A vintage ad for Time magazine flashes back to an earlier fraught new year
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” Bill Shakespeare famously wrote in “As You Like It.” And it seems as though, 330 years later, Henry Luce took that line close to heart.
As 1938 began, Luce’s Time magazine ran this dramatic print ad in sister publication Life, depicting a stage play of an army on the move under the screaming headline “Spotlight on 1938!”
“Before the year is out, great actors will have played portentous parts on the world’s great stage—framing new laws for you to live by, plotting new ways to send you to your destruction, making new discoveries to save you from disease …” Wait, what was that about plotting our destruction? Hey, happy New Year!
The tone here is jarring when viewed from the end 2019, though it is in line with the “March of Time” newsreels that Luce had been running for millions of moviegoers at the time. The theatrical breathlessness (“the stirring drama of 1938 has begun—so vast, so diverse …”) feels glibly out of sync with a world that was undergoing terrifying turmoil: The year that was ending had seen the ongoing horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the Hindenburg disaster and the Japanese invasion of China.
And indeed, in 1938, “before the year is out” the world would see Adolf Hilter’s targeting of Jews reach new depths of darkness with Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, even as he continued his aggression in Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. (Hitler would be named Time’s Man of the Year in January 1939, not without controversy.)
Also in 1938, a recession drove U.S. unemployment up to 19 percent. Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio play scared the bejesus out of an unsuspecting nation and Joe Lewis knocked Germany’s Max Schmeling out in one round.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20—and so perhaps it is appropriate that 2020 dawns upon us with no shortage of our own breathless turmoil.
The news-as-entertainment on display here feels eerily prescient: “Time, the Weekly Newsmagazine, makes your armchair a front row seat and spotlights for you each important scene in every field from Politics to Art.”
Back before the internet and television, Time arguably did that better than most of its competitors. Today, for better or worse, we have (literally) countless outlets where we can watch “the tremendous, marching pageant of another year!” And that crazy old spotlight never dims.