Friday, 10 July 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Three

Le Scopitone


After the heyday immediately following Hollywood's adoption of sound, the number of musical shorts declined from the Thirties into Forties. While musical shorts made for the big screen were less common in the Forties than they had been in the Thirties, there would be well over a thousand musical shorts made for the Panoram visual jukebox, the famous Soundies. Unfortunately, by the late Forties the Soundies would be history, while the advent of network broadcast television in the United States would send movie short subjects of any kind into a sharp decline. This did not mean the end of musical shorts, however, as television soon took up the slack. Thousands of Snader Telescriptions were made from 1950 to 1954. Later in the decade Tony Bennett would invent the music promo film when he made one for his song "Stranger in Paradise." In 1961 Ozzie Nelson filmed what may have been the first rock video, "Travelin' Man," performed by his son Ricky Nelson.

While television would be the driving force in the creation of music videos from the Sixties onwards, the Sixties would also see another source for short musical films. It was in the early Sixties that the visual jukebox returned with a vengeance. Although it was less successful in the United States than the Panoram, the Scopitone would become the most famous visual jukebox of all time.

While the Scopitone may have been the best known visual jukebox of the Sixties, it was hardly the only one. In Europe, at least, in the late Fifties the visual jukebox was an idea whose time had come. It was in July 1956 that the original patent for the Scopitone was filed by the Compagnie d'Applications Mecaniques a L'Electronique au Cinema et a l'Atomistique (CAMECA) in France. It was on October 12, 1959 that Raffaello Nistri filed a patent for the Cinebox, a visual jukebox invented by Societá Internazionale Fonovisione in Rome. While the French Scopitone may have been the first to have been patented, it would be the Italian Cinebox that would be the first to be introduced to the public. The first Cinebox was introduced to the press in Paris on February 25, 1960. The first Scopitone was introduced to the press a little over a month later, on March 28, 1960.

In Europe the Cinebox proved to be something of a success. With success in Europe, Cinebox would make its way to the United States. It was in 1963 that David Rosen, a distributor for jukebox and coin operated machine manufacturer Rowe-AMI, tested the Cinebox in the United States by placing one jukebox in a café and the other in a luncheonette. Even though the Cineboxes featured only films from Italian and British artists, they passed the test with flying colours--the one in the luncheonette alone made $183. David Rosen became the distributor for Cineboxes in the United States. Naturally, this meant that there would have to be Cinebox reels featuring American artists. Of course, David Rosen also figured out another way to make money from the Cinebox. When not in use, advertisements would be flashed on a Cinebox's screen.

The Cinebox films would ultimately include some well known artists and even a few rock acts. Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, The Fortunes, Françoise Hardy, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Hollies, and Peggy Lee all made Cinebox films. While very few of the Cinebox films possessed storylines of any sort, they could be sophisticated. The Hollies performed "Little Lover" on a set designed to look like a garden party. Jackie Lee and the Raindrops performed "The Loco-Motion" in a film with a railroad theme, complete with dancing men in bowlers and with brollies (they looked a lot like John Steed from The Avengers). The film to Paul Anka's "Remeber Diana" even had a bit of a storyline, with Anka pursuing a young woman--it could almost pass for a music video from the Eighties.

Unfortunately, the Cinebox would not be a success in the United States. The company went bankrupt in 1965 and was reorganised as Intersphere Development Corporation. The Cinebox jukebox itself was renamed Colorama. Unfortunately, the Colorama would prove no more successful than the Cinebox. With little money to spend on talent after the bankruptcy, Intersphere simply filmed such subjects as the Go-Go Girls at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Chicago. The Colorama did not last long. As to the reason for the failure of the Cinebox, it seems most likely that it was a case of simple competition. Although its videos were more sophisticated and it more regularly utilised rock acts, the Cinebox could not compete with Le Scopitone.

Even in Europe the Scopitone was more successful than the Cinebox. The visual jukebox was an outright phenomenon in its homeland of France. The Scopitone spread to West Germany, where it also proved to be a huge success. Although the French Scopitone films varied in quality, some of them could be quite sophisticated, even by today's standards. The Scopitone for Jean Ferrat's "Ma Mome" consisted of a young woman watching the various customers in a cafe, shot in the style of La Nouvelle Vague. The Scopitone for "noir ces noir ( a cover of Los Bravos' "Black is Black")" by Johnny Halliday (the French answer to Elvis Presley) is shot entirely in a room with a black and white chequerboard pattern--the floor, walls, and ceiling all look like a giant chessboard. It could easily pass for a modern rock video. Another very sophisticated French Scopitone is also probably the best known French Scopitone in the United States. "Tous les garçons et les filles" by the legendary Françoise Hardy was shot around an amusement park.

Given the sophistication of many of the French Scopitones, it is clear that they wee not directed by mere hacks. Indeed, movie director Claude LeLouch began his career directing Scopitones, making him the first man in history to go from directing music videos to directing feature films. In this respect he is the spiritual ancestor of directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, who both got their start in music videos.

Although wildly successful in France and much of the rest of Europe, the Scopitone would receive its first taste of failure in 1963. In June 1963 Ditchburn Equipment Ltd., the British distributor of Wurtlitzer jukeboxes, placed Scopitone jukeboxes in various parts of the United Kingdom through an agreement with Radiovision Ltd., the officially designated Scopitone distributor. Unfortunately, Radiovision Ltd. would meet with resistance from the British Phonographic Industry, the British record makers. Without cooperation from record makers in the United Kingdom, the Scopitone would ultimately fail in the United Kingdom. As a result, very few Scopitone films were made in the United Kingdom. That having been said, the United Kingdom would make one of the best known Scopitone films, one of the very few made in English to feature rock performers. In 1963, just as the Scopitone was being introduced in the United Kingdom, a Scopitone was made of The Exciters' hit "Tell Him." The film is fairly sophisticated for the time, featuring The Exciters filmed in Paris.

While the Scopitone failed in the United Kingdom due to the British record industry, it would be a number of other factors which would doom the Scopitone in the United States. The Scopitone came to the United States by way of entrepreneur and attorney Alvin Malnik. In October 1963 he acquired the rights to Scopitone in North America with the intent of bringing the visual jukebox to the United States. In April 1964 Malnik sold 80% of Scopitone, Inc. to Tel-A-Sign, a company which manufactured neon signs for everything from filling stations to bowling alleys. Malnik remained as president of Scopitone, Inc. Sadly, neither CAMECA, who owned and originated the Scopitone, nor Tel-A-Sign realised that Alvin Malnik had ties with the Mob, primarily in the form of Meyer Lansky, best known as "the Mob's Accountant." Selling the rights to Scopitone in the United States to Malnik was then the first misstep in bringing the Scopitone to North America.

Regardless, 1964 in Miami and Miami Beach Tel-A-Sign conducted a successful test run of the Scopitone. Harman-ee Productions, owned by Debbie Reynolds, became the first company in the United States responsible for producing Scopitone films. Reynolds herself would star in the first American Scopitone, a rather strange cover "If I had a Hammer." At that point the future for Scopitone in the United States looked bright. In the summer of 1964 Time magazine reported that there were already 500 Scopitone jukeboxes in place throughout the United States. By the summer of 1965 800 Scopitone machines were in use. At its peak, there were around 10,000 Scopitone machines in use in the United States. Unfortunately, while Scopitone could have survived given Malnik's ties with the Mob, other mistakes would be made that would also cause its downfall in the United States.

The biggest mistake may well have been in the choice of talent to star in Scopitone films. From the beginning it was decided to entirely ignore the youth market. Very few rock acts would ever appear in American Scopitones. Instead Harman-ee Productions and the other Scopitone film production companies chose to feature artists who appealed to an older crowd, such as Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, Bobby Rydell, Neil Sedaka, Kay Starr, and Bobby Vee, among others. Strangely enough, the Scopitone films would produce their own stars. Blonde bombshell Joi Lansing is perhaps best known for her bit parts in many movies, her role as Shirley Swanson on The Bob Cummings Show, and her recurring role as Gladys Flatt on The Beverly Hillbillies, but in Scopitones films she was a star. At least Joi Lansing had a career outside of Scopitones. January Jones (not to be confused with the actress from Mad Men) appears to have been a star only in Scopitones--she seems to have had no career elsewhere! With regards to rock acts, only a very few made it into American Scopitone films: The Condors, The Hondells, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Procol Harum. Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" would be the best American Scopitone ever made. Shot around London, with scenes from a field and various places in the city, it was a well done film, without the usual camp and lasciviousness typical in American Scopitones.

Indeed, another misstep in the path to success for the Scopitone in the United States were the Scopitone films themselves. In her essay "Notes on Camp," first published in the Partisan Review in 1964, Susan Sontag counted the young medium of Scopitone films as camp. Sontag was fully justified in this. While the French Scopitones could be very sophisticated, the American Scopitones were pure camp, kitsch at its very worst. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joi Lansing's "Web of Love." In this Scopitone at one point Lansing is sitting in a boiling kettle and at another point literally caught in a gigantic web, all the while scantily clad. The American Scopitone films could also be extremely risqué even by today's standards. One such Scopitone even crossed the line as far as its featured artists were concerned. The Back Porch Majority was a folk group established by New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks, with the same clean cut image as The New Christy Minstrels. Despite this, their Scopitone film to the song "The Mighty Mississippi" featured a story line in which a riverboat gambler has his shirt taken (literally) by three beautiful women. Among its highlights were a striptease in silhouette and several shots of women's bottoms (clothed, but still scandalous given the era). Upon seeing the film, The Back Porch Majority promptly sued Scopitone, Inc. for $1 million on the allegation that the company had damaged their image with the film. Contrary to popular belief, the lawsuit did not cause the downfall of the Scopitone, but it certainly did not help.

Strangely enough, despite the lewdness and sheer sexism of many of the American Scopitone films, there was never any public outcry over the Scopitone. This was perhaps just as well, for Scopitone, Inc. had other problems worrying them. Having wholly ignored the youth market and the rock acts that were seeing extreme success in the mid-Sixties, Scopitone found itself losing money by 1966. In October 1966 Scopitone cut prices on its machines and films, supposedly to remain competitive. In fact, unless one counts standard jukeboxes, Scopitone had no real competition by 1966--Cinebox was on its last legs. The truth is that in ignoring rock music and in producing films that were not very well made and often risqé for the era, Scopitone, Inc. had cut its own throat.

The waning popularity in the Scopitone was only one factor in its downfall. Another was simply mismanagement. Much of this may well have been due to Alvin Malnk. Among the stockholders of Scopitone, Inc. was Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo (a friend of Meyer Lansky and a convicted felon) and similar characters. In 1966 Alvin Malnik was secretly indicted by the United States attorney in New York for using the mail to defraud Scopitone investors. Eventually Scopitone, Inc. and even Tel-A-Sign would be under investigation not only from the United States attorney in New York, but the Securities and Exchange Commission as well. The legal ramifications resulting from the mismanagement and shady business dealings of Scopitone, Inc. would last well into the Eighties. Ultimately, it was not simply Scopitone's declining popularity that spelled the end for the visual jukebox, but questionable business dealings as well.

By 1969 the Scopitone was history in the United States. The visual jukebox would live on in its native home of France, lasting into the modern era of rock video. It was in 1978, only three years before MTV launched, that the last Scopitone was made. It is difficult to say why the Scopitone went out of fashion in France, although it could well be the introduction of colour television and the development of the rock promo clip, which became a dominant force in music in the Seventies. Regardless, this would make the Scopitone the most successful visual jukebox in the entire world.

While the Cinebox and Scopitone were both European in origin, The Sixties would see the first visual jukebox of American origin since the Panoram. In 1966 Henry A. Schwartz filed a patent for the Color-Sonic, a new visual jukebox. Color-Sonics were manufactured by Color-Sonics Inc., also known as the National Company Inc. With regards to the technology involved, the Color-Sonics jukebox was an improvement over both the Cinebox and the Scopitone. The machines used continuous loop cartridges, which were both more durable and more easily replaced than the film reels used by Cinebox and Scopitone. The Color-Sonics films were also shot on 35 mm, as opposed to the 16 mm film used for Scopitone and Cinebox.

Color-Sonics Inc. had big plans for their visual jukebox, with plans to have 5000 machines in place by 1968. The films themselves were made at Paramount Studios by Official Films, which was headed by Robert Blees, a former producer of TV shows such as Bus Stop and Combat. In need of someone to direct the Color-Sonics films, Blees contacted his friend Robert Altman. In the mid-Sixties feature film and television director Altman was at the low point of his career and in much need of cash. Altman agreed to direct three of the films, although in the end he directed four: "Girl Talk" by Bobby Troup, a short called "The Party" set to the song "Whipped Cream" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and two shorts featuring Lili St. Cyr. As might be expected, Altman's Color-Sonics films are a good deal more sophisticated than the Scopitone and Cinebox films of the time. "Girl Talk" has Troup walking through the Paraphernalia boutique in Beverly Hills. "The Party" was set at a party, through which actor Robert Fortier makes his way Buster Keaton style. Color-Sonics produced at least one other fairly sophisticated short, the famous film of "These Boots Were Made for Walking" by Nancy Sinatra.

Despite a few sophisticated films and technology superior to either the Scopitone or the Cinebox, the Color-Sonics jukebox failed. Quite simply, it had arrived late on the scene in a market already dominated by the Scopitone. The first American visual jukebox since the Panoram was gone by 1969.

Visual jukeboxes were hardly the only source for music video in the Sixties. While American Scopitone producers were wasting their time on high camp and sex, four young men from Liverpool were launching not only a revolution in music, but in video as well. With the arrival of the rock promo clip in the Sixties, the modern age of rock video was about to begin.

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