Milestone: The Past Speaks in a Silent Film

Printed in 1936 or online in 2011, some things remain unchanged

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.

Scene from the "Back Page" silent film

A scene from the "Back Page" silent film, made by the advertising staff of the Ann Arbor News in 1936 and screened this week at the Michigan Theater, with an original score written and performed by Steven Ball on the theater's organ. The men are standing in front of the Huron Street entrance to the News building – that entrance is no longer functional, and the News was closed in 2009. (Image links to Ann Arbor District Library website where the film is posted.)

For about a dozen years, I was employed by the local newspaper, The Ann Arbor News, a publication that no longer exists. As one of the editors, I had influence but not control over what was published.

Now, as publisher of The Chronicle, it’s liberating to have the discretion to choose exactly what appears in our pages. But that freedom is somewhat checked by an over-arching decision to focus on coverage of local government and civic affairs.

It’s not a cherry-picking approach to journalism, which selects topics that might draw the most controversy. Instead, it relies on a methodical, relentless depiction of what happens at public meetings, where decisions are made about how taxpayer dollars are spent, or about public policy that affects our daily lives, even if we’re not aware of it.

Much of The Chronicle’s time is allocated based on our commitment to this model. If there’s a meeting of the city council or planning commission or county board or library board …  or the humane society construction bond oversight committee … you’ll likely find us there.

On occasion, we do find time for more playful fare. A recent example of that was a Sonic Lunch photo essay, with fake captions, that we published earlier this week.

I was able to take in another event this week that also reflected the playful side of local media – from 1936.

On Tuesday, the silent film “Back Page” was screened at the Michigan Theater, with an original score written and performed by the organist Steven Ball. (Ball wore a tuxedo, as this was the score’s world premiere.) Running about 21 minutes, the film was produced by staff at The Ann Arbor News in 1936, the same year that its Alfred Kahn-designed building at Huron and Division was finished. It was the same year the paper started using its “new” printing press. (Located on the first floor, the presses were still in use when I joined The News 60 years later, in 1996. They shook even the third-floor newsroom when they thundered into motion.)

The film had been re-discovered in 2009, when Ann Arbor District Library staff started sorting through The News archives. The library had taken possession of the archives that year, after owners of the newspaper decided to close the business. Among the bound newspaper copies and clipping files and other miscellanea that had accumulated over the newspaper’s 174-year history was a 16-mm film canister. Without knowing what cinematic treasure it held, library staff took the film to the University of Michigan’s media union, where it was converted to a digital format and later posted on AADL’s website.

Introducing the film on Tuesday at the Michigan Theater was Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development. He likened it to a home movie for The News staff, and that’s certainly the tone. A farce that gives a wink to the 1931 classic “The Front Page,” “Back Page” tells the tale of a “typical” day for the paper’s display advertising department – a day that involves beating up a storeowner who won’t buy an ad, and ends with employees drinking themselves into a stupor.

It’s funny – for its slapstick humor, sly wit, and weird debauchery (in one scene, an ad rep absentmindedly fondles the breast of a bikini-clad mannequin).

And as Neiburger pointed out in his introduction, the film is also an inadvertent historical record of what newspapers were like at their peak – an underlying sense of confidence comes through, a sense that they knew their place in the world, even as they were mocking it. You won’t find that attitude in many newsrooms today.

I watched the film with my former colleague, Marianne Rzepka, and we whispered to each other when we recognized parts of the building where we’d spent so many years ourselves. Some of it was bittersweet – those presses are now dismantled, and the building has been purchased by the University of Michigan Credit Union. The Arbor Research Collaborative for Health is leasing the third floor, where the newsroom used to be. (I was able to attend an open house that Arbor Research held recently. They’ve done a spectacular job in renovating that space – it looks like a great place to work – but it’s still hard to believe the transformation.)

In the film, there were obvious cultural transformations between then and now. People are smoking cigarettes in nearly all the scenes. The men wear fedoras and trenchcoats. The few women in the movie are secretaries – except for the cross-dresser, a burly guy dolled up and flirting with a manager. No computers, no TVs, no cell phones – that’s right, kids!

But even 70+ years haven’t altered some things. The film begins with this text: “The advertising department, ruled by that great American business maxim ‘Beat last year’s record’ (no matter what comparative conditions might be) finds itself in a dilemma.” It’s the last day of the month, advertising revenues are lower compared to the previous year – and the newspaper managers are thrashing their staff to do something about it.

For most media organizations, the ad staff faces the same pressures today. Some of the businesses and institutions that advertise with The Chronicle have related anecdotes about the tactics that other publications use to drum up ad sales. Frankly, it’s something I struggle with. Of the two Chronicle co-owners, I’m the one primarily responsible for generating the revenue to support our work, and the role of salesperson is not one I particularly relish. In fact, I’d be much more comfortable making a movie that pokes fun at the process, and of my own efforts to learn the culture of sales.

That’s why I’m so grateful for the advertisers who see value in our work and who aren’t looking for the same kinds of “returns” – measured by raw page views, click-through rates or Groupon-like deals – that many online publications are pushing. Of course advertisers expect – as they should – a benefit from their support. In part, it’s the benefit of knowing that the content published on The Chronicle’s website is a valuable asset to the community, which we couldn’t sustain without advertising support. That’s why we encourage our readers to acknowledge our advertisers whenever they can, by visiting their stores or trying their services. Like The Chronicle, our advertisers are rooted in the community, and dollars that support their businesses aren’t going to an out-of-town owner.

But the other part of the revenue equation – one we view as crucial to our ability to sustain this venture – is the support of our readers, through voluntary subscriptions. Most newspapers get only a small percentage of revenues from their readers. The real value of subscription numbers for printed publications is that those numbers can be parlayed into advertising dollars. We’re fortunate to have many generous subscribers, but individual support accounts for only about 15% of our overall revenue. We hope you’ll consider adding to that number, if you haven’t already. Here’s a link to our subscription page.

I’d like to think that 70 years from now, Chronicle content will be valuable to those future readers too, as a window into what Ann Arbor was like in the early 21st century. Perhaps our chronicled observations will prove as quaint, funny and provocative as some scenes from “Back Page.” But I’m confident our more serious reports will provide a definitive record of our local government from this era – at a level of detail that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Our words and images on this website are silent. But they also have the power to speak volumes – to our current readers, and those to come. Thanks to everyone – advertisers and readers alike – who are making it possible so far.

Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. July 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm | permalink

    I’ve renewed my subscription.

    This is such a valuable resource. I even read the articles on sports!

  2. By LaidOffTeacherPatti
    July 3, 2011 at 11:18 am | permalink

    I loved those movies!! I never thought about how a bell was cast and so I learned a lot from the first movie. The A2 News movie was just awesome and so funny! While I love your online newspaper very much, I did miss my paper A2 News as I watching the movie.

    Btw, I had no idea that the Detroit Free Press cost $1.00 each…I had to buy some to cover up the boards in my classroom and I was really surprised.

  3. By Mary Morgan
    July 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm | permalink

    Thanks for pointing that out – what this column doesn’t mention is that “Back Page” was part of a double feature. The other film – “The Casting of the Baird Carillon” – was also made in 1936. The Baird Carillon at UM’s Burton Tower has been restored, and Tuesday’s screening of the silent film about its creation was one of several events to mark the restoration and the carillon’s 75th anniversary. Steven Ball narrated the film while another organist provided background music – Ball’s description and deep knowledge of the process added a terrific layer of understanding to what we were viewing. One of the most interesting things for me was to see how there were virtually no safety precautions used by the craftsmen while working with molten metal. The foundry that cast the bells – John Taylor & Co. Bellfoundry in Loughborough, England – is still in business, and did the restoration work.

  4. July 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm | permalink

    I thought, here’s a coincidence: An Ann Arbor News salesperson making a video. As you know, after 25 years of helping people market their business with newspaper ads, I switched to the new media world like you did. I wish you the best and will make a point to acknowledge the Chronicle to your advertisers. Thanks for publishing this article. I had missed it, and am glad I came across it in a search. I’m going to check with the library to see if I can view it there.