The Scopitone!

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 short—1962 to 1965—but 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 Scopitones—song films—for 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.

Check out these Scopitones...

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 Scopitones—Neil Sedaka, Nancy Sinatra, Lesley Gore, Debbie Reynolds, and Paul Anka all made them—and it didn't help.

Exactly like today's music videos, there are two themes to Scopitones:

1: Illustrate the story of the song.
2: Make it sexy.

Between France and the U.S., the production esthetics involved had a gap bigger than the Atlantic. American Scopitones bordered on soft-core porn (for the early 60s, that is): chicks gyrated wildly (and not even in time to the music) wearing either the ubiquitous bikini, a similarly skimpy outfit or sent through a modified striptease, ending up in even less. Though most French Scopitones, too, center on the female form, others might have a chorus of dancing guys as the background—usually doing the Twist, or the Hully-Gully. And these men, like the women, were not always fully-clothed.

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' view—the 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.
And if it wasn't sex, it was the Twist. In the U.S., the Twist was just one of many dance crazes, seeing its heyday between 1960 and 1962. In France, it was an institution, persisting well into 1965. Le Twist might be performed in many inches of snow, on driftwood, in the middle of the woods, on trains, behind screens, or in the middle of a corral. Rubbery legs and flexible ankles could be the foundation for a career for any singer, regardless of their voice. And if singers couldn't twist? Then they'd import a whole set of teens who could, and just plop the singer down in the foreground. The Scopitone producersU odd interpretations of music yielded not a few stereotypes of all kinds of other culture, especially American, but could be so disjointed to be curiously interesting. While the American Scopitones are merely well-produced kitsch, the low-budget quality of these French productions created surreal brilliance. Les Surfaros—a group of 6 pygmy teenagers—performed "If I Had a Hammer" in French dressed in skiwear in front of a chalet.

The French obviously used a high percentage of their obtained footage, which left a haphazard, low-budget style presence—singers 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 treatments—Dion'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 director—and 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 forgotten—to this day, only three Scopitones have been shown on American television, tellingly, on the Comedy Channel.   <end>

Check out these Scopitones...