If you ask people to name the first pop video, most say Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Others dispute this and cite Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles. Still, others say that these are mere “band singing the hit” films, and direct you to Mike Nesmith’s promotional concept video for 1978’s Rio – on the strength of this Nesmith went on to found MTV, for which he later apologised.
But St Tropez tanned French beat girls and surly French scooter boys could pop a coin into a Scopitone machine in some 1950s coffee bar, and not only hear the latest pop tunes but watch an accompanying 16mm promotional movie on a tiny integrated screen.
Between 1940 and 1946 the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America made a series of three minute 16mm films which were then released as rentals in nightclubs, bars, restaurants, factory lounges, and amusement centres.
Eight separate production companies manufactured the films which featured songs, dance routines, and big band orchestrations. The novelty factor came from the way these so-called Soundies were broadcast, which is where the Chicago-based Mills Novelty Company comes in. Mills built a machine the size of a refrigerator called the Panoram which used a collection of internal mirrors to project the backwards facing Soundies on to a 27-inch glass screen in perfect synchronisation.
The gorgeous Art Deco cabinets played 8 minute long loops of several of these movies, which the public paid a dime to view each time. The outbreak of World War II slowed production of both Panorams and Soundies, and coupled with the advent of television their popularity waned by 1946.
But Cameca on the Boulevard Saint-Denis in Corbevole, France took up the mantle in the late 50s and started producing their own cabinets and short 16mm – the Scopitone was born.
The vast majority of artists featured were French, among them, Johnny Hallyday with his cover of Los Bravos’ Black is Black called Noir c’est noir and Serge Gainsbourg’s Le poinçonneur des Lilas.
But the enduring if somewhat comical appeal of the Scopitones is less who they filmed and more what they filmed.
For starters, the French obsession with bodies both male and female loomed large. In dizzy jump cuts reminiscent of today’s videos, they zoomed in and out on cleavages, ankles, lips, and shaking hips. They also loved a good location and made the absolute most of outside broadcast capabilities with scenes shot on aeroplanes and trains, in various weather conditions like snow and sun, by the poolside, in bedrooms, through keyholes, and more.
Why stop at a dancing singer when you can display a raft of gyrating teens behind them? Girls in bikinis and negligees, boys in short shorts, a plethora of miniskirts and go-go boots. No set was too large to fill with extras.
They used abysmal film stock with a curious red hue which deteriorated over time and went to town with a range of special effects and transitions that would make any YouTube amateur gasp.
The Scopitone’s two biggest rivals were Cinebox/Colorama and Color-Sonics, both based in Italy.
About 600+ Cinebox films exist, although because they were based on the mirror image Soundies’ model, they have an odd time lag between the sound and the vision, which probably led to their also-ran status. Color-Sonics and better film stock and a wider range of global stars in its retinue, including Nancy Sinatra, Julie London, Shane Fenton, Mary Wells, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Connie Francis, and Leslie Uggams. Color-Sonics also produced films for distribution via Scopitone.
But it was the Scopitone that ran the craze.
From a galaxy of French artists through US pop stars like Neil Sedaka, Diane Warwick, The Exciters, Nancy Sinatra, Lesley Gore, and Paul Anka, to British hit-makers like Procul Harem, talent jumped on the bandwagon and smiled and mimed their way through all the weather conditions and strange locations the producers could throw at them.
There was interest from America and the William Morris Agency initially imported 200 machines before setting up an import deal for another 5,200 machines, with investment from a young Francis Ford Coppola. The investment point coincided with the Scopitone wave breaking, and the big US boom was never to be.
All good things come to an end and so it was with the Scopitone. Despite the presence of some US and UK artists, the vast majority of stars were French and thus had a limited global appeal. By the end of the 60s, the technology was all but obsolete, coupled with changing tastes, and save for a handful of collectors and enthusiasts, the Scopitones, both machines and movies, languished in obscurity.
The first glimmer of a wider interest came in 1990 when independent film archivist, historian, and filmmaker Dennis Nyback screened a retrospective of Scoptiones at the Jewel Box Theatre in Seattle.
By the turn of the millennium, a number of Scopitone machines found homes in museums, with one also on permanent display in Nashville, Tennessee’s Third Man Records. Reissues on DVD followed.