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Video Obscura

Scopitone enthusiast Joel Haertling gets reel in his Boulder office.
John Johnston

Joel Haertling doesn't lack high-art credentials. A slight, brisk-mannered fellow with a weakness for vintage suits and snappy fedoras, he's worked alongside director Stan Brakhage on a number of projects, even joining the well-known avant-gardist at a series of European festivals where celluloid offerings made by Haertling were also viewed. In addition, he was one of the guiding forces behind the Architects Office, an international cooperative of musicians whose underground cassette compilations predated the sort of creative cross-pollination that's become more prevalent with the rise of the Internet. And as the film-program coordinator for the Boulder Public Library, he regularly spotlights boundary-stretching cinema.

For these reasons, visitors to Haertling's personal screening room, a cluttered basement located in a nondescript Boulder business district, may well expect to see only the most cultured, self-consciously intellectual productions. But in Haertling's view, art can be found in the unlikeliest flicks -- and no flicks are unlikelier than the mini-movies made for a 1960s "video jukebox" called the Scopitone.

I Cried for You, a Scopitone landmark showcasing lounge crooner Sonny King, is a case in point. The film, shot in cornea-goosing Technicolor that lights up Haertling's space like a solar flare, finds King -- a low-level member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack whose main claim to fame was introducing Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis -- belting out the title ditty with sleazy brio. But he's hardly the main attraction. Bouncing across the background, and the foreground, and the middle ground, are a virtual parade of tawny trollops generally clad in skimpy bikinis, although sometimes bras and panties are used as substitutes. Before long, the clip becomes a sing-along, with random words from the screw-you lyrics ("Now it's your turn to cry over me!") turning up on a slip, an abdomen, a bust and a behind, all of which are framed in unapologetic close-ups. The opus concludes when King pulls a blanket stamped with the phrase "The End" over a bed he shares with two vixens who seem blissfully unaware that the singer's about as sexy as an overweight bulldog.

A masterpiece? Even Haertling, who loves I Cried for You with a touching sincerity, won't go that far. But he argues persuasively that its value goes beyond mere kitsch. In his opinion, King's romp, and others like it, are essentially music videos whose stylistic approach to promotion predated MTV. As a bonus, the best of them are striking in a way that David Lynch fans should be able to appreciate.

"The colors are absolutely gorgeous," Haertling enthuses. "They're extremely vibrant. And because the films were made using magnetic sound, they give you fantastic fidelity compared to optical soundtracks. And that's not to mention the planning and the set design and the beautiful locations and the subject matter. Scopitones weren't for kids; you usually found them in bars. So they're suggestive, but they have a playful sexiness."

Indeed, even films spotlighting the blandest, most apparently wholesome figures -- like James Darren, who checks in with "Because You're Mine" -- have a hint of naughtiness to them. Such contradictions are appropriate given the particulars of the Scopitone saga, which is among the oddest and least remembered business collapses of its time. As Haertling notes, "It touches on everything from Debbie Reynolds to the Mob."

In the 1999 article "The Jukebox That Ate the Cocktail Lounge: The Story of Scopitone," touted by Haertling as the definitive chronicle of the device, journalist Jack Stevenson acknowledges that the Scopitone wasn't the first contraption of its type. The Mills Novelty Company of Chicago began marketing the Panoram, a coin-operated, jukebox-like film projector, way back in 1939, thereby creating a market for "soundies" -- 16 millimeter black-and-white films of popular performers.

Unfortunately, the Panoram suffered from plenty of limitations. While the picture quality, achieved through rear projection, was reportedly quite good, it had room for just eight films that couldn't be individually selected; they played in sequence. Moreover, the soundies themselves, featuring artists such as Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, were usually straightforward performance pieces without the wacky verve of their Scopitone successors. They're historically significant today, giving subscribers of cable services such as American Movie Classics, which occasionally airs them, a look at memorable artists in their prime. But the form never truly got a chance to develop. According to Stevenson, the manufacture of soundies was halted shortly after the onset of World War II, and by the time peace was declared, the boom had petered out.

In France, however, a similar trend blossomed out of the global conflict's rubble. Many of the planes in the French air force featured 16 millimeter cameras that were converted into projectors after the battles ended -- and by the late '50s, a company called CAMCA had come up with a way to fit the equipment into a vertical cabinet. Dubbed the Scopitone, the apparatus had room for 36 films that could be specifically chosen by paying customers, just like jukebox 45s, for the cost of a quarter. Better yet, Scopitone shorts were filmed in color, not black and white.

Once the gadget debuted, in 1960, European pop luminaries lined up to appear in Scopitone films: An entertaining Web site, http://stim.com/ Stim-x/9.4/scopitone/scopitone-jukebox.html, offers several examples, including segments starring Juliette Greco, Fran├žoise Hardy and Johnny Hallyday, who was hyped as "the French Elvis." The snippets' once-vivid hues look a bit faded on the site, and the same malady afflicts the ones Haertling's obtained; they've held up far less well than have the American efforts that followed. But their chic sets and lush locations remain captivating. "They were made in boutiques and places in Paris that no longer exist, so you can see them as they really were," Haertling says. "Fashions change so quickly, and these show you a slice of what was fashionable then.

"They made a lot of them at the seaside, too," he goes on. "For me, they're great escapism -- a three-minute escape to the Cote d'Azur, where it's always a sunny day, with beautiful ladies in bikinis doing pre-Beatles pop music."

News of the popularity of Scopitones in France eventually reached folks across the Atlantic, most prominently Miami lawyer Alvin Malnik. In 1963, Malnik, backed by investors such as Abe Green, whom Stevenson describes as "a New York City slot-machine baron" with documented links to "Mob figures," bought the right to peddle the products in the U.S. and Latin America; shortly thereafter, Tel-A-Sign, a Chicago-based maker of plastic signs, inked a partnership contract with Malnik after agreeing to build the gizmos.

Scopitones initially popped up on the East Coast, migrating to Los Angeles in May 1964 -- but since the only films available to play in them focused upon French celebrities most Americans didn't know, expansion opportunities were limited. Enter Harman-ee, a production company owned by aging ingenue Debbie Reynolds. In December 1964, Harman-ee contracted with Tel-A-Sign to make Scopitone films for the next five years. Among the first people to do so was Reynolds, who checked in with "If I Had a Hammer" -- hardly the sort of material that was burning up radios from coast to coast. The country was in the midst of a rocking, rolling British Invasion, but Harman-ee eschewed hard-edged sonics in favor of tunes accessible to an earlier generation, like Kay Starr's "Wheel of Fortune," or novelties such as Jody Miller's "Queen of the House," a winking response to the Roger Miller hit "King of the Road," and George McKelvey's peppy ode to nuclear mutation, "My Teenage Fallout Queen."

Over the next several years, a few rock-based acts ventured into the Scopitone arena; Procul Harum, which cut "A Whiter Shade of Pale," may be the oddest of the bunch. But for the most part, pop prevailed via the likes of Nancy Sinatra ("These Boots Are Made For Walkin'") and the dreamy team of Nino Tempo and April Stevens ("Land of 1000 Dances"). Along the way, an aesthetic arose -- one that emphasized bubbly spirits, exaggerated flirtiness and breasts, breasts, breasts. Even "Mother Nature, Father Time," a relatively old-fashioned devotional by R&B/soul warbler Brook Benton, sports many of these elements. The film, another prize in Haertling's archives, is overloaded with women in leopard-print bikinis who prance around a fully dressed Benton at a tempo far faster than the one used in the song. The props, meanwhile, are amusingly literal -- for instance, a world on a string that turns up just in time for a line about a "world on a string."

Tel-A-Sign didn't have things nearly as well in hand. In April 1966, the Wall Street Journal printed an article titled "Movie Jukebox Probe: Grand Jury Looks Into Everybody Linked With Scopitone," which revealed that a number of gangland sorts allegedly associated with Green had been subpoenaed. The report was a gut shot to Scopitone, whose stock went into a dive. Demand for the machines plummeted, too; Stevenson states that the Tel-A-Sign plant didn't make a single Scopitone during the first quarter of 1967. The company formally went out of business in November 1969, but it was essentially dead long before.

Today, however, there remains a thriving Scopitone subculture. The players themselves are hard to come by, but www.GameRoomAntiques.com has them marked at $3,955, plus approximately $500 for shipping; they're not featherweights. On top of that, the quirky French films, plus American clips by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Billy Eckstein, Lou Rawls, Della Reese, Lesley Gore, Timi Yuro, Frank Sinatra Jr. and many others are widely available for between $7.50 and $75.

At those prices, Haertling, who saw his first Scopitone film in New York during the mid-'90s, has been able to build quite a collection, and he's assembled his favorites into a fast-paced hour-plus reel filled with delights. "I have a little spiel I give before I show them," he says. "But mostly, I let them speak for themselves."

In other words, Haertling has no intention of browbeating viewers into seeing these curios as art. But if observers decide that they are, he won't disagree.


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