They’re short, snappy, and will have you humming to yourself all day long. They don’t usually have much of a plot, only an excuse for a good tune and some swingin’ choreography. Featuring top musicians, they also helped to launch the careers of future superstars. Seldom watched in single servings, they were usually enjoyed on a self-contained device that looped them in a playlist.
It really sounds like I’m describing modern music videos, doesn’t it?
Well, guess what? Long before the MTV generation, soundies—short musical interludes on film—entertained viewers with infectious tunes, often set off by stylized dramatic scenarios and dance routines. Between 1941 and 1947, over 2,000 soundies circulated through nightclubs, bars, restaurants, or other public spots. Patrons could view a reel of eight of these brief 16mm videos on a kind of audiovisual jukebox or “movie machine,” called a Panoram.
So, while the soundie harkened back to the early motion pictures seen through the peep hole of a Kinetograph, the form also foreshadowed YouTube and today’s era of brief, stimulating clips, savored by an individual or two rather than a crowd. Although cheaply produced, these shorts “required a new kind of image, one not dictated by narrative but by the affectivity of song,” as historian Amy Herzog writes in Medium Cool.
More important, this genre of short film also provided a vibrant showcase for facets of American culture too often excluded from mainstream motion pictures. Within the eight-film formula of the soundie reel, a number featuring African American musicians was typically the finale. So, to honor Black History Month, I though I’d celebrate this key form of African American culture on film, since soundies gave performers of color their chance to shine far more frequently than did feature films of the 1940s. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the Mills Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, and ‘Fats’ Waller—to name just a few—all reached audiences through this new form.
Although soundies were no match in budget or viewership for the Hollywood musical, they still remain intriguing, and often delightful documents of voices seldom heard in classic movies.
Consider one of my favorite soundies, “The Outskirts of Town.” This marvelously witty and unusually well-made short packs a concise marital farce in under three minutes and gives two of Hollywood’s most sadly underused talents, Theresa Harris and Dudley Dickerson, a chance to play comparatively subtle—as opposed to stereotyped—comedy. Shambling in the door after a presumably hard day at work, Dickerson plunks down at the kitchen table and sings a dry lament about his wife’s roving eye. Meanwhile, his aforementioned better half, Harris, as breathtaking as usual, flirts hilariously with a series of deliverymen… literally behind her husband’s back!
This soundie exemplifies the clever use of the cinematic language that the form, at its best, was capable of. The video opens with a lingering tilt upwards from a melting block of ice, lying on the floor, next to two sets of feet, as the camera reveals the charmingly coquettish wife cuddling with the ice man. The use of multiple planes of action later adds to the sophisticated humor of the piece, as Dickerson mournfully croons to the audience while his wife’s escapades take place in the background.
Although admittedly a less than ideal depiction of a couple’s home life, this soundie still portrays the lives of its characters as a subject worthy of the audience’s attention and interest. Which is still an improvement on classical Hollywood’s banishment of African American characters to the corners of its universe.
Interestingly enough, the Production Code—which banned risqué content and enforced a racially regressive worldview—didn’t apply to soundies, since they weren’t distributed for theatrical release. Indeed, with the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America delivering the reels, content might range from maudlin and pure patriotic songs to a striptease. Consequently, “The Outskirts of Town” and other soundies not only turned the spotlight on actors usually confined to the sidelines, but also relied on a slightly more mature and morally ambiguous comedic style that you’d see in many post-1934 features. The result reminds me of what would have happened had Ernst Lubitsch directed a soundie.
Although far from an equitable vehicle for expression—since the producers, distributers, and directors were often white—soundies offered a comparatively positive image of African Americans in an era of segregation. I’m not trying to claim that they’re innocent of stereotyping or demeaning content, but more often that not, the exuberance of these videos encourages identification and admiration rather than distance and mistrust.
For instance, “A Zoot Suit,” probably one of the more famous soundies due to the presence of a young, luminous Dorothy Dandridge, presents its lead singers as a chic young couple. The soundie defines them primarily by their peppy knowledge of fashion terminology. As the boy and the girl, Paul White and Dandridge, prepare for their Sunday date, they describe their choice of à la mode attire with zingy lyrics to their tailor and seamstress, respectively. Now, the zoot suit (and possibly other sartorial slang in the short) does connote race, since the style was especially popular among minorities, but the racial dimension isn’t coded negatively.
Rather, the soundie’s enthusiasm for White’s zoot suit reinforces the right of minority communities and individuals to develop and delight in their own identity and flair—and to influence mainstream culture with their style. The couple’s fashion vocabulary shows them to be on the cutting edge of fashions that were by no means exclusive to African American sub-culture in the 1940s. Attractive and likeable in appearance and graceful and eager in their stylized movements, the boy and the girl demonstrate their status as modern young Americans who would’ve probably been relatable for viewers of any background.
Plenty of soundies subordinated narrative in favor of a more presentational mode of performance. The shorts might feature a big band or musical ensemble giving their rendition of a popular song, perhaps punctuated by a dance number or a brief vignette. For instance, in “Your Feet’s Too Big,” attention shifts back and forth between Fats Waller’s wry rendition of the lyrics and a disastrous dancer dominating the floor of a nightclub. Just as modern music videos might include actors playing out a scenario but really focus on the main artist, it’s Waller—not the awkward dancer—who gets the last laugh. Looking into the camera, he drolly talk-sings, “In fact your pedal extremities are quite obnoxious!”
Similarly, in “Take Me Back Baby,” which features Count Basie and his orchestra, leisurely paced, well-framed shots of different musical sections emphasize the professionalism and the polished teamwork of the ensemble. However, the saxophonist, given a rest in the tune, nods off, dreams about his girl, and begs her to forgive him. By the end of the song, however, we’re back with the band, in the same atmosphere of creative coordination that’s noticeable at the beginning. The dream sequence creates an interesting A:B:A structure, a hybrid between a filmed performance and a dramatic musical number that, again, foreshadows the tropes of the modern music video.
Even without semi-narrative content, soundies balanced the duel goals of highlighting the performer’s talents while working with the potential of film as a medium. Kaleidoscope effects sometimes accentuated the dexterity of soloists like pianist Maurice Roco and jazz harpist LaVilla Tulos. It would be eye-catching to watch their fingers at work in a single close-up, but refracted into simultaneous images, the energy multiples amazingly. Since shadows were cheap, dancing silhouettes cast on to walls might enhance the noirish ambiance of a song, as in this soundie of “Minnie the Moocher”—with Cab Calloway, who else?
Most pervasively, soundies would grab the viewer’s attention by singling out performers with expressive close-ups or closer shots. Now, we’ve all come to accept the intimacy that forms between the illuminated faces on our computer screens and our experiences as solitary viewers. But try to imagine how electrifying it would’ve been to have Cab Calloway or Louis Armstrong performing seemingly just for you—not for a nightclub or for a theater full of moviegoers—in the 1940s. Soundies brought the beauty and joy of these artists and their music to viewers in a way that, in my opinion, wouldn’t be really experienced again until the birth of YouTube. In an age of enforced separation, the soundie was a medium of incomparable closeness.
A largely forgotten time capsule from a rich moment in American music, soundies deserve to be enjoyed and remembered for the rare glimpses they offer of gifted African American personalities and performers.
Here are a few other entertaining soundies or soundie compilations that you can watch on that great digital Panoram, YouTube: