Soundies Speak Volumes About 1940s America

"Jumpin' & Jivin'," a collection of "soundies" and more, features Cab Calloway. (Acorn Media Photos)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Forty years before MTV and music videos, there were "soundies." Between 1940 and 1947, about 1,800 were made, three-minute black-and-white films designed to be shown on Panorams, coin-operated film jukes found in nightclubs, bars, restaurants and other public places. About the size of a refrigerator, the Panoram was a complicated device using a system of mirrors for rear projection on an 18-by-22-inch screen mounted on a stylish cabinet. (They ran about $600 then -- about $12,000 today.) Manufacturing restrictions during World War II doomed soundies: There once were 10,000 operating in North America, but by 1946, that number had fallen to 2,000.

Soundies were an opportunity for people to see some of the country's greatest musicians performing for only a dime, though a Panoram wasn't quite as efficient as a regular jukebox: Eight soundies, featuring a variety of musical performances, would be spliced together on a reel, which ran in a continuous loop, so you couldn't really pick out a favorite. Reels were changed once a week, and the fare was broad: big-band swing, country and western, gospel, blues, musical comedy and vaudeville (some surprisingly racy for the era), as well as a good amount of ethnic music and comedy. Soundies are fascinating time capsules not only of music but of social history, dance styles and fashions in 1940s America.

"Jumpin' & Jivin': Volume 1," a new DVD available Tuesday from Silver Spring-based Acorn Media, contains 27 rare performances, focusing on big-band swing (Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Artie Shaw), jump blues (Louis Jordan), jazz stylists (Fats Waller), vocal groups (the Treniers and Delta Rhythm Boys) and classy band-fronting singers (Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine).

The 85-minute DVD ($19.99) is an expanded version of a collection put together by Eric Kulberg and Peter Jacobson in the early days of home video. Director Kulberg, a partner in Universal Media, says that when Acorn, which distributes a variety of programs on DVD, with a special focus on British television, saw it, "they flipped and felt there was a fresh, young audience out there for this material."

Most of the soundies come from the collection of Mike Minoie, a Boston civil servant who started collecting in the '50s, from Kulberg's personal collection and those of fellow collectors, as well as the Library of Congress, the source of Dizzy Gillespie's sly "Oop Bop Sh Bam" from a 1946 film "Jivin' in Be-Bop."

Soundies were, of course, lip-synced, with some artists clearly better at it than others (good: Jordan; bad: Gene Krupa). It's funny to see how little some conventions have changed between the soundies era and the rise of MTV: pretty women as props, silly choreography, absurd story lines and broad comedic acting, notably Waller on "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Your Feet's Too Big" and Calloway on "Minnie the Moocher" and "Blues in the Night."

Not all of the selections on the DVD are soundies. Several are Snader Telescriptions, the first music videos intended for television, produced from about 1950 until 1954 and filmed with multiple cameras and live mikes. The DVD includes Lionel Hampton's "Ding Dong Baby" and the Duke Ellington Orchestra's "Sophisticated Lady." Three hot Jordan numbers come from his 1945 short "Caldonia," while the Treniers' wild performances of "Rag Mop" and "It's Rock, It's Roll, It's Swing" are from a 1956 television show.

A beautiful and impossibly young Horne sings "Unlucky Woman," then watches stride legends Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons blister their pianos in a clip from their 1941 short "Boogie Woogie Dreams." Artie Shaw's "Class in Swing" is an entertaining short from 1939, while Eckstine's "Rhythm in a Riff" is from the 1947 feature of the same name produced by the Associated Producers of Negro Motion Pictures. (Individual songs were later released as soundies.)

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