BOOTLEG FILES 310: “The Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel” (1937 footage of the fiery zeppelin crash).
LAST SEEN: Available on numerous online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in countless anthologies and documentaries on the history of the 1930s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It appears to be in the public domain, though the footage often includes a famous (and copyright protected) radio broadcast that was not part of the original film.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, the humanity!
It is, arguably, the most famous half-minute of disaster footage every caught on camera: On May 6, 1937, the German zeppelin Hindenburg, while landing at an airfield in Lakehurst, N.J., caught fire and crashed to the ground. As disasters go, it was quite a sight – the Hindenburg stretched 820 feet long, the size of three football fields, and at the time it was largest single vehicle to be destroyed.
The newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster has been replayed endlessly since the airship crashed and burned. But, not surprisingly, the circumstances behind the creation of the footage and its contents (both visually and on its soundtrack) have become the stuff of legend. And while legend can be fun, the facts are often more interesting.
The airship was the creation of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, a German company that found itself following Nazi government orders to create the uber-dirigible that would show off the Third Reich’s technological superiority. The Germans saw the zeppelin as a new vehicle that would dominate the still-nascent global travel industry.
In the mid-1930s, trans-Atlantic travel was limited to sea voyages. Despite the presence of luxury liners on the ocean, passage was often slow and unpleasant due to rough waters. The Germans, however, decided that a smooth-running airship could not only ensure a more serene form of transportation, but would also establish connections between continents at a much faster speed.
For 1936, the Hindenburg made 10 trips between the U.S. and Germany and seven between Brazil and Germany. It also joined the other prominent airship in the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin family, the Graf Zeppelin, in an appearance above the skies during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
For early 1937, the Hindenburg was taken out of commission for repairs and upgrades that would enable the accommodation of additional passengers. Thus, German-U.S. travel was delayed until May 3, when the airship left Frankfurt for the landing at the Lakehurst, N.J., airfield that served as the U.S. base for the German zeppelin.
After a year of repeated crossings, the arrival of the Hindenburg was no longer considered newsworthy. If anything, the Hindenburg had been a regular sight over New York City for most of 1936. (There had been some talk of using the needle of the Empire State Building as a mooring tower for dirigibles like the Hindenburg, but nothing ever came of that.)
Nonetheless, the U.S. representatives of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin put a call out to the New York-area media that the Hindenburg would be arriving for its first 1937 landing in the U.S. on May 6, 1937. Apparently, it was a very slow news day, since 17 still photographers and cameramen from five different newsreel companies – Fox, Hearst, Pathe, Paramount, and Universal – showed up. Also at the scene was, perhaps incongruously, a radio reporter: Herbert Morrison of the Chicago station WLS. The logic in having a radio reporter describing a zeppelin landing may have seemed lame, but Morrison’s presence turned out to be an astonishing bit of good luck.
The Hindenburg’s arrival coincided with inclement weather off the Atlantic coast, and the airship was forced to hover along the New Jersey shoreline. Many of the photographers and cameramen were impatient for its arrival, but they decided to wait for the Hindenburg to arrive. By 7:00pm that evening, the Hindenburg finally showed up.
What happened next has been the source of endless speculation and theories. Somehow, a fire broke out on the rear of the craft. It is estimated that the flames first took shape around 7:25pm. Incredibly, none of the five newsreel cameramen assigned to the scene were filming the zeppelin when the flames started. For that matter, none of the 17 photographers were taking pictures. Thus, there is no film evidence of the start of the catastrophe – this has further complicated the mystery of what happened.
Actually, four of the five newsreel cameramen were fixed on the ground crew that were readying for the Hindenburg’s landing. Only Bill Deekes, the Pathe newsreel camera, was focused on the airship. But Deekes was experiencing a malfunction with his camera’s electric motor and he was getting his back-up hand crank ready while positioning the zeppelin into focus. However, the fire had already begun before Deekes started working the hand crank on his camera.
Thus, the newsreel footage begins very abruptly with the Hindenburg already burning – almost giving the impression of an immediate explosion. The other cameramen joined Deekes in capturing a disaster already in progress. All of the newsreel cameramen worked with silent equipment, so sound effects later added to the footage began with the sound of an explosion – another error, as eyewitnesses would later state that the inferno was not created by an explosive burst.
However, Herb Morrison was apparently also unaware of the spreading fire. Thus, his radio broadcast is marked with his famous exclamation “It burst into flames!” Obviously shaken by the horror unfolding before him, the normally unflappable Morrison became extremely emotional in describing the fire and wreckage. “This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world,” he cried. “Oh, it’s crashing…oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here!”
However, Morrison was actually not talking to anyone specific when he made these observations – his broadcast was not a live hook-up, but was being recorded for later playback. But Morrison produced his report at a slightly slower-than-normal recording speed. In playback, his descriptive portrayal of the crash had a higher pitched squeak than his normal deep-toned voice – which gave his cry of “Oh, the humanity” a somewhat more exaggerated sound and flowery resonance.
But when film audiences saw the newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster, Morrison’s broadcast was not on the soundtrack of the film. Many contemporary prints of the incident have included the Morrison broadcast (probably without permission of WLS), since the Morrison description became a radio sensation. But there’s another legend: it wasn’t a live broadcast, and it was only heard on WLS radio the day after the disaster occurred.
Remarkably, only 36 of the 97 people on board the zeppelin perished in the wreck. None of the newsreel footage showed the rescue of the majority of the passengers and crew.
Over the years, the Hindenburg disaster newsreel footage has turned up in endless anthologies of 1930s newsreels – usually with the Morrison broadcast attached. The actual crash-and-burn took roughly half-a-minute – Morrison’s original recording lasted longer, while the fires at the zeppelin’s wreckage burned for hours after the crash. However, a variety of cut-and-paste jobs from several of the different newsreel reports have been circulating for years – and there is even colorized footage for those with a dislike for grimy black-and-white newsreels.
Incredibly, the footage has been on the National Film Registry since
1937 1997 (see comments below), even though its incomplete presentation of the news has been responsible for many of the errors regarding the circumstances of the Hindenburg. Oh, the humanity!
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