Before Music Videos, There Was the Scopitone and All Its Kitschy, Sexist Glory

Revisiting the Scopitone, the video jukebox that paired cheesy pop music with casual objectification years before the rise of MTV.

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Feb 19 2016, 5:22pm

Screengrab via YouTube

Although the history of the music video is intertwined with MTV's debut of "Video Killed the Radio Star" in 1981, that is not where the idea of adding visuals to songs originated. Following some experiments by Thomas Edison in the late 19th-century and the musical, sing-a-long cartoons that premiered with talkies in the 1920s, mid-20th century Europeans invented the Scopitone 16 mm video jukebox.

In the hands of enterprising French filmmakers, Scopitones showed often arty clips of European, Berber, and Arab bands and singers in cafés and clubs frequented by young people. Once imported to America, however, the exciting new technology instead showcased a trashy Technicolor assembly-line: videos of busty lounge singers and B-list bands doing cover songs usually featuring jiggling bikini-clad women with ludicrous choreography straight out of The Benny Hill Show, the long-running British TV program that consisted mainly of lowbrow slapstick, truly lame double entendres, and almost-naked women being chased around by pervy old men.

Read more: The History of Toplessness

Although the content is dated, today's renewed interest in 60s lounge culture, vintage film, burlesque, and the hipster cachet of obsolete technology means these silly, fun, bizarre, quaint, and short-lived Scopitone clips are popping up in cool bars and venues around the country. Their small resurgence prompts a closer look.

The Scopitone was based on the short-lived American Panoram (or Pan-O-Ram), a coin-operated machine from the pre-World War II era that played soundies, or three-minute preloaded musical films, usually showing contemporary jazz artists. Many of these artists were black and unable to widely tour the US during the era of segregation, so a platform that showcased these performers for a broad audience was ideal. Two French engineers went about creating a new and better kind of Panoram using spare parts left over from the war, including a 16 mm reconnaissance camera from the French Air Force. After about a decade of tinkering, the inventors were able to create the Scopitone, a large machine that played three-minute color films set to music on a 26-inch screen. The user was able to choose which film to play, like a regular jukebox, and each machine was loaded with 36 different films. A similar machine called the Cinebox came out at the same time in Italy, but it never quite caught on.

Since teenagers were the targeted audience, the Scopitone manufacturer CAMCA placed machines in locations where they hung out, such as cafes, and the first videos showed French pop stars like Serge Gainsbourg, yé-yé girls, and early rockers Johnny Hallyday. The French videos were beautifully shot, sometimes a group of chic girls dancing, and frequently only featured the well-dressed band members. The videos were a hit; French rocker Dick Rivers (who acquired his stage name after unfortunately mishearing the name of Elvis Presley's character "Deke Rivers" in the movie Loving You) began his career with the band Les Chats Sauvages and owed much of his early success to well-produced Scopitones like "Tout se passe dans les yeux." The focal point of the film is always Rivers, nattily dressed, ineffably cool, good-humored, and charming, even when dancing and leering at girls in a tacky basement bar.

Other notable French Scopitones include Les Irrésistibles's "My Year Is a Day"; there are no women in the video, only the members of this good-looking American boy band living and studying in France, and a few gleaming Triumph roadsters. (This clip might be the first example of corporate sponsorship in a music video, since British carmaker Triumph ensured prime product placement.) Similarly, Les Chausettes Noires's "Je t'aime trop" is a simple performance video showing only the elegantly dressed, almost mod, beloved late 50/early 60s French band, with special emphasis on the effortlessly suave singer Eddy Mitchell. If this clip were used forevermore as a template for all future music videos, the world might well be a better place.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Scopitones featuring British artists like the Tornados or Vince Taylor were just as popular in the UK—kids would go to a London cafe just to play "Telstar" on the machine. Vince Taylor was an early English rock star who was an influence on, among others, the Clash's Joe Strummer—the Clash even covered Vince's "Brand New Cadillac." Rather than let go-go girls have all the fun, they let Vince do the dancing in the Scopitone of his cover of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock." The setting is a colorful café, with enormous motorcycles everywhere, and once again no girls at all.

The teenage female pop stars in early 60s France, the yé-yé girls, exuded innocent fun and glamour in their performances, at least when they weren't being tricked into coming across as seductive Lolitas by men like Serge Gainsbourg, who wins the Creep Lifetime Achievement Award for writing a song about oral sex, "Les sucettes," for young France Gall to sing, but passing it off as a song about lollipops. The sophisticated yé-yé singer Françoise Hardy, once described by Mick Jagger as his ideal woman, comes off as slightly world-weary compared to her pop peers in "Tous les garçons et les filles." Despite the reflective song itself and Hardy's stone-normal, weather-appropriate outfit for a cold day in Paris, her two companions are subjected to repeated upskirt shots during a street carnival boat ride. They don't seem to mind, but the sad-eyed Hardy deserved better.

France's tasteful Scopitone clips quickly devolved into a cheesy Mad Men–era boob-a-rama.

Still, yé-yé girls had it better than the Americans. The Scopitone attracted the attention of Al Malnik, an American attorney in Miami Beach who had several friends and clients who happened to be in the Mafia. Malnik first learned about Scopitones from George Wood, who worked at the William Morris Agency, and Malnik was impressed enough to quickly buy the US and Latin American distribution rights in 1963 and start a production company, Harman-E-E, in Southern California to create new Scopitone films for the American market. Wood was struggling to pay his gambling debts at the time, and he jumped at the chance to help Malnik license the new technology. Tragically, Wood was beaten to death in New York before he could close the business deal, which was completed by a younger William Morris colleague. The first Scopitone in America was installed in a Miami Beach nightclub as a market test, and when it proved popular, more machines were distributed on the East Coast and Los Angeles. Malnik put former Paramount Pictures boss Irving Briscoe in charge of the production company, and early investors included actress Debbie Reynolds and the young screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola.

From there, France's tasteful Scopitone clips quickly devolved into a cheesy Mad Men–era boob-a-rama.

The first problem with the American videos was that so many had to be produced in such a short period of time to meet demand. Extant films of handsome male French pop stars or the demure, fully dressed (what, no cleavage?) Greek singer Nana Mouskouri just weren't going to cut it in the US, the country that launched Playboy.

Under Briscoe's supervision, Malnik's production company churned out garishly colorful short films at a steady clip from 1964 to 1969, with often dreadful dance scenes courtesy of Hollywood choreographer Hal Belfer. The Scopitones were formulaic, sometimes using the same random scenery and "dancers" without regard to the songs they accompanied. They were shot pretty much anywhere—on beaches, boats, cars, trains, an airplane cockpit, carnival rides, and in the woods. When there was an attempt to tailor the video to the song and provide a plot, the result was often worse. The nautical-themed Hondells's "Sea Cruise" clip from 1965, for example, aims for light-hearted goofiness and wholesome, freckle-faced sexiness, then throws in a ham-fisted attempt at a plot: Wildly happy girls join a party on a yacht, dance a lot, and are serenaded by a dorky band in matching terrible outfits before they suddenly catch a lovely mermaid in a fishing net. More random rhythmless dancing!

The second problem was the mob connection to and influence on the Scopitone industry. East Coast mob investors also had a strong presence in the nightclub industry, so many of the videos produced feature scantily clad club singers from venues like the Copacabana, El Morocco (owned by Scopitone investor Maurice Uchitel), and Las Vegas lounges. The occasional cool artists—like the English rock band Procol Harum, the Moody Blues, and Nancy Sinatra—were outnumbered by nobodies doing cover songs, B-list variety show entertainers, and movie stars with music careers, such as Debbie Reynolds and Frankie Avalon.

The third problem was an ass-backwards marketing strategy. The original plan was to place the machines in pizza parlors and bus terminals, but the idea that the films would be family-friendly was short-lived. Completely ignoring teenagers—the demographic that actually listened to pop music, bought records, and watched musical variety shows like Shindig!, Hullabaloo, and American Bandstand—distributors placed Scopitones predominantly in the playgrounds of unreconstructed well-to-do, heavy-drinking, heterosexual, middle-aged white men: nightclubs, restaurants, upscale hotels, bowling alleys, bars, casinos, servicemen's clubs, and military bases.

The in-your-face sexiness of the images is a stark contrast to the rather unsexy, often downright lame songs.

The early 60s might well have been a more innocent, buttoned-up era, but the message in these videos is clear: T&A! The in-your-face sexiness of the images is a stark contrast to the rather unsexy, often downright lame songs. To see more explicit non-static imagery, one would have had to go to the trouble of attending a peep show or tracking down a stag film. The Scopitones' absurdly enthusiastic buxom women were chosen to attract the male gaze on a small screen across a smoky bar, with the promise of a peek at more skin...in the next video.

The next video was probably one of Joi Lansing's. With her steamy, burlesque persona, the blonde B-movie and television actress, singer, and one-time playmate of Frank Sinatra's was the unrivaled queen of the Scopitones. In her classic "The Web of Love" clip Lansing manages multiple costume changes despite being trapped in an enormous spider web; sultriness and entry-level BDSM do not trump the embarrassment of the jungle scene, where she is naked in a boiling cauldron and being leered at by a witch doctor. Later, the same guy is dressed as a snake and wrapped around her legs.

The Scopitone never became as popular in the US as its investors had hoped. In all, there were only between 1,000 and 1,500 machines produced, rather than the projected 5,200; the fad was in decline even before Senate investigations into the industry's Mafia connections. A new youth culture, second wave feminism, and the widespread availability of color televisions combined to orchestrate the Scopitone's decline. Old machines were repurposed by NASA at visitor centers to show educational films about the space program. In France, remaining Scopitones screened job training films for rural coal miners.

Today these surviving curios of gleeful, unironic, casual sexism are bemusing, even for people who grew up with obligatory Fly Girls and videos like "Hot for Teacher," "Cherry Pie," "Girls, Girls, Girls," and "Gold Digger." However, we all know there are men who look at this jovial, overconfident Man's World epoch longingly; even now some of these recurring images are incredibly familiar, if not as cluelessly caddish. After all, nameless women are still dancing in bikinis by pools and yachts in music videos, celebrated as the perks of wealth and success—though they are thankfully better dancers than the ones in "Sea Cruise."