesomeness and horror of the new disaster.
For days, drifting from place to place with relief trains, striking out on foot, commandeering automobiles whenever it was possible, Webber Hall covered every mile of the trail of wreckage, making hundreds of shots. Frequently, completing a shot of a demolished building, he would abandon his camera to help the rescuers release imprisoned bodies. More than once, he bent over dying men and tried as best he could to ease their mortal pains.
Finally, weary and half sick from the horror he had seen, he knew that his job had been done. He turned back, once more, toward Miami, arriving there early on Sunday afternoon. It took him a while to contact the crew he had left behind him, but in each instance he was assured that the jobs he had assigned had been well done. With relief in his heart, he sent a wire to his New York office. Then he checked into a hotel and dropped, exhausted, on his bed to make up for his sleepless nights.
Exactly forty minutes later, he was awakened by his telephone bell. Wearily he brought the receiver to his ear and heard a faint voice shouting:
“Hello, Webber. Dan Daugherty in New York calling. Put on your pants and get over to Baton Rouge as fast as you can! Huey Long’s just been shot and –“
THAT is what a newsreel cameraman’s life is like. Some one who had just heard of the similar exploits of another camera ace shook his head slowly and murmured, “So that’s what’s become of all the old-fashioned reporters!”
Scattered over the face of the world there are almost five thousand men who are ready, at the drop of a hat, to record imperishably the eruption of a volcano, to interview a mighty figure in world affairs, or to shoot scenes of a cat mothering a brood of chickens. It’s all in the day’s work.
After a newsreel man has proved his worth, he is occasionally allowed to work on his own initiative. This usually develops through his being assigned to some remote spot where he will know of important news breaks before his superiors. There is Captain Ariel Varges, for instance.
Varges calls himself “the luckiest man in the world.” It’will give you an idea as to what a newsreel cameraman calls “luck” to know that Varges’ claim is based on his having happened to be on the scene of five major earthquakes or volcanic eruptions while the holocausts were actually occurring!
When the first rumblings of war in Ethiopia were heard, most newsreel companies were puzzled as to how to cover the situation adequately. Not Varges’ company, however! They well knew, from past experience, that the “Lucky” Varges addressed the Emperor of Abyssinia by his first name, that he knew every foot of ground on which the war would be fought from having traveled and hunted over it so frequently, and that his personal friendship with Benito Mussolini would give him free rein on the other side of the lines as well!
To the ordinary man, this would seem incredible. But to Varges—”Pooh. Luck, that’s all.” His luck in this instance dates back to several of his past achievements. He had been the first newsreel man to thoroughly explore Ethiopia, accompanying the Emperor on hunting expeditions. At the same time, he had made the first complete camera recordings of that country. Haile Selassie had many times expressed his personal appreciation to Varges for doing such extensive publicity work on behalf of his country.
His acquaintance with II Duce grew from the frequency with which their paths crossed. In the early days of Mussolini’s regime, Varges had been in Italy and had followed the Premier from city to city, recording his reforms and gigantic improvements on film for the world to see. Before long, Mussolini became accustomed to having Varges in his retinue and even asked for him on the few occasions when he happened to be busy elsewhere while II Duce was performing some super-human task.
Then, in addition to his personal connections on both sides of the controversy and his familiarity with the disputed ground, Varges also won fame for himself with the way in which he handled the recent war between Japan and China. At the constant risk of his life, Varges skipped from one side to the other, never missing an important troop movement, catching every stirring action.
Frequently, caught between the two lines as a fresh battle broke, Varges would calmly set up his tripod and film the action with shot and shell flying all about him from both sides!
It was only natural that Varges should cover the Ethiopian struggle. No one in his company considered any other possibility for the assignment. They merely waited until they received a cablegram from Addis Ababa signed “Varges.” Then they released large advertisements, featuring the intrepid news photographer arriving in Ethiopia with his usual caravan and trail of native servants and helpers. Topping the ads, in bold letters, they announced, “Okay, boys, you can start the war now! Varges is in Ethiopia!”
That’s how they feel about Varges. It isn’t surprising that they have such confidence in him. Photographing a war is a specialized job, and it calls for experienced men. There haven’t been enough wars to go around since the sudden rise of newsreels to a place of international importance. The few campaigns that have been waged have been covered, so the newsreel companies say, by those who were “lucky enough” to be on the spot at the time, as Varges was. By the time cameramen could be rushed into the zone of action from the outer world, the war was usually over.
ANOTHER man who ranks with Varges in his ability to be on the spot, know the leaders on both sides, and come out of the thickest of the fray without a scratch is Universal’s Dave Oliver. Dave, if you should ask him, would casually admit that he “happened to be” in Havana when the people repaid President Machado’s tyranny with unprecedented violence. He wouldn’t put it just that way. He’d probably refer to the series of revolutions as “that scrap in Cuba” and Iet it go at that. With a little pressure, you might be able to get him to confess that he “shot a couple of scenes.”
The fact is that, several times during the outbursts, Dave Oliver was placed under arrest for making permanent records of the bloodshed—records which those in power knew would be embarrassing later. Once, he was actually sentenced to be shot, and his life was saved only by the direct intervention of President Roosevelt himself!
This happened in the early stages of the revolt, when Dave was the only newsreel cameraman on the island of Cuba. President Machado’s terroristic secret police, the dreaded PORRA, were trying desperately to suppress all radical groups. Things had developed to the point where almost every Cuban was plotting the overthrow of his government. Any group of three or more men, standing together on the streets, became a meeting of revolutionaries!
The PORRA’s solution to this situation was to tour the city in large dark sedans. Whenever a knot of men was spotted, machine guns pointed from the car windows! Death belched from their black mouths! Men dropped, writhing, to the ground! Spectators fled to safety, fearing to help the victims of this reign of terror!
Dave Oliver, knowing of this procedure, made contacts with leaders of the dissatisfied Cubans. When he would hear of a secret meeting, he would speed to the spot and hide in a doorway, his camera ready for action. As the PORRA death car would sweep by, spreading its rain of death, he would leap into the open, photograph the scene, and dodge back to cover.
Machado, hearing that this daring American was not only photographing his assassinations but was actually managing to smuggle his film into America, issued orders for Oliver’s capture “dead or alive, preferably dead”! Dave knew of this, and he took precautions to see that there was always a means of escape for him after one of these slaughters. But once he failed to see a squad of infantry soldiers, so engrossed was he in the carnage he was filming! A rifle butt swung through the air, crashing on Oliver’s head without warning! When he came to, several hours later, he was in a filthy prison cell.
By bribing his guard, he managed to send word of his plight to his New York office and they, in turn, wired President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He promptly communicated with Ambassador Welles in Cuba, instructing him to arrange for the immediate release of the American cameraman.
Now the situation was so acute that it called for the personal attention of the Cuban Secretary of War Ferrara. He visited Dave in his cell, his huge bulk almost completely filling the tiny space. He was very solemn.
“They were going to have you killed,” he said. “You have done Cuba a great disservice. You were sentenced to be shot to-morrow morning.”
Dave repressed an urge to ask about his trial. He realized that Ferrara was in no mood for small talk, and that his being doomed to death without a trial seemed only natural to a Cuban high official.
“I appreciate your kindness in interceding on my behalf,” Oliver replied in his most formal manner. Ferrara bowed slightly. “You will be released when you give us your camera and promise not to take any more pictures.”
Dave Oliver bowed, too. “Naturally,” he said, “I would do almost anything to be free once more. However, the camera is my own personal property. It cost me much money. I would be without a trade if I were without my camera.”
This seemed only logical to the giant Ferrara. “But,” he added significantly, “your promise?” “I promise,”
Dave swore solemnly, “to take no more pictures while I am in Cuba—unless something important happens.”
Dave shrugged his shoulders. “These shootings I have been filming—who can think that they are important?”
He says that he could feel Ferrara’s eyes suddenly bore through him. He wondered for the moment whether he had carried his irony too far. Then, with a wave of relief, he saw the huge Cuban turn to the jailer.
“Release the prisoner,” he ordered. Ten whole minutes passed before Dave saw anything “important” enough to cause him to break his parole. It was another car full of Porristas, vomiting hot lead into the bodies of defenseless Cuban citizens—
“WHAT do I have to do to become a newsreel cameraman?” is a question which the companies who supply the world with visualized news must answer hundreds of times every week.
Their answer is never very enlightening to their questioners, for the simple reason that there is nothing any one can do to win a camera assignment. Newsreel cameramen become newsreel cameramen automatically, it seems. It is very much as Sidney Drew, the great actor, once replied to a young man who asked him how he might get on the stage.
Drew looked at him scornfully. “If I must tell you how to become an actor, you had best turn to banking. Actors do not become actors. Actors are actors!”
So it is with newsreel cameramen. They are cameramen because it is natural that they should be. Each one has his different story of how he crashed the well-nigh inaccessible gates of Newsreeldom. However, a general study of all the leading camera aces shows several factors which are so common that they must have had great bearing on their success.
Most of them have been newspaper men at some time or other, either as reporters or news photographers. This has given them a sense of news values that is vitally important.
To this newspaper background might also be traced their general resourcefulness. Quickness of thought is necessary in so many situations. It might be a question of from what spot the best pictures might be taken, or it might be a problem of how to persuade some disinterested— or even antagonistic—celebrity to pose. Whatever its nature is, there is always a fly in the cameraman’s ointment somewhere on each assignment. They have long since learned that news does not wait to be photographed and so their decisions must be instantaneous and always to their advantage.
Also, most cameramen knew how to operate a camera before they received their first assignments. Many of them were expert amateur or professional photographers to start with, knowing far more than just the necessary points about lighting, time of exposure, focusing and the other essentials of good camera work.
But, above all, regardless of whether he had previously worked on a newspaper, regardless of whether or not he had ever had an opportunity to display great resourcefulness, regardless of his previous knowledge of camera technique, the newsreel photographer must have proved—especially to himself—that he has cool and steady nerves and fears nothing in this world or any other.
It is this fearlessness, the newsreel executives say, that makes them such a tough bunch to handle every once in a while. No matter how loud their bosses yell at them, newsreel cameramen never fail to yell back. And, most usually, a lot louder!
A Universal Picture, with a cast of thousands, narrated by Graham MacNamee.
This is a composite film, running perhaps fifteen minutes, made up of the most thrilling newsreel shots imaginable. Many of the incidents referred to in the preceding story are shown here. There is more violence, more action, more thrill to this
one shot subject than ever before packed into any longer work. You may not find CAMERA THRILLS billed at your local theatres, but keep your eyes open for it.
If’ worth it!
DEATH and DESTRUCTION! MAD VIOLENCE AND RIOT! A SHORT SENSATION YOU’LL NEVER FORGET!