Saturday, August 3, 2013

Scopitones!: A Mostly Video Post

Before music videos, before YouTube, there were Scopitones. What are Scopitones, you ask? Using a jukebox technology developed in France in the late 1950s, a Scopitone machine would store short 16mm reels containing filmed scenarios built around a popular song or artist. In other words, you would deposit your money in a Scopitone much as you would a jukebox and instead of simply hearing an artist perform, you would see them perform on a screen attached to the top of the machine. An essential guide to the world of Scopitones can be found here.

Introduced tonight at Anthology Film Archives by Gary Balaban, a quirky and engaging collector of films and music, the Scopitones, all from his personal collection, were presented in two reels, connecting a group of the 16mm films together. Reel 1 was almost entirely made up of French and German Scopitones, with a number of ye-ye girls like Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan. Foreign-language covers of popular songs like "Sherry", "The Locomotion", "I Got Stung", "America" from West Side Story, and even "Goldfinger" (!) were among the surprises to be found here. Reel 2 graduated to slightly more familiar American artists, many of the films shot in glowing Technicolor instead of the faded Eastmancolor tones of the European Scopitones. Procol Harum promotes their enduring hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale" in a later-period film, Frank Sinatra Jr. seems unsure if he's imitating dear old dad or Jerry Lewis in "Love for Sale", Nino Tempo and April Stevens sing a surprisingly downbeat version of "Land of 1000 Dances", Donna Theodore prances in a bikini and complains about men drooling over her in "Femininity", and buxotic Joi Lansing, peerless in my book, seductively croons "The Silencer" and her cult classic "The Web of Love", looking ready to pop out of her outfits at all times. Brook Benton in particular looks mighty embarrassed to be surrounded by white go-go girls dancing to an entirely different rhythm than that of his marvelous "Mother Nature Father Time".

The evening hit a snag when the 16mm mag sound project bulb went out, leading to the final group of Scopitones being projected without sound, but accompanied by oddly appropriate freakbeat tunes that miraculously complemented the images beautifully. While Anthology apologized and graciously offered to comp admission for their next Scopitone event, I can't imagine anyone not feeling like they got a full evening's worth of entertainment before the technical snafu. I sure as Hell did!

Now for the videos. I selected 10 of my favorite Scopitones from this evening and was surprisingly able to find all of them on YouTube, the world's greatest pop culture depository. Hold on to your hats and please to enjoy.

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