Thursday, 9 July 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Two


The Soundie and the Fury


Once the novelty of sound had worn off, musical short subjects declined as the Thirties wore on. This is not to say that musical shorts did not continue to be made. While the Fleischer Brothers' Screen Songs series would come to an end in 1938, it would be revived by Famous Studios and last until 1950. Before making her feature film debut, Betty Hutton appeared in a series of musical shorts made by Paramount. Various jazz artists also appeared in musical shorts, most notably Louis Jordan (a rock 'n' roller before there was rock 'n' roll).

One huge step in the evolution of music video was the release of Walt Disney's feature film Fantasia in 1940. Fantasia was an incredible achievement--an animated feature set to classical music. It contained no dialogue, with the only words spoken being host Deems Taylor's introductions to the various segments of the film. Although now considered a landmark in animation, Fantasia opened to mix reviews and bombed at the box office.

Fantasia, with storylines set to classical music, was very much a conceptual piece. This contrasts with most of the musical shorts made in the Thirties and Forties, which were simply performance clips. It was rare that a musical short of the era featured a storyline or centred on a certain concept in the way that today's conceptual music videos do. Strangely enough, the first real progress towards conceptual music videos in some time would not be made on the big screen, but in a more surprising venue: the jukebox. In the late Thirties the visual jukebox--a jukebox with a screen that would play short musical films--was an idea whose time had come. In 1938 Dr. Gordon Keith Woodward, a Los Angeles dentist, invented the Cinematone, what may have been the first coin operated movie jukebox. With his partner W. P. Falkenburg of Ray-O-Lite, one of the top companies in coin operated arcade machines, Woodward leased studios in Hollywood with the intent of making musical shorts for the Cinematone. Ultimately Woodward and Falkenburg decided to focus their attention on their Pennyphono jukebox, which played LP records instead of singles, and ceded the Cinematone to a man named Earl Burnham. Sadly, the Cinematone never saw any real success.

Sam Sax, who had been the head of Warner Brothers in the United Kingdom and later the head of Vitaphone, developed another visual jukebox, the Phonovision. The Phonovision Corporation of America planned to initially use Vitaphone shorts, while it made preparations to shoot its own musical shorts in a studio in Brooklyn. In 1940 Phonovision claimed to have received forty thousand orders for their machines. The Phonovision proved no more successful than the Cinematone. Another, even less successful attempt at a visual jukebox was the Nickel Talkies.

In nearly every case these visual jukeboxes failed simply because they did not have huge libraries of musical shorts to display. As a result there was a great deal of repetition in their playlists. Before a visual jukebox could be successful, it would require someone capable of producing a large number of musical shorts very swiftly. Fortunately, there was such a man. James "Jimmy" Roosevelt was the son of the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was also a successful businessman in his own right, doing quite well in the insurance industry. It was Jimmy Roosevelt's dream, however, to enter motion picture production. His wish was granted in 1939 when he became a vice president working for Samuel Goldwyn. By the end of 1939 he had created Globe Productions, planning not only to produce movies, but to purchase movie theatres and operate radio stations. While Roosevelt did produce a few films such as Pot o' Gold and Easy Street, his dreams of a multimedia empire would not come to fruition.

Roosevelt would leave his mark in pop culture history, courtesy of the Mills Novelty Company. Based in Chicago, the Mills Novelty Company had been around since 1905 and was one the most successful manufacturers of jukeboxes, slot machines, and vending machines. In 1939 they developed their own visual jukebox, the Panoram. The Panoram possessed the sophisticated art deco design for which the Mills Brothers Novelty Company was known. It played a a continuous loop 16 mm reel, which was projected onto its screen. Each loop consisted of eight films averaging about three minutes. Unfortunately, because the loop was continuous, customers had no means of selecting a specific song or artist, as with traditional phonograph jukeboxes.

Of course, the Panoram required someone to actually make the musical shorts that it would play. Through Globe Productions Jimmy Roosevelt produced seven demonstration shorts. The Mills Novelty Company then founded the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America and installed Jimmy Roosevelt as its president ("Soundies" being the term they gave the musical shorts to be played on the Panoram). It was on September 16, 1940 that the Panoram made its debut.

Roosevelt did not stay with the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America for long. After giving the Panoram and Soundies a good deal of promotion, he stepped down as its president due to military obligations (at the time he was a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves). He was replaced by the corporation's vice president, Gordon Mills. The first official Soundies were released on Jnauary 23, 1941. Initially Soundies proved to be a big hit. Mills Novelty Company and the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America made millions of dollars in 1941. Even in small towns there were reports of the Panoram jukeboxes doing very brisk business. At the peak of Panoram production, the Mills Novelty Company was producing 75 units a day.

As mentioned before, the Panoram was not the only visual jukebox in existence in the early Forties. There were several others besides Cinematone, Phonovision, and Nickel Talkies. Talk-A-Vision was founded in the autumn of 1940 and headed by John E. Otterson, former head of Paramount Pictures. The Vis-o-Graph Corporation of America was established in 1941 and headed by the singer Rudy Valee and William Kemble. There was also Phonofilms Inc. None of these companies lasted very long.

While the Panoram would prove to be the most successful visual jukebox in American history, it would have more than its share of problems. Both the movie industry and the traditional jukebox industry viewed the Soundies as a threat. Worse yet was the threat of government intervention. In late 1941 Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana threatened to bring about a Senate investigation of the Soundies, which he considered "...lewd and lascivious and would not be permitted on any decent stage or motion picture screen in the country." Fortunately, a Senate investigation never occurred, perhaps because the Soundies were never "lewd and lascivious," not even by the standards of the Forties. A far worse problem for the Soundies was a particularly long American Federation of Musicians strike that lasted from 1943 to 1944. Without musicians, the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America was forced to use pre-existing tracks or to have singers perform a capella. The musicians' strike would seriously hurt the popularity of Soundies, but ultimately it would be World War II restrictions that would spell their doom. In 1943 there were as many as 10,000 Panoram jukeboxes in operation. By 1946 that number had slipped to only 2,000.

Regardless, from 1941 to 1946, over 1000 Soundies were made. One reel of eight shorts was released each week, with more being released during holidays. They covered a wide array of genres, from big band swing to jazz to blues to hillbilly music (what would later be called "Country"). The Soundies also featured a large number of famous and soon to be famous performers: Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Doris Day (who made her film debut in Soundies), Jimmy Dorsey, Spike Jones, Kay Starr, and Fats Waller, among others. Some of the individual musical shorts were even released to movie theatres.

For the most part the Soundies were straight forward performance clips. That is not to say that there were not Soundies which today would be identified as conceptual music videos. In fact, actress, dancer, and singer Dorothy Dandrige figured in at least two Soundies centred around specific concepts or possessing a storyline. In "Cow Cow Boogie" Dorothy Dandrige played a singer in an Old Western saloon filled with African American cowboys (which, I might point out, is historically accurate--a large proportion of cowboys were African American). She also appears in The Mills Brothers' "Paper Doll," playing a doll only a few inches in height through the magic of special effects. As might be expected, Louis Jordan made a few conceptual Soundies as well. Some of Louis Jordan's Soundies were taken from two-reel films released to theatres. One of these, "Buzz Me," started as a straight performance clip, then shifted to girl relaxing on a sofa and waiting by a phone as Jordan continued to sing. While there were never very many conceptual Soundies, they were not entirely unknown.

The last Soundies were made in 1946. Although they had been wildly successful at their peak, war time restrictions had taken their toll. After nearly six years of existence, the Panoram jukebox would be a thing of the past.

Television Killed the Movie Star


The death of the Panoram roughly coincided with the first, regularly scheduled network television broadcasts in the United States. Still very much in its infancy, network television had no real impact on the Soundies, but they would have an enormous impact on the history of music videos. Indeed, it is because of television that they are called music videos, not music films.

Just as the average person probably does not realise how far back the history of music videos extends, most people probably do not realise how far back television's history with music videos go. The first music videos made specifically for television emerged a full three decades before MTV made its debut. In the early Fifties local television stations often had empty spaces on their schedules. This might take place to due to a fifteen minute space between programmes or a few minutes left after a newscast or sporting event. Real estate developer Louis D. Snader came up with a way to fill those empty spaces in television schedules, the Snader Telescriptions.

The Snader Telescriptions were short musical films made specifically for television. They were produced by Louis D. Snader and directed by Duke Goldstone (who started in Soundies and later worked on George Pal's Puppetoons). Like the Soundies before them, the Snader Telescriptions covered a wide array of genres, from pop to jazz to country. They also featured a number of well known performers, including Cab Callaway, Duke Ellington, The Ink Spots, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and others.

The Snader Telescriptions were produced from 1950 to 1954. They were shot live with no lip syncing. Because of this none of the Snader Telescriptions possessed storylines in the way that many more recent videos do. None of them could be described as conceptual music videos. Between 10 or 20 Telescriptions would be made in a single day. In the end they would number in the thousands. They would air on American television for many, many years.

Concurrently with the Snaders Telescriptions was another important part of the history of music videos on television, although it was a show which had debuted on radio in 1935. Your Hit Parade featured the top songs of the day as performed by the show's cast. When Your Hit Parade moved to television in 1950, it found itself faced with a problem. Songs can be popular for weeks at a time. To keep from seeming too repetitive, Your Hit Parade started dramatising songs with skits. These skits sometimes even involved large and elaborate sets. Although the skits from Your Hit Parade would not be recognised as music videos today, they did point to a direction that music videos could and did eventually take. In this respect Your Hit Parade was important in the history of conceptual music videos.

It would be crooner Tony Bennett who would take the next big step in the history of music video. In 1956 his single "Stranger in Paradise" proved to be a hit in the United Kingdom. He was invited there to perform, but he only appeared in Glasgow, Scotland and Liverpool, England. To rectify the fact that he had no appearances scheduled in London, Bennett made a film of himself walking through Hyde Park, set to "Stranger in Paradise." The film was distributed to TV stations in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and played on local stations on shows similar to American Bandstand. Preceded by musical film shorts, Soundies, and Snader Telescriptions, Tony Bennett did not invent the music video, but he did invent the music promotional film or music promo clip, a music video meant primarily to promote a song on television. Music promo films would become increasingly common in the next decade.

Of course, the Fifties was the decade in which rock 'n' roll emerged or, at the least, was recognised as a genre for the first time. There is some question as to who exactly produced the first rock video. The editor of Rockin' 50's magazine claims that J. P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, made a film for "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, which would make it the first rock video. It has also been claimed that The Big Bopper coined the term "music video" in an article in a British music magazine (here I must point out that I have not found any trace of the "Chantilly Lace" video and the music magazine in which Richardson supposedly coined the term "music video" was not identified in any of the numerous articles I read).

If The Big Bopper did not invent the rock video, then it is almost a certainty that it emerged from a much more unlikely source. Actor and band leader Ozzie Nelson developed his own radio sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, in 1944. The show was very much a family affair. While his sons would be played on the radio show by actors until 1949, his real life sons would assume those roles thereafter. In 1952 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet made the move to television. His son Ricky Nelson was very serious about a career in rock 'n' roll, producing his first hit singles in 1957. Naturally, Ozzie sought to promote his son's career through performances of his songs on the television sitcom.

As time passed, however, it became more and more difficult for Ozzie and his writers to work the songs into the plots of the sitcom's episodes. Ozzie then hit upon a novel solution. In 1961 Ozzie filmed Ricky performing his song "Travelin' Man" and combined this with travelogue footage and stock footage from the show. The result is what may have been the first rock video. The "Travelin' Man" film was tacked onto the end of an episode. Thereafter "Travelin' Man" went all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts. In this respect it confirmed the power of rock video to promote a song.

As it turned out, "Travelin' Man" was the only the beginning. The Sixties would see yet more music videos produced to be aired on television, as well as a television series that would include music videos in its episodes on a regular basis. Television would not be alone in its production of music videos, as the decade of the Sixties would see the return of the visual jukebox. The Sixties would not simply be the decade of The Beatles and The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. It would also be the decade of Le Scopitone.

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