(San Francisco Chronicle, Mar 19, 1992)
Today we take music videos on MTV and VH1 for granted. But did you know these musical cinematic gems have roots dating back to the start of World War II? And that they developed out of a "visual jukebox" called a Scopitone which was fashionable in the early 1960's?
Invented in France right after World War Ⅱ, Scopitone were short 16mm films named after the modified jukeboxes they used to be player on. The first Scopitones were made in France in 1960. The ancestors of music videos, they hit their golden age in the early ‘60s, neatly concinciding with the explosion of teen-driven pop music in both France and the United States, the two main purveyors of the genre.
Judging by this selection of almost 30 short films, there were two basic schools of Scopitones: the one where the singers were surrounded by bikini-clad, buxom vixens frantically twisting on location, and the one where you dropped the same indefatigable dancers into ostentatiously fake-looking sets. They run the gamut, from the Exciters singing “Tell Him” to the Kessler Sisters, blond twins who were regulars on European variety shows and whose Scopitone is a grandiose exercise in Teutonic kitsch.
How it works
In 1939, a device called a "Panoram" was invented by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. The Panoram played eight three-minute musical shorts in a wooden jukebox fitted with a 17 x 22.5 inch translucent screen. The image was projected in a rear-screen manner via 16mm black and white film. These shorts became known as "soundies" and starred many of the most well-known jazz acts of the day. When World War II erupted, production halted and by war's end, the craze that had captured the public's attention so much in 1939 and 1940 was totally over.
After the war ended in Europe, two French technicians saw all the tons of war surplus and military spare parts lying around and decided to use some of it to recreate the soundie experience and, hopefully, improve upon it. Using a 16mm camera that had been used by the French Air Force for reconnaissance flights, they converted it into a 16mm projector.
Mastering the problems of providing enough light and devising reliable mechanisms for threading and rewinding the films cost them lots of time and it wasn't until the late '50s that the invention was ready for the public. The resultant machine was the size of a refrigerator and was dubbed "Scopitone." Much improved from the 1939 version, the Scopitone played color films and, like a conventional jukebox, the customer was able to choose which video to watch, instead of whatever was conveniently loaded on the machine.
The demystification of audio-visual hegemony
Towards an audio-visual hegemony: Remediation and the “obvious”
The recording industry is quite interested in the laser scan system, because of the durability factor and greater possible quality and range of audio information. We can look forward to a unification of TV, hi-fi, and video-disc components in a single system. The audio quality of TV would finally be raised to stereophonic high-fidelity, improving the level and range of broadcast material. If the same unit could play back music and video, and also display printed pages, it is hard to see how there would be many homes without the system.
There is already talking about the adding of a vision track to future record releases. The first form these visuals take will no doubt resemble concert film footage and what we have seen on the Scopitone Super-8 cartridge juke boxes. If you decide to buy a record of Sonny and Cher’s songs, you will jolly well see the pair doing their things, much as on the TV show. It is a cross between a jukebox and TV. For $.25 a throw, Scopitone projects any one of 36 musical movies on a 26 inch screen, flooding the premises with delicious color and hi-fi scooby-ooby-doo for three whole minutes. It makes a sobering combination."
But more exciting and profound possibilities are opened up by this additional audio-visual flood gate. Media-technological differentiations opened up the possibility for media links. After the storage capacities for optics, acoustics, and writing had been separated, mechanized, and extensively utilized, their distinct data flows could also be reunited. Sound film combined the storage of acoustics and optics; shortly thereafter, television combined their transmission. (Kittler, 170)
The innovative rock groups will no doubt take the lead with dazzling optical trips. The widened opportunity for creative filmmakers for work will find a legion of compatible collaborations, just as many independent films have long used existing music tracks.
The art of abstract vision will be furthered by the work of light-show artists, videographic experimenters, and computer graphics. A more limited, but no less interesting probability, is the availability of optical-effects generator components to be added to your color TV. With random sequencing, chroma-keving and phasing, etc., it would translate audio signals into visual patterns much as a cybernetic color organ. The more you and I can shape and form our own developing imagery on the screen, the more valuable the new technology will be. At the least, it can remain but mindless electric wallpaper. (Reveaux, 1973;49)
Where do media go die
By 1969, Scopitone had closed its doors for good. What had seemed like a sure thing only five years before, faded away in a sea of accusations and murky accounting practices. So what was the appeal of the Scopitone videos? In 1964, with the big introduction to the clubs and restaurants, new American films needed to come faster than ever. The previous dependence on French videos and storytelling simply could not last to maintain interest here.
Harmon-ee Productions, a subsidiary of a company owned by Debbie Reynolds, became the main supplier of American films. Debbie herself starred in the first American Scopitone video, singing "If I Had a Hammer," the Trini Lopez hit. Later, she covered Gale Garnett's "We'll Sing in the Sunshine."
In keeping with the strategy of keeping teenagers out of the mix, the artists viewed on the Scopitone tended toward the lounge acts of the day- Vic Damone, Julie London- only occasionally a Bobby Vee or Petula Clark might surface. But in spite of the seemingly static nature of these artists, the resulting videos were visually stunning, if not mystifying with their direction.
If anything set the Scopitone films apart from anything else, it was their use of eye-popping colors, wild scenery and wilder enthusiastic girls dancing the Twist, usually in bikinis, in the backgrounds as the singers performed in the craziest of places- on trains, in the woods, in cars, on carnival rides.
In many cases, what was filmed didn't seem to make sense in the context of the song- for example, Dion singing "Ruby Baby" while seated in the cockpit of an obviously stationary airplane on a runway or Dionne Warwick singing "Walk on By" while lying seductively on a white bear rug.
Some of these films have been described as risque, even by our standards today, not surprising, considering their French lineage and their appeal to cocktail lounges and clubs where "sophisticated" gentlemen could be found. In an age when Playboy magazine was redefining the American male, is it any wonder then that certain Scopitones would gravitate towards a more permissive point of view?
Jack Stevenson, who wrote a definitive article on Scopitones, stated, "...people were reduced to decoration. They were lip-synchers, gyrating dolls and puppets and mannequins." It was a hypnotic effect and for those three minutes, it was riveting.
The Scopitone may have gone the way of the dinosaur but many remain safely in collectors' hands. And you can still find one out there, though you may have to travel a bit to find it. The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee has what they've termed "the last public Scopitone in America" in its lobby.
It has embraced the Scopitone so much that it recently held a Scopitone-themed membership drive, complete with "fashion contests, nonstop Scopitones and '60s-themed food and drink." Just the thing if you're in a groovy mood.
- Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.