by Robin Edgerton
French Things are Cool. Old French Things are Cool. French Films are Cool. Therefore, Old, French Films are Really Really Cool.
Ancient French Saying
Hey kids! Get over the Muybridge guy already! And stop watching those reruns of American Bandstand on VH1, already. The French had it down years ago with the Scopitone. Their golden age was short1962 to 1965but that just makes them cooler.
The technology for the Scopitone machine itself (also known as a Cinebox) dates back to the late 1940's. A cross between a jukebox and a 26-inch color TV, was the result of technology developed for use during WWII, turned by CAMECA to civilian use, projecting 3-minute Scopitonessong filmsfor a quarter to tipsy audiences in clubs and bars. Terribly popular in France, the rest of the world began to take notice, and in 1963, George Wood from the William Morris Agency started a development deal to license the machines in the U.S., the Agency's first foray into multimedia.
Alas, Wood, up to his neck in gambling debts, also included in the deal a cobweb of Mafia up and down the East Coast. He didn't last out the deal, and one of his younger associates took over with a cleaner proposition. The completed negotiations included the importing of 200 machines, with a guarantee that 5200 machines would be built in the U.S. over the next 10 years. Optimists! The Scopitone's potential even swayed a young Francis Ford Coppola, who invested a big chunk of his money from some early screenwriting gigs. But America's embrace of the medium never came. Something between 1,000 and 1,500 machines were produced in the U.S. before the Scopitone "craze" fizzled out entirely, around 1967. Even big stars had ScopitonesNeil Sedaka, Nancy Sinatra, Lesley Gore, Debbie Reynolds, and Paul Anka all made themand it didn't help.
Exactly like today's music videos, there are two themes to Scopitones:
The chick-to-hunk ratio was, of course, huge. The French methods of depicting the chicks were, in some ways, more realistic. If models or dancers were in bikinis, at least they were near a pool. If they were in lingerie, they were (usually) not strutting across a stage set, but instead filmed through keyholes. The ogling opportunities were skewed to the 'accidental' viewthe style called for quick shots up the skirts of women walking (or twisting) on the tops of walls, or down the bosoms of low-cut dresses. Usually all the camera caught was a set of garter straps at mid-thigh, a little cleavage. The French Scopitone producers looked for ways to go around the dress, so the female body became a sequence of parts, glimpses. And like the fast-edit MTV style, these fleeting glimpses of flesh kept audiences interested without being bombarded with a satiating (or nauseating) overt display.
The French obviously used a high percentage of their obtained footage, which left a haphazard, low-budget style presencesingers oblivious to misbehaving animals, dance sequences with the dancer's body off-camera (you can just see his bobbing head), bored-looking stars, plenty of askew lipsyncing and, of course, parts and parts and parts of bodies. Being a fairly new medium, all kinds of framing devices and rudimentary special effects were added. They liked to film on trains, cars, carnival rides (any possible moving vehicle), from very far away through layers of trees, or in front of a hastily-constructed set (wall of travel posters? one white sheet on an empty stage?). Even though most American stars kept their filming safely at home where, no doubt, there'd be some sort of standards, but once they moved it to France, even they weren't exempt from these random treatmentsDion's "Ruby Baby" features him singing from the cockpit of an conspicuously grounded plane. These slapdash effects and production meant that almost anyone could fancy themselves a directorand many amateurs did. But even then, the Scopitones made only number a little over 300 worldwide. In France, they were an (albeit temporary) entertainment institution. Here, irritation quickly succeeded enthusiasm. From an American consumer's standard, not only were there so few available to watch, but half of these were in French, made on crummy, reddish film stock (which, over time, has gone from bad to worse). It's no wonder the Scopitone's already negligible popularity was surplanted by the growth of color television. And in this medium, they too, are all but forgottento this day, only three Scopitones have been shown on American television, tellingly, on the Comedy Channel. <end>