Culture  /  Film Review

Jammin’ in the Panoram

During World War II, proto–music videos called “soundies” blared pop patriotism from visual jukeboxes across American bars.

“Soundies”—the three-minute musical films made for a bare six years in the 1940s and shown in bars, taverns, and bus stations—are relics of relics. On the one hand, they belong to the century-plus process by which motion pictures traveled from big to little screens and from theaters into life. On the other, they are social hieroglyphs. During their brief life, soundies were as much a part of World War II–era popular culture as zoot suits, Captain America comic books, and early film noir, as well as the Andrews Sisters and the young Frank Sinatra—although neither he nor they ever made one.

Produced in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, soundies were an urban form and a Midwestern enterprise. They were distributed on 16mm by the Chicago-based Soundies Corporation of America, released in packages of eight shorts, and exhibited on “panorams,” refrigerator-sized visual jukeboxes—as clunky as Robby the Robot—manufactured by another Chicago firm, Mills Novelty (purveyors of slots and sundry vending machines). Soundies were ambient. People in taverns might watch (or ignore) them from their tables while bar patrons were more likely to dance—at least to the danceable numbers—as they might to a jukebox.

Regular release began, with great fanfare in the show business trades, in January 1941. Every week the Soundies Corporation furnished the nation’s panorams with a new eight-film program—less a precursor to music videos than a throwback to the earliest years of motion picture exhibition, when nickelodeon proprietors would string together a half dozen or more one-reelers to simulate a vaudeville bill. Consumer control was limited. Each play cost a dime, but one would have to go through the entire reel to repeat, for example, nineteen-year-old Dorothy Dandridge singing “Cow Cow Boogie” or the manic pianist Harry Gibson’s eye-rolling version of “Harry the Hipster,” both among the nearly two hundred examples of the form included on the four-disc Blu-ray set Soundies: The Ultimate Collection, curated by the cultural historian Susan Delson, author of the authoritative study Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time.