THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE SCOPITONES”

This week’s column is different from its predecessors because the focus is not on a single movie, but rather on an entire genre. In this case, a genre of strange and tacky short musical films which were never meant to be seen in theaters or on television, but instead were made exclusively for screening on a weird machine that was half-cinema and half-jukebox. It was called the Scopitone and its history is among the most fascinating misfires in movie history.

The Scopitone was first unveiled in France in 1960. The machine stood seven feet tall, weighed 650 pounds, and featured a 26-inch screen. The concept was similar to a jukebox: insert a coin and select a musical short film for viewing. The machines packed more than 30 full-color 16mm shorts and viewers could select which films they wanted to watch.

The Scopitone films were original productions based on current pop songs and starring the performers who warbled their tunes up the charts. In a way, the Scopitones (as the films were called) exist as the forerunners of today’s music videos – except that the production values were cheap, lip-syncing only happened by error, no one on screen could dance and the visualization of the music was consistently stale. But for some reason, the Scopitone craze spread across France and then into Italy and England. The top singers on the Continent made films for Scopitone viewing and a few stars were brought across the Atlantic, most notably Paul Anka and Dion. There was even a series of Arabic music Scopitones designed for viewing by North African immigrants in France.

It took a while for the Scopitone craze to hit America, but in 1964 a company called Tel-A-Sign Inc. signed an exclusive agreement to coordinate the U.S. release of the movie-jukebox hybrid. Unfortunately, problems arose almost immediately.

The Scopitone machines were imported to America, but there were no American music films ready for viewing. Thus, the first wave of machines were stocked with French pop music Scopitones. Whatever appeal Juliette Greco, Johnny Hallyday and their peers had in Paris was lost in Peoria. Interest waned quickly and a rush was on to grind out Scopitones based on American pop music.

A company called Harman-ee Productions stepped in and began creating American-flavored Scopitones. Their first musical flicks had Debbie Reynolds singing “If I Had a Hammer” in a Las Vegas setting and “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” in the golden daylight of a country meadow. How did Debbie Reynolds get into the act? Simple: she owned Harman-ee Productions.

Tel-A-Sign then made the mistake of deciding to limit the placement of the Scopitone machines to bars and taverns. This play for the adult audience limited the choice of music that could be shown on film. Rock, Motown and soul/R&B were not considered for Scopitone playlists (noisy kid music!) but inoffensive pop music was the music of choice. It was decided that country music and jazz were not popular enough for wide Scopitone viewing.

However, the costs of producing the Scopitones and pressure from the record industry kept the major pop stars of the day away from the project. Rather than populate the Scopitone playlist with Dean Martin or Barbra Streisand, instead the Scopitones featured either obscure singers (such as Joi Lansing and January Jones) or fading one-hit wonders trying to keep their star in flight (such as Gale Garnett and Jody Miller) or once-hot singers whose celebrity was on the wane (including Kay Starr, Neil Sedaka and Lesley Gore). The majority of the singers featured in the Scopitones were white – only a relatively few African-American singers received exposure here, most notably Della Reese, Lou Rawls and Barbara McNair.

Yet Americans did not embrace the notion of movie jukeboxes. During its heyday (if you can call it that), there were only 1,600 Scopitone machines in the U.S. – the vast majority of Americans never saw the machine or watched its music films. By 1969, Tel-A-Sign went bust amid charges of stock manipulation and Mafia connections. With Tel-A-Sign’s death, the Scopitone craze was officially over in the U.S. Elsewhere around the world, the Scopitones were unplugged and the machines were either tossed in the scrap heap or refitted for porno film viewings in peep shows.

And what about the Scopitones themselves? Believe it or else, these represented the tackiest, cheesiest and dumbest attempts to put music on film. Most of these mini-productions were designed in garish hues and titled angles designed to show off curvy young women squeezed into tight one-piece bathing suits or bikinis. A great idea, of course, except that the women of the Scopitones were exceptionally rhythm-challenged and they constantly failed in their attempts at dancing or even posing to the music on the soundtrack. It also didn’t matter if the songs in question did not require women in swimwear – whether Kay Starr was warbling “Wheel of Fortune” or Jody Miller parodied domestic engineering in “Queen of the House,” the gals in their one- or two-pieces showed up to smile and try not to fall over their own feet. Imagine the idea of music videos exclusively for jaded middle-aged men and you have the Scopitones.

Of the hundreds of Scopitone flicks made on either side of the Atlantic, not one ever achieved a classic status. A few offer historic curiosity (such as Procol Harum fumbling about Trafalgar Square to “A White Shade of Pale”), but most are dumb, dizzy, tacky bits of noise and confusion with third-rate talent singing fourth-rate songs. With offerings such as Stacy Adams singing and dancing to “Pussycat A-Go-Go” or James Darren crooning “Because You’re Mine” or Frank Sinatra Jr. doing “Love for Sale,” it is no wonder why people stayed away from the Scopitone screen in order to see the Beatles or the Rolling Stones on Ed Sullivan’s TV show.

The Scopitones were forgotten for years and did not resurface until the mid-1990s. Film archivist Dennis Nyback was among those who began showing the Scopitones again in special screenings which attracted many people who were weaned on MTV and were curious to see what an earlier generation considered to be hip. Most of the Scopitones are believed to be extant, though an intriguing few (most notably a rare performance by Ike and Tina Turner) have not surfaced.

Problems in clearing music and performance rights have kept the Scopitones from having an official home video and DVD release, but collections of the films are widely available in the collector-to-collector market. But don’t expect classics of song and imagination here, these films are strictly of curio value. Even the Scopitone versions of well-loved tunes inevitably devolve into travesty. If anything, these square old shorts will make anyone want their MTV with a hungry passion!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on August 20, 2004 in Features by
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