by Philip Bump, The Washington Post
You can trace the name Fox in the news industry back through various corporate iterations until you get to the Fox News Service, part of Fox Film, which merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935 to form 20th Century Fox. Fox News Service was in the newsreel business, as Fox News today is in the televised news business. And in 1927, it had a problem.
“The Fox News Service,” Donald Crafton wrote in his book “The Talkies,” “was far behind the leader, Pathé. [Company Vice President Winfield] Sheehan saw immediately that adding sound” — itself a new technology — “would give his company’s product a singular advantage, since the only other studio with sound capabilities, Warners, had no newsreel.” He dispatched camera and sound crews around the world to film newsworthy events. “Fox News officials,” Crafton wrote, “saw that a transformation in the newsreel was about to take place.” The company created a new tagline: “Fox Movietone News: It speaks for itself.”
Fox News wasn’t the only group to recognize the value of the combination of sight and sound. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist prime minister of Italy, at one point reportedly said that were he to broadcasting his speeches “in twenty cities in Italy once a week” he would “need no other power.” When he was approached about filming a statement for the newsreel, he agreed.
Fox promoted the upcoming statement in advertisements in the New York Times in September 1927, with the debut of the speech coming to New York City’s Times Square theater later that month.
It’s important to note the broader context for the moment. In the year 1900, according to data from Pew Research, the five nations from which the most foreign-born American residents had originated were Germany, Ireland, Canada, Sweden and the U.K. By 1910, Italy had snuck onto that list, with 1.3 million Italy-born people living in the U.S. By 1920, the figure jumped to 1.6 million. And by 1930, Italy was the no. 1 nation of origin for foreign-born populations, with 1.8 million Italian-born people living in America. The most common place of origin for non-natives in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York was now Italy. In Brooklyn, 8 percent of the population in 1930 had been born in Italy.
As the number of Italians coming to America increased, so did tensions with those already here. In 1920, The Washington Post editorialized for new constraints on immigration from Southern Europe, saying that “the alien scum from the cesspools and sewers of the Old World has polluted the clear spring of American democracy.”
This was the era during which the prime minister of Italy appeared in one of the first sight-and-sound newsreels in history, screening just before the F. W. Marnau film, “Sunrise.”
Mussolini’s accent was heavy, and it’s hard to pick out everything he said. But the thrust was that he was offering praise for the United States and for the Italian immigrants that were helping to build it. He praised the citizens of Italy who were working to make America great:
“I am very glad to be able to express my friendly feelings toward the American nation. Friendship with which Italy looks at millions of citizens who, from Alaska to Florida, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, live in the United States, Italy is deeply rooted in our hearts. This feeling created by mutual interests so contributed to preparation of an even brighter era in the lives of both nations.
“I greet with wonderful energy the American people and I see and recognize among you the salt of your land, as well as ours, my fellow citizens who are working to make America great.
“I salute the great American people. I salute the Italians of America who unite in a single love of two nations.”
The reviewer from the Times who attended, Mordaunt Hall, raved over the program.
“It was distinctly impressive to look upon the physigonomy of Henry P. Fletcher, the United States Ambassador to Italy, and hear him present, while standing on Italian soil, Benito Mussolini,” Hall wrote. “It was also wonderful to hear and see the Duce come from a building and reply to the introduction.”
Eighteen years later, Benito Mussolini was dead, killed by Italian partisans near the end of World War II, his body dumped in the middle of a public square in Milan where Italians mutilated the corpse. He’d set aside his friendly feelings toward the American nation, abandoned the prospect of a brighter era, to join with Adolf Hitler in trying to re-shape world history.
And, as you know, he failed.