Post Script to “'A Revolution in the Atmosphere': What Soundies can tell us about Nontheatrical Film Exhibition"
In “A Revolution in the Atmosphere,” I examine the exhibition practices of Soundies’ jukebox films in everyday spaces during the 1940s. This article is part of a larger research project in which I consider the cultural import of Soundies and their small screen practices within the shifting film and mediascape of the World War II era. One of the hurdles in sharing my work is that so few people have seen Soundies’ films or know much about the Panoram, the coin-operated machine that was designed to play these films. To that end, I want to use this space to share a few Soundies that I mention in my article and to underscore my approach to these films.
Loosely grouping Soundies by their most common spaces of exhibition (sites of leisure, transit, work and war-related events), I reconstruct their screen dynamics at these particular sites through historical accounts of their distribution practices, exhibition conditions, and playback and viewing technologies. Although these aspects provide a framework for mapping exhibition sites, I also utilize Soundies, the short 16mm musical films that were playing at these sites, as evidence of their exhibition, as a means to recover the seldom-documented spaces where these films were viewed. This move may seem counter-intuitive in a historical study of film exhibition; what can films, marked by their conditions of production, tell us of their circulation, their projection technologies, and their sites of exhibition? “A Revolution” engages this issue in detail by exploring the recurring discourse of screen-space connectivity that frames Soundies’ exhibition practices. I argue that Soundies’ films enact the emergence of a post-war, small-screen culture through their often mimetic representations of their exhibition conditions, that their very forms suggest possible viewing dynamics that render the screen appropriate to its surroundings and therefore sutures the screen into new cultural spaces.
By situating Soundies as remnants of their irrecoverable exhibition sites, I am suggesting a reconsideration and repositioning of Soundies as different kinds of cultural objects that allow for their analysis and import to extend beyond their representations of popular music on film to animating the very moment of historical film exhibition through the film itself. The following clips offer a sampling of Soundies and their exhibition dynamics. They certainly are entertaining films (if not at times hokey and just plain odd) that are rich in their expression of 1940s popular music and performance. But they also are evidentiary of their moments when they flickered on the Panoram jukebox screen in the corners of bowling alleys, next to the bar in neighborhood taverns, or in military and factory mess halls.
One Meat Ball (1945), featuring popular radio singer Patti Clayton, is a restaurant-themed Soundie and represents one of many Soundies set in the interior of a café, which was a common setting for a Panoram jukebox. One Meat Ball demonstrates Soundies’ small-screen aesthetics with its tighter shots and emphasis on the singer and the faces of the actors.
Similarly, the King Cole Trio’s Frim Fram Sauce (1942) also stages a restaurant-themed performance, but this film offers the added gimmick of showing a Panoram playing a Soundie in the corner of the café, a filmed representation of Soundie exhibition.Although I do not discuss this film in detail in this particular essay, it offers an excellent illustration of Soundies, their screen technology, and their integration into everyday settings.
Charlie Spivak’s Comin’ thru the Rye (1942) is not directly mimetic in its representations like Frim Fram Sauce, but it is one of the few Soundies where I have located an explicit account of its actual exhibition. With the Panoram playing this Soundie to a group of servicemen retuning from war in a lounge at Grand Central Station, New York, this portrait of Soundie exhibition offers the quintessential story of a soldier’s homecoming while watching pastoral images of the Scottish countryside on the small Panoram screen.
As this example of the transition from war to civilian life illustrates, Soundies’ exhibition practices are tightly interwoven with the war-era. Although my article tries to temper the sensationalism of Soundies’ exhibition that are related to the U.S.’s involvement in World War II in order to speak to the often undocumented and mundane aspects of Soundies’ cultural circulation, there is no denying the intense spirit of patriotism (and often racism) that shaped both Soundies’ films and their exhibition practices. For example, We’ll Slap the Japs (Right into the Laps of the Nazis) (1942), a call-to-arms film, also indexes their exhibition at war bond rallies.Popular accounts claim this Soundie splayed on a Panoram located in the lobby of Chicago’s City Hall for six months, both generating bond sales and recruiting troops.
When I initially wrote this article, I was more interested in recovering Soundies’ uptake and exhibition in commercial, consumer-oriented contexts, like bars, ice cream parlors, and nightclubs.Even though I examine their circulation in more institutional spaces that are related to the war-effort like government buildings and bond rallies, I was skeptical and somewhat resistant to over-emphasizing Soundies’ involvement in WWII for fear of adding to the nostalgia and romanticism of this era in U.S. history.Since that time my research has taken me precisely in the other direction to examining how the U.S. military effectively implemented the Panoram machine as a recreational machine (playing Soundies for soldier’s during their downtime) and an instructional device located in military training facilities.As the U.S. military’s use of the Panoram has proven to be far more prolific than I initially imagined, the recovery of Soundies’ exhibition practices has taken a institutional turn. Though the films playing in these militarized spaces are not just Soundies musical films and include specific training films, they too mark and are marked by their exhibition practices, revealing discursive tensions involving the mobility of screens and the mobilization of soldiers during and soon after the war. By examining both the commercial and institutional practices of these short films on small film screens during the 1940s, I have found that this integrative approach to mapping nontheatrical film has wider applications beyond Soundies’ jukebox films and extends to historical film scholarship interested in situating ephemeral films at their moments of exhibition.