Kino Classics has teamed up with the Library of Congress for an astonishing release, Soundies: The Ultimate Collection. Soundies were an early forefather of the music video, produced in the 1940s. This 4-disc collection of 200 Soundies bounces across a variety of musical genres but is heavy on jazzy performances, be they big band, swing, or croon-y in nature. This collection features many big names like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Hoagy Carmichael, Nat “King” Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, Doris Day, Fats Waller, Les Paul, Louis Jordan, Cindy Walker, Spike Jones, Liberace (credited as “Walter Liberace”), and even a then-unknown Ricardo Montalbán lip-synching to someone else’s voice. A/V quality is inconsistent due to the film prints available, but the time capsule value is off the charts. Recommended.
From 1941 to 1947, the Mills Novelty Company distributed jukebox-looking cabinets with a TV-style screen called Panorams to bars, restaurants, and other public spaces. These Panorams would offer Soundies, an early forebear to the music video. The Soundies were distributed on 16mm film loops that would screen for ten cents a play. Unlike an actual jukebox – or the later Scopitone machines that would surface in the ‘60s – the Panoram did not offer the ability to pick a Soundie. You stuck in your dime, and you got whatever clip was next in that week’s eight-clip loop. As historian Mark Cantor points out in a supplemental interview (see Special Features below), if you wanted to re-watch a clip you liked, you’d basically have to spend a dollar and a half hour of your time just to get back around to it.
To emulate that original experience, Soundies: The Ultimate Collection has been curated into a series of eight-film programs. Most are organized by theme, although each of the set’s four discs ends with a recreation of an actual loop that was distributed to the Panorams. Soundies were courting a wide audience, so the original loops are much more eclectic than the curated programs. The films cover diverse musical genres and delve into vaudeville-style novelty acts (a judo demonstration, acrobat dogs, etc.).
The collection is hosted and curated by Susan Delson, who has appeared on Turner Classic Movies and has recently written the book Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time. She provides broad thematic intros to each disc and then more focused intros for each eight-film package; she is often joined by conservationist Ina Archer. Both women are clearly fond of the Soundies format, even if some of the subject matter of certain shorts can get dicey. A sizable chunk of the included films traffic in racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes, but Delson and Archer do much more than simply offer content warnings: they highlight subversive alternatives that can also be found in the Soundies film library which challenge those same stereotypes.
The first disc of the set is subtitled “Introducing Soundies,” and attempts to offer a survey of the Soundies style. Many of the films go for a straightforward performance approach: a band will be on a bandstand or a nightclub set or something similar and a few cameras will capture it like it was a live performance. (The songs were typically pre-recorded in a studio, although they were recorded just for the Soundie.) Some of the films attempt full-on production dance numbers, though naturally on a smaller scale than Hollywood. More still split the difference between these approaches and cut away to select story moments or comic gags to spice up a single-set musical performance. For example, the Count Basie song “Air Mail Special” provides the background to a dance-’til-you-drop contest where the winner is a wily fella with a clandestine crutch.
Considering the prefab nature of the music, the films rely on charismatic miming and lip-synching (although performers not infrequently get out of step with the recording, with little consequence). A program focused on piano players offers some high-energy ivory-tickling by the likes of Liberace, Fats Waller, and Harry “The Hipster” Gibson (who sadly does not perform his illicit hit “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”). Elsewhere, Maurice Rocco – who suggests a hybrid of Little Richard and Cab Calloway – lights up the keyboard with some early R&B. (Calloway himself also appears in the set with his orchestra, performing “Skunk Song.”) Dorothy Dandridge stares straight into the camera and into our hearts in a variety of dance and singing spotlights included here. Country music legend Cindy Walker is the comic lead actor of her own story-songs, “Seven Beers with the Wrong Man” and “Bearcat Mountain Gal.”
America was involved in World War II during most of the Soundies era, so it makes sense that the war and the homefront takes center stage with the set’s second disc. Much like Hollywood’s output at the time, the Soundies relating to this era both attempt to reflect life as it was (Kay Starr and Jimmie Dodd’s apartment building lament, “Stop That Dancing Up There;” The Hoosier Hot Shots’ basic training satire, “K.P. Serenade”) and to smuggle in some patriotic propaganda. I mean the titles “I Shut My Mouth for Uncle Sam” and “We’ll Slap the Japs (Right Into the Laps of the Nazis)” kind of say it all.
The third disc tries to highlight the breadth of popular musical styles at the time, in addition to the many hybrids that developed. Irish tenors, Russian dancers, and Hawaiian war chanters are all featured. Latin music is highlighted as a key influence on pop music of the time, as evidenced by a handful of shorts where the rhumba is melded with swing, with boogie-woogie, and with Hawaiian hula dancing. Ricardo Montalbán makes an amusing appearance as a sexy Latin-lover busker who woos the ladies of the Staten Island Ferry (although we never actually hear him sing).
My favorite eight-film program from this disc is called “Heading Toward Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and it features a tasty mix of swing, jump blues, and boogie-woogie by the aforementioned Louis Jordan, Maurice Rocco, and Harry the Hipster, plus guitar great Les Paul and the electrifying Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Certain stretches of this collection hold more novelty and historical value for me than straightforward entertainment, but this program in particular speaks to me musically. This is good stuff.
The final disc is grouped under the heading “Women, Sexuality, and Gender,” and it attempts to show both the ways that these shorts could reinforce typical ideas about women’s roles in American society and the ways that loose censor oversight allowed some progressive and even subversive images to slip through. One of the key programs alternates films featuring Dorothy Dandridge and Gale Storm, showing how they are typed as a flirty Black woman and a girl-next-door White woman respectively. I mean, which of these two do you think dances the “Jungle Jig?” Hoo boy.
All in all, this is a wonderful set. Both fascinating and entertaining. It offers some great little-seen footage of some legendary performers, in addition to offering a great document of semi-forgotten acts. One of those great discoveries is the vocal trio Day, Dawn, and Dusk, who can be seen irreverently swinging through updates of “Rigoletto” and “Faust.” And speaking of charismatic trios, there’s also the Kim Loo Sisters, a Chinese-American tight-harmony group whose style is reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters.
For classic film and classic music fans, this generous collection is quite a rediscovery!
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Soundies: The Ultimate Collection is housed in a standard-sized keepcase with the four discs on two sets of back-to-back hubs. A cardboard slipcover duplicates the cover art. Included inside is a 44-page booklet that includes stills and essays from Susan Delson, Mark Cantor, and Ellen C. Scott, plus credits for all 200 Soundies in the set, compiled by Mark Cantor. Each disc loads to a brief copyright warning and the Kino Classics logo before landing on the menu, meant to evoke the look of a Panoram screen between shows. This release is Region Free.
The booklet provides no technical info about the 200 shorts included in this set, but it’s obvious that all of these 1080p AVC-encoded pillarboxed 1.33:1 presentations are coming from wildly disparate film sources. A few, like the Dorothy Dandridge showcase “Cow Cow Boogie,” have been sourced from 35mm materials that are detailed, crisp, and clean. But the majority come from 16mm prints of different generations with varying amounts of damage. Apart from a few stray instances of actual film warping, the images are typically stable, even if contrast and clarity are inconsistent. Dirt and scratches appear for most of the duration. The digital encoding never interferes or compounds the issues of the celluloid anomalies. (The host segments are presented in 1.78:1 and look great.)
Like the video, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio is inconsistent and depends on the quality of the film material being used. At its best, the soundtrack rises to the fidelity of an old record – narrow and a bit tinny. Often, though, the sound is layered with surface noise and hiss. The volume also shifts from selection to selection, making the surface noise more or less prominent – but it’s rarely not there. An optional English SDH track, with lyric transcriptions and descriptions of occasional sound effects, is provided.
In addition to the introductions throughout the set from Susan Delson and Ina Archer, there are a handful of further illuminating featurettes. Only one quibble: two of the Soundies referenced and excerpted in these interviews – a Louis Jordan clip and a Louis Armstrong clip – are not actually presented in full in the set. I’m sure it’s hard to keep track of what’s included in a collection of 200 shorts, but it’s odd to highlight these titles and then not show them to us.
Inside the Panoram (HD, 32:04) - A four-part interview with Mark Cantor, discussing the history of the Soundies and the device used to screen them: the Panoram. The four parts are spread over the four discs of the set, and even includes, as the title suggests, a look inside a working Panoram to see how the mechanism functions.
From the Vaults (HD, 8:05) - Matthew Barton and Mike Mashon from the Library of Congress talk about their work preserving Soundies and cinematic ephemera of its ilk. They also discuss how a large swath of these titles were filmed during a recording ban, meaning certain songs appeared exclusively in Soundies years before they made it to a record.
The Minoco Logo (HD, 1:57) - A little montage of logos that play silently at the start of Mills Novelty Company Soundies while the audio tubes are warming up.
Celebrating the Chorus Line (HD, 21:41) - An extra 8-film loop of Soundies that didn’t make the official program and don’t come with an intro, but are all themed around dancing and chorus lines. (Oddly, this is listed in the bonus menu, but the set’s advertised count of 200 Soundies must include these eight films. The collection otherwise only contains 192 films: 4 discs, each with 6 programs of 8 shorts.)
Soundies: The Ultimate Collection represents a unique and largely forgotten piece in the history of music on film. This collection is thoughtfully and entertainingly compiled, with an eye toward preserving and contextualizing this archival material but also toward reviving a bygone experience. When a Soundie ends, there’s the wonder and anticipation of what the heck the next one will have to offer. Often, it’s not exactly what you expect. Sadly, these films have gotten significantly beaten up over the years, but Kino and the Library of Congress have done well considering the quality of the surviving materials. An unexpected treat. Recommended.