SOUNDIES

OVERVIEW

"Soundies" are 35mm  B&W mini-movies that run approximately 3 minutes each,  reduced to 16mm as content for a video predecessor of today's music (audio) juke boxes, mostly between 1940 and 1947.   Their fascinating detailed story is in the sections which follow this Introduction.  About 2,000 of these shorts -- many with "big bands" and their featured singers, others in  a wide range of musical genres, and still others with vaudeville- or burlesque- style entertainment -- were produced. In the years that followed 1947, many of them were reissued for home viewing. We have approximately 500 of them, of which about 350 have been digitally mastered and restored. We have released the digitally mastered and restored ones on the "Mr. FAT-W Video" label; the links on the bottom of this section will take you directly to Amazon.com to purchase the DVDs.  The first DVD listed,  for the David Amram Soundies, includes commentaries of fourteen Soundies by the legendary David Amram, who is so important musically that there is a separate page on this site, following this one.

The video players following this paragraph give you an idea of what they look like, and demonstrate how high our technical quality is: "Fan Dance" is performed by the striptease artiste Sally Rand, who virtually invented both modern striptease, and the concept of the "fan dance;" music is by Lud Gluskin.  "Rain on the Roof" is sung by Maxine Gray, backed up by The Cameo Girls, with music by the David Rose Orchestra.   The third video is "Deep in the Heart of Texas," with Van Alexander and his Orchestra; Alexander was a major figure in the American popular music world, who has faded into obscurity -- he arranged "A Tisket, A Basket" for Ella Fitzgerald, which became her biggest hit.  The fourth is "The Night We Met In Honomu," with popular singer Lanny Ross backed up by Roy Bargy's orchestra.  Most, if not all, of the "Soundies" were filmed without sound, and the sound was added later; as a result, sometimes, songs and dialogue may look a tiny bit out of synch, like a dubbed movie. 




FAN DANCE

 
RAIN ON THE ROOF


DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS


THE NIGHT WE MET IN HONOMU


SOUNDIES REMIX

The next video is both serious and "for the fun of it."  Larry Kraman, who produced the Amram Soundies commentaries with David Amram, had a very talented programmer do a "remix" of one of our Soundies, "Thanks for the Boogie Ride."  It features Gene Krupa and his Orchestra; as described in
The Soundies Book (MacGillivray and Okuda, iUniverse Inc., 2007):

     "One of the biggest names to work in Soundies, Benny Goodman's former drummer [Gene
       Krupa] squeezed two Soundies into his busy schedule.  The personnel:  Gene Krupa (drums),
      Roy Eldridge, Al beck, Norman Murphy, Graham Young (trumpets), Walterr Bates, Jimmy
      Miglione, Sam Musiker, Clint Neragly, Mascagni Ruffo (saxophones), John Grassi, Jay
      Kelliher, Babe Wagner (trombones), Milt Raskin (piano), Ray Biondi (guitar), Ed Mihelich
      (bass).... [Thanks For the Boogie Ride features] an Anita O'Day vocal, a torrid trumpet break
      by Roy Eldridge, and of course "The Ace Drummer Man Gene Krupa" (billed that way in the
      titles.).  The cutaway here is Anita dancing with a motorcycle policeman."

The (copywritten) remix gives you an idea of what can be done digitally to catapult the Soundies into this Century.


HISTORY OF SOUNDIES

As outlined in what is the only known reference book on the subject,  "The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America  A History and Filmography of Their “Jukebox” Musical Films of the 1940s," by Maurice Terenzio, Scott MacGillivray, and Ted Okuda (McFarland1954), updated in "The Soundies Book: by Scott MacGillivray and Ted Okuda (iUniverse, 2007), “Soundies” is now a generic term for short films (mostly 3 mins. 8 secs.) that were produced by a number of different companies for play in a short-lived video “jukebox” invented in 1938 by Gordon Keith Woodard, a Los Angeles dentist.  Dubbed “Cinematone” machines, they were tested in several Los Angeles area bars.  Woodard dropped out for lack of funds; on February 12, 1940, James Roosevelt (a son of FDR) and The Mills Novelty Company (the foremost manufacturer of conventional music jukeboxes) “joined forces as Globe-Mills Productions to market their “Panoram” coin-operated movie jukeboxes,” formally introduced in September, 1940.  

The devices utilized up to eight short films in a continuous loop, separated by notches in the print.  With reverse titles, the films were projected into a mirror that reflected the image, reversed, onto a screen; as a dime was inserted, the film strip would move to the next song.  The devices were serviced regularly, requiring a constant output of new short films.  Globe-Mills split itself into two units; Roosevelt’s produced under the “Globe Productions” name, and Mills’ film distribution office became “The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America.”  Several other groups both produced the short films, and manufactured and released their own “visual jukeboxes.”  The primary market target were taverns near military bases; hence, the genres tended to be those that would appeal to servicemen – stripteases, vaudeville acts,  and most of all, dance music with vocals.  The earliest “Soundies” were heavy on pageantry; subsequently, budgets went down; “Compensating somewhat for the almost audacious cheapness of Soundies is their lack of pretense.  They may be cute or corny, but they don’t try to be too ambitious or take themselves too seriously...

Establishing the new industry was uphill – wartime shortages impacted both jukebox manufacturing and film production;, a recording ban by James C. Petrillo’s American Federation of Musicians pushed Soundies producers into “no name” singers and groups until the 1943 lifting of the band opened the way go “name” performers; the major film studios produced numerous musical comedies and extracted the musical numbers for shorts; local jurisdictions raised taxes on the machines. Production by the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America ended in 1946; by 1947, the industry was effectively out of business.  Along the way, competition arose, with something close to a dozen different entities producing the musical shorts.  After the industry died, the three major home movie companies, Official Films, Castle Films, and Blackhawk Films, repackaged the productions by genre, two or three to a release, either reprinted the reverse titles or just clipped them off.  

In the years that followed, new people took a shot at “video jukeboxes;” “Many surviving mini-musicals were produced especially for television.  These are known as “telescriptions” – the name combines “television” with “transcriptions” (records intended for broadcast).  Snader Telespcriptions, produced between 1950 and 1952, usually featured a popular orchestra or vocalist of the era (Charlie Barnet, Ralph Flanagan, Leo Diamond, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Denise Lor, Korla Pandit).... Studio Telescriptions were produced in 1952 and 1953.... A 1960s attempt to revive the idea of a visual jukebox, Scopitone, vanished so quickly that to this day many film enthusiasts are unaware of the firm’s existence.  Like Soundies, Scopitones ran three minutes in length, and most featured established musical talent... The resemblance to Soundies ends there, because Scopitones (which first appeared in Europe) boasted two technical improvements: color photography...and magnetic soundtracks.  Before Scopitone, mini-musicals were always filmed in black-and-white using optical soundtracks...these...refinements... made Scopitones incompatible with Soundies and telescriptions.”  Included in these “Soundies-like” productions are “Vis-o-graph,” “Featurettes,” and “Telescriptions.”

PROCUCTION ENTITIES, PERSONNEL

“Cinemasters, Inc. began turning out Soundies on Monday, December 16, 1940, at the Fox Movietone studios in New York.  Arthur Leonard and Dick Hyland coproduced the films, with Leonard directing.  The two producers had been employed by Warner Brothers – Leonard in the casting department, Hyland in the publicity unit.  Leonard had personally produced a number of all-black-cast films prior to forming Cinemasters, and would return to the genre later in the 1940s.  Hyland later became an independent producer, releasing through Monogram.  

“Casting director John E. Graham also served as assistant director on the Cinemasters crew.  Veteran cameraman Don Malkames, whose name can be found on many New York-based features and shorts, photographed the Cinemasters reels, and Bert Wilson Wilson edited them.”

“On the West Coast, Soundies production was entrusted to two companies: Fredrick Feher Productions, headed by the conductor of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and Cameo Productions, with directors Roy Mack and Josef Berne, and producer Sam Coslow. Coslow.  Coslow, born in 1902, was a successful songwriter whose compositions included”Cocktails for Two,” “Sing, You Sinners,” and “Just One More Chance....”

“Minoco Productions, Inc., headed by Jack Barry, was established in the spring of 1941 to replace Cinemasters as the East Coast sujpplier of Soundies.  Minoco cleverly integrated its company logo into the films; a hillbilly song would be introduced by the words “A Minoco Production” printed on a jug.  Many Minoco reels feature popular personalities from New York stage and radio.  Receiving producer credit on several Minoco reels is Fred Waller, who later invented Cinerama.

“James Roosevelt accepted a commission in the United States Marine Corps in May, 1941, and Sam Coslow took charge of the Soundies operation, becoming its major driving force.  Coslow personally produced many of the Soundies released during the next two years, and he often composed original music for the films....

After the U.S. declared war in December, 1941, Soundies Distributing Corporation  reorganized, and began hastily making films that could be considered supportive of the war effort; war materiel shortages meant that the company’s output of Panoram machines was much reduced, so that it had to concentrate on servicing the machines already in use.   At the same time, the public’s attention was increasingly devoted to the war, and by 1942 business had dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  The company reorganized its film unit.

“RCM Productions (representing James Roosevelt, Sam Coslow, and Gordon Mills) leased production space at the Hal Roach Studios.  RCM’s Hollywood staff included Josef Berne and Dudley Murphy (directors), Lud Gluskin (musical director), Ben Chapman (casting director) and Herman Webber (production manager).  Dudley Murphy was an “artistic” director; his most celebrated film is The Emperor Jones (1933), filmed in New York and starring Paul Robeson.  It may seem sprprising to find Murphy’s name on Soundies, but he was no stranger to the musical short subject.  He had directed two pioneer shorts in 1929, St. Louis Blues and Black and Tan.  The former marked the only film appearance of singer Bessie Smith, the latter the movie debut of Duke Ellington.  Murphy piloted a series of Soundies, but withdrew when the company left California.  The crew moved to Chicago, Illinois, in April, 1942.... Josef Berne became RCM’s sole director, and Ben Hersh replaced Herman Webber as production manager in Chicago.... Joining the Soundies team in Chicago was William Forest Crouch, who was to play a major role in the firm’s destinies.  Crouch, born in 1904, worked for the motion-picture industry in Chicago, and knew about production and exhibition.  He as hired by the Soundies company to handle advertising, but before long he was personally producing and directing Soundies.  His company was originally called WFC Productions, later established as Filmcraft Productions.... Producer William Forest Crouch masterminded another way to circumvent [the AFM boycott].  He hired performers to pantomine to their old records....The Soundies producers even resorted to old film clips to keep the releases coming.  Song numbers were lifted from theatrical movies, including musicals, comedies, and cartoons....RCM Productiond entered the field of theatrical moviemaking in 1943 with a two-reel (21-minute) short, Heavenly Music...[it] won an Academy Award, and M-G-M even named a series afer it (“Heavenly Musicals”).  Coslow, Berne, and [Reginald] LeBorg were hired individually by Hollywood studios to work on theatrical pictures.... Ben Hersh, also sidelined in Hollywood, coproducing the “Lum and Abner” comedies.  Meanwhile, the Soundies operation reverted to East and West Coast production and continued to run smoothly.  Sam Coslow turned over his Hollywood production chores to Ben Hersh.  Hersh relinquished his position as production manager, and was succeeded by William Forest Crouch, who worked in New York under the “Filmcraft Productions” logo.  Ben K. Blake, an East Coast producer-director, made several Soundies for Crouch.   

“The AFM ban was lifted in late 1943, allowing the music industry to resume the manufactures of recordings.  By mid-November Crouch had lined up a roster of “union” performers for a series of 30 films.  The gudget-conscious producer continued to raid the film vaults: a feature film and two short subjects were converted into ten Soundies musicals.

“William Forest Crouch was a showman, and his films reveal that he had definite ideas about what the Panoram patron wanted to see.  The dominant ingredient in Crouch’s pictures is feminine cheesecake.  In virtually every Crouch film, the camera lens scans several decorative models striking glamorous poses.  Another distinguishing characteristic of Crouch’s work is his emphasis on obvious comedy.  His movies are filled with humorous cutaways... The third hallmark of Crouch’s style is his use of flashy optical effects to add visual appeal.  Crouch always used the same bag of tricks, which gave his films an assembly-line look, but his rapid, confident methods assured a steady flow of releases....

“The end of World War II brought more personnel changes to the Soundies organization.  Sam Coslow left to become a producer at Paramount, but he retained his interest in RCM Productions.  RCM therefore remained active after Coslow’s departure.  Ben Hersh became RCM’s producer, and Dave Gould became its director.

“Gould was a formidable musical talent; he won the first of the few Oscars awarded for dance direction.... He also directed several jukebox films for Soundies rival Neil McGuile....

“Besides Hersh and Crouch, a third producer was recruited to make Soundies after the war.  William D. Alexander, like Crouch, was a New York-based independent who produced inexpensive all-black-cast pictures and recut them into Soundies.  Alexander was himself black, unlike Crouch, and because of his Soundies he was one of the first black producers to enjoy widespread distribution of his product....

“Whatever the reason, the Soundies Distributing Corporaiton stopped servicing the jukebox  trade in 1947.  Television was making rapid advances, and the Panoram machine could not compete with the appeal of TV.  No longer would Soundies’ familiar “opening curtain” unveil music and dance to the public....”

MR. FATW'S SOUNDIES ON DVD

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