Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A History of Music Videos Part One


In the English speaking world, music videos have been a part of people's lives for the past thirty years. Many became aware of them in the Seventies, when music videos received exposure on various television venues. Others may have only become aware of them after the launch of MTV (short for Music Television). What many people may not realise is that the history of music videos goes much further back than the Seventies. In fact, depending upon how one defines the term, "music videos" could go back to the very advent of talkies.

Of course, if one defines the term music video literally, then it would be anything shot on videotape to a song or piece of music. The problem with this definition is that many of what people today consider music videos are shot on film, not videotape. Anyone viewing the films made to promote The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" or Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" would identify them as "music videos," yet all three were shot on film. A music video should then perhaps best be defined as any film or video set to a song or a piece of music. If so defined, the history of music videos began decades before MTV had even been conceived.

Lights! Camera! Action! The Beginning of Music Video

While many, perhaps most people, realise that music videos did not begin with MTV, most probably do not realise that the history of music videos goes back to filmmakers' earliest experiments with sound film. In fact, if anyone should be given the credit for inventing music video, it should perhaps be legendary inventor Lee De Forest. It was in 1919 that De Forest filed his first patent for sound on film technology, the De Forest Phonofilm process. Unable to interest the movie studios in his invention, De Forest made his own short films using Phonofilm. He debuted these films on April 15, 1923 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. De Forest filmed various vaudeville acts, some of who were musical performers. In doing so, Lee De Forest inadvertently created the first music videos.

While De Forest failed to interest the movie studios, he did interest two legendary animators. Max and Dave Fleischer utilised the Phonofilm process for their series of Song Car-Tunes. The Song Car-Tunes were a series of short, three minute animated films featuring popular songs at the time. The Song Car-Tunes were historic in being the first animated films to use sound, many years before either Paul Terry's "Dinner Time" or Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie." They also introduced another innovation beyond sound, utilising the "Follow the Bouncing Ball" device to encourage the audience to sing along. Essentially, the lyrics would appear at the bottom of the screen, with a bouncing ball bouncing across the words to help audiences know when a certain syllable is to be sung. It would later be used in other musical shorts, as well as on television shows. If Lee De Forest invented music videos, then arguably the Fleischer brothers were the first to produce them commercially.

While the Fleischer brothers pioneered animated shorts using sound on film technology, European animator Oskar Fischinger was also a bit of a pioneer. From 1926 to 1927 Fischinger made short, animated films set to music, through synchronising animated films to phonograph records. While certainly a precursor of the music video, it is then difficult to determine whether his films can indeed be considered true music videos. If films synchronised to phonograph records can be included under the heading of "music video," then could films synchronised to bands orchestras, and singers also be included?

Despite the fact that Lee De Forest never interested the studios in his Phonofilm process, his invention would lead to the advent of talkies in a round about fashion. De Forest worked with Theodore Case and Freeman Harrison Owens in perfecting Phonofilm. Unfortunately, the legendary inventor would fall out with both men. Theodore Case then took his patents directly to William Fox, head of Fox Film Corporation (the forerunner of 20th Century Fox). The end result was the Fox Movietone process, the first sound on film process utilised by a major studio. F. W. Murnau's 1927 movie Sunrise was the first film to use the process, although only for sound effects and musical accompaniment (not dialogue).

Concurrent with the development of sound on film, yet others were working on a process whereby a movie's soundtrack was recorded onto discs. An early version of this process, developed by Orlando Kellum, was used to add sound to a sequence in D. W. Griffith's 1921 movie Dream Street in which Griffith introduced the mvoie. Among the leaders in the development of sound on disc was Western Electric, who started research into both sound on film and sound on disc in the early Twenties. They based the sound film business out of Western Electric's Bell Laboratories in Brooklyn, New York. By 1925 a then small movie studio, the Warner Brothers Studio, bought Western Electric's sound on disc business and began their own experiments out of Vitagraph Studios in New York. Warner Brothers' sound on disc process, called Vitaphone, was first utilised on the 1926 feature Don Juan for music and sound effects only--there was no dialogue. Don Juan bombed at the box office.

Despite the failure of Don Juan, Hollywood knew that the move to sound was inevitable. In February 1927, five studios (First National, MGM, Paramount, Producers Distributing Corporation, and Universal) decided to settle upon one provider for the conversion to sound. They settled on a Western Electric subsidiary organised in late 1926, Electrical Research Products Inc (ERPI). In the meantime, Fox and Warner Brothers continued to move forward with Movietone and Vitaphone respectively. Fox primarily concentrated on newsreels (the famous Fox Movietone News), while Warner Brothers developed feature films. In fact, Warner Brothers' next feature film would be the first to include synchronised dialogue. Based on a Broadway play and released in October 1927, The Jazz Singer proved to be a sensation. It also convinced Hollywood to make the move towards sound, although they would be slow in doing so.

One thing to result from the success of The Jazz Singer was that First National, MGM, Paramount, Universal, and United Artists (Producers Distributing Corporation having dropped out) finally signed the agreement with ERPI for sound conversion. ERPI then set about equipping all theatres with Vitaphone systems and the majority of them with the Movietone system as well. For several months after the release of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers would be the only studio to release talkies. This changed when Film Booking Offices of America (FBO, which would become RKO only a few months later) released The Perfect Crime in 1928, using RCA's Photophone system. Over time the other studios would follow, with Columbia Pictures being the last major studio to release its first talkie, Lone Wolf's Daughter, in February 1929.

By 1930 the Vitaphone sound on disc system would be a thing of the past, as both Warner Brothers and First National changed over to a more advantageous sound on film system. The term Vitaphone would survive only as the name of Warner Brother's short subjects division, the Vitaphone Corporation. Regardless, the system had provided Hollywood with its first feature talkie and in doing so sparked the move to sound. It also provided for further developments in music video.

You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet!

The advent of sound made short musical films a possibility, and Hollywood would capitalise on the fact. Even as the Fleischer Brothers were making their Song Car-Tunes using De Forest's Phonofilm process and before the release of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers would release Vitaphone shorts featuring both singers and bands. From 1930 to 1931 Warner Brothers made a series of shorts entitled Spooney Melodies, intended to showcase popular songs of the time. The Spooney Melodies were a failure, and only five were ever made.

Other studios would also make musical short subjects. At MGM, then later Vitaphone and Paramount, bandleader Phil Spitalny made a whole series of musical shorts from 1929 to 1939. MGM would also make musical shorts featuring cameos by their biggest stars, including Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, as well as shorts which featured a single band. Paramount utilised both its movie stars and its music stars in its shorts, with such names as Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Helen Kane, Artie Shaw, and so on.

One remarkable short that was not made by Vitaphone was also the only film appearance of singer Bessie Smith. In 1929 Bessie Smith, accompanied by the Hall Johnson Choir, members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section, appeared in a filmed performance of "St. Louis Blues." It proved successful, showing in theatres until 1932. It also proved that there was an audience for musical film.

In 1929 the Fleischer Brothers would follow up their successful Song Car-Tunes series with Screen Songs. Actually no different in format than the old Song Car-Tunes (even including the famous bouncing ball), Screen Songs proved so successful that the series lasted from 1929 to 1938, and was later revived by Famous Studios in 1945. The Fleischers were not the only animators who blended animation and music. In 1929 Walt Disney began his Silly Symphonies series, whose sole purpose was to combine music and animation. The Silly Symphonies proved so successful that they lasted until 1939 for a total of 75 shorts. Leon Schlesinger, whose cartoons were distributed by Warner Brothers, would follow suit with his own Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Looney Tunes was the older of the two series, conceived in 1930 as a means of showcasing music in Warner Brothers' music library. Looney Tunes was successful enough that Leon Schlesinger pitched another series to Warner Brothers, Merrie Melodies, which would feature music from Warner Brothers movie soundtracks. Of course, eventually the original concept for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies would be cast aside, to become the classic Warner Brothers cartoons we know and love today.

While various musical shorts were being made in the late Twenties and early Thirties, Hollywood also started making musical feature films. In fact, The Jazz Singer was not only the first movie with synchronised dialogue, but songs as well, making it the first movie musical. It was in 1929 that Broadway Melody became a smash hit, paving the way for all musicals to come. The first all talking musical, On with the Show was not long in following. This started a deluge of movie musicals which would last until late 1930. Unfortunately, Hollywood oversaturated the market with musicals to the point that musicals soon became passée. All of this would change in 1933 with the classics 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Both benefited from the choreography of the legendary Busby Berkley and featured songs that would become standards. The success of these musicals insured that the genre would fill movie screens for nearly forty years to come.

As feature films complete with dialogue, movie musicals cannot be considered music videos, although they would certainly have an impact on the medium. With bigger budgets than live action musical shorts, feature films could include much more sophisticated musical numbers and imagery. Viewed today, such sequences as "By A Waterfall" from Footlight Parade (1933) and the "Alter Ego" sequence from Cover Girl (1944) could easily pass as music videos. To a large degree the music video directors from the Sixties onwards owe a good deal to choreographers such as Busby Berkeley and Gene Kelly, as well as directors as Vincente Minnelli, Mark Sandrich, and, once again, Gene Kelly.

While the animated cartoons and some of the musical numbers in the feature length musicals of the time were predicated upon specific concepts or storylines, it must be pointed out that very few of the musical shorts made in the late Twenties and the Thirties would be recognised as conceptual music videos as we known them today. More often than not they were simply films of performances of songs or pieces of music. It would not be until the Forties that short, conceptual musical films would be made in any sort of quantity, and then it would take a very special jukebox to provide the impetus for such...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for this. Am about to work on a group project in a Masters degree program in DCU Dublin, Ireland. Our first project (which our group of 3 chose ourselves) was on the music video. This article has been invaluable. Will be sure in our project to source your site and reference it. Thanks again.