Thursday, June 5, 2014

wacky tacky Tunes: Scoping Out Scopitone

If you had a hammer, what would you do?  Would you hammer in the morning?  Would you hammer in the evening?  All over this land?  Would you?  Really?  Or, would you put on a beaded-chiffon cocktail dress, pin on your best hairpieces, and start dancing?!!

"If I Had a Hammer" - Debbie Reynolds
The lyrics kind of take on their own new meaning 
if one thinks of the nasty Reynolds/Fisher/Taylor triangle.

Presumably not the vision Pete Seeger had when he penned his 1949 anthem  of social justice, this mid-1960s Scopitone video featuring the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds, is a glittering bit of musical-mash-up genius.  Yes, Seeger and the folkies probably saw this incongruous extravaganza of set design, costuming, choreography, and rearranged folk music as a glaring miscarriage of social justice.  We, however, can only mete out wacky tacky justice and we find in favor of the Scopitone!

A Scopitone Machine

Scopitone machines, a short-lived technology, were essentially video jukeboxes found in barrooms, diners, nightclubs, and anywhere else an early-adopting proprietor would see fit to place one.  While similar devices abounded (see Cinebox, Colorama, et al.), Scopitone pulled ahead of the pack first in Europe and then in America where, for mere pocket change, fans could enjoy the likes of Herb Alpert, Paul Anka, and Della Reese performing their greatest hits - talk about being "Touched by an Angel!!!"

With roots on the continent, several of Scopitone's biggest
stars were European; this Scopitone machine features those
wacky tacky wunderkinds, The Kessler Twins.
Many of the videos are available to view online but ever since my brother lent me his three-volume compilation of Scopitones one week ago, I have been watching little else.  I love these videos not only for their second-tier stars and silly subject matter, but for their complete lack of polish; the Our Gang Follies had higher production values, for Petey's sake!  It's just lucky for them that we love lip-syncing and low quality productions.

"Daddy" - Julie London

"Wheel of Fortune" - Kay Starr

"Small Potatoes" - Gale Garnett

Scopitone videos often give the impression that late-night access to an unlocked soundstage was acquired by a loosely-associated film crew.  Inspired by whatever scenery and props happened to be lying around, they quickly developed what can best be described as sexy, if scattershot, story lines.  With a greater emphasis on commitment and strong facial expressions than on accuracy and synchronization, a small cast of unacquainted singers and dancers was assembled.   Overall, the motto appears to have been, "Let's get this in one take...before they catch us."  Some of the best examples of the American Scopitone ethos feature that buxom, platinum-haired starlet, Joi Lansing.

"Web of Love" - Joi Lansing

Well, my brothers and my sisters, I have a bell - a bell called Scopitone.  I'll ring it in the morning.  I'll in it in the evening all over this land.  I'll ring out danger.  I'll ring out a warning.  I'll ring out love (of Scopitone) between you all over this land!  Now where did I put my hammer?


Mr. Tiny

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