#540) Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937)

#540) Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937)

Filmed by Pathé News, Hearst News of the Day, Paramount, and Fox Movietone

Class of 1997

As always with my posts based on historical events, this write-up is about the footage of the Hindenburg crash, not necessarily the event itself. Do not let this oversimplified summary be your one stop for Hindenburg knowledge.

There’s plenty of YouTube videos of the Hindenburg disaster, but this video synchs them all in an approximation of real time.

During our fascination with aviation throughout the 1930s, rigid airships were considered to be the next big thing in commercial air travel. The most well-known of these airships were made by the German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, and the most famous Zeppelin was the LZ 129 Hindenburg. Launched in March 1936, the ship was in operation for 14 months and 17 roundtrips across the Atlantic. On May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg had been delayed from Germany due to weather conditions, and was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey (about 75 miles south of New York City). As the ship was starting to make its landing approach, it suddenly caught on fire. Within a matter of moments, the Hindenburg went from being one of the largest airships in the world, to a smoking pile of rubble on the ground. Of the 97 people on board, 35 were killed in the crash, and another died on the ground. Following similar crashes in years past, the Hindenburg disaster was the final nail in the coffin for Zeppelins as a commercial transport.

Airship landings were still a unique occurrence in 1937, and thanks to some heavy promoting from the Zeppelin Company, many news sources were at Lakehurst to cover the event. The footage of the crash as preserved by the National Film Registry was recorded by William Deeke of Pathé News, Al Gold, Larry Kennedy and Deon de Titta of Fox Movietone, James J. Seeley of Hearst’s News of the Day, and Tommy Craven of Paramount. Many of these newsreels can be easily viewed online synced with the audio recording of Herbert Morrison’s eye-witness report for WLS Chicago, culminating in his oft-repeated cry of “Oh, the humanity!”

Like the “Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse“, the Hindenburg footage is a reminder of some of the tragic missteps taken in our technological advancements. The footage is NFR worthy not only for its multiple perspectives of an historic moment, but also for its continued echos throughout history.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives some historical context and calls the disaster “[o]ne of the 20th Century’s most vivid historic images”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Rigid airships, that’s the big one. Turns out the lifting gas of choice for these ships was the incredibly flammable hydrogen. Yep, there’s your problem right there.

Other notes 

  • I recently realized that I’ve never actually researched the Hindenburg or its crash until now. Perhaps the most intriguing element to me: no one knows for sure how the ship burst into flames, and there’s no existing footage that documents the very beginning of the disaster. Among the speculated theories are a sudden bolt of lightning (it had started to rain just before the crash), or some static electricity tampering with the ship’s weather-proofing. A little further down the iceberg we find claims of sabotage by anti-Nazi organizations, or possibly self-sabotage at the command of Hitler himself. Speaking of…
  • You know what little detail this film pointed out to me that everyone glosses over? THERE WERE SWASTIKAS ON THE TAIL OF THE HINDENBURG! Of course this was a tragic event, but how sad can you be that a Nazi ship went down?
  • My main takeaway from the actual newsreel footage is just how much sensationalism is thrown into this. Each of these reports took an already sad occasion and cranked it up using dramatic music, with the sounds of screaming people dubbed in later (all of these films were recorded silently). It reminded me of the “Simpsons” line about the news covering “a crisis so serious it has its own name and theme music“.

Legacy 

  • It was shortly after the Hindenburg disaster that airships switched from using hydrogen to helium, and stopped being used for commercial travel. Today, only a handful of non-rigid airships (such as blimps) still exist and operate, including the Goodyear Blimps.
  • The Hindenburg crash footage pops up in all kinds of historical documentaries, often paired with Herbert Morrison’s “Oh, the humanity!” The name Hindenburg has become synonymous with total disaster, and “Oh, the humanity” has been referenced and parodied quite a lot over the years, presumably by people not entirely aware of the tragic event they’re making light of.
  • This real-life disaster of the ’30s met the disaster movie genre of the ’70s in 1975’s “The Hindenburg”. With a cast led by George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft, the movie leaned more on the sabotage theories of the flight’s demise. Although dismissed by critics, historians, and moviegoers alike, “The Hindenburg” won two Oscars in 1976 for its Special Effects and Sound Editing.

Listen to This: Among the first 50 recordings added to the National Recording Registry in 2002 was Herbert Morrison’s reportage of the Hindenburg crash, cited by the NRR as “[a]n emotional, never-to-be forgotten moment of news broadcasting”. There’s also a very detailed historical essay by…Cary O’Dell again. Doesn’t anyone else at the NRR want to write an essay? O’Dell can’t carry all of you!

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