Soundies

Soundies were musical films produced in several American cities between 1940 and 1947. They were short films of songs, dances, or orchestra performances. They were shown on a coin-operated machine, a kind of film jukebox that you could use in nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and other public places. Some soundies were later reused as fillers for television.

The soundie was the precursor of the music video. The films, about three minutes long, were mounted on reels with several performances projected in a loop. As the intention was to reach a wide audience, the range of musical genres was diverse, from country to swing, jazz, gospel, folk, and even opera. In some cases, they included shots of women in swimsuits or other slightly erotic sequences to attract the sailors on leave, which led one senator to threaten to investigate the production and distribution of soundies, believing that these were lewd films that should not be shown in any decent public space.

Although some conservative politicians tried to turn soundies into films for sex shops, these were not low-budget films with erotic performers. Soundies were a launching pad for dancers, actors, musicians, and singers like Cyd Charisse, Doris Day, Ricardo Montalbán or Louis Armstrong. And more important, during the few years that they were in vogue, they were one of the few mediums in which artists of colour were free to produce their own films.

The first soundies were shot in 1940, but were not distributed until the following year, when the projection machine, called Panoram, was optimised. A Panoram cost about $600 (almost $12,000 today). Despite its high price, in just three years there were more than 10,000 Panorams throughout the United States. Although more than 1,800 soundies were produced and distributed in that short time, by 1946 the number of Panoram machines had dropped to just 2,000, presumably due to the restrictions of wartime.

Soundies were shot in 35mm and distributed in 16mm so that they could be projected on the Panoram, which as you can see in the following video was a bit of a mix between a jukebox and a television. It was a complex device, with a rear-projection system built with mirrors and a 45x50cm screen. Since each reel contained eight soundies that were projected in a loop, you could not choose which one to watch. To keep the audience interested, they changed the film reels every week.

Due to the technological limitations of the time, all the performers did playback, in some cases awful playback. However, perhaps the most curious thing is that soundies used the same tricks that contemporary music videos: absurd plots, half-naked girls, weird sets, and crazy choreographies. I’m sure some MTV executive has gotten ideas from this.