In 1941 the Mills Novelty Company introduced the Panoram, a combination movie projector and juke box. When patrons inserted a dime, they were treated to a low budget three minute short film of a popular song of the day, performed by the artist. The Panoram was an immediate hit and as a result over 1800 Panoram shorts, or "soundies" were produced.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the demise of soundies, PBS produced an entertaining special entitled Soundies: A Musical History
, hosted by cabaret singer Michael Feinstein. This documentary aired as a two hour special during the March 2007 pledge drive.
The program is rich in both information and entertainment, and draws its musical and film expertise from such authorities as Leonard Maltin, Joe Franklin, Dan Morganstern, Stan Ridgway, George Duke, and Wynton Marsalis. The producers have also included interviews with surviving soundie performers such as Kay Starr, Van Alexander, Irving Fields, Les Paul, Hugh Martin (The Martins), Ginny Mancini (Mel Torme's Meltones) and dancers Jackie Lewis Parton and Eleanor McQueen.
But obviously the most important content in any musical documentary is the music itself, and this film is certainly no disappointment. Although no soundies are shown in their entirety, the producers have been more than generous with the music, including lengthy excerpts of classic soundies interspersed with the interview material. Another bonus is the video and sound quality of the transfers, which is the best that I have seen.
For big band fans, there is a treasure trove of classic material including Duke Ellington's "Cottontail" (featuring Ben Webster and Arthur White's Lindy Hoppers, and curiously mistitled "Hot Chocolate"), the Will Bradley-Ray McKinley Orchestra, Jimmy Dorsey with Helen O'Connell, Gene Krupa with Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge, Count Basie with Jimmie Rushing, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Claude Thornhill, Louis Armstrong, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Short clips from many of these soundies have been used repeatedly in numerous documentaries, so it is a treat to get to see lengthy portions of the original films.
Because soundies were at their peak during WWII, the Mills Novelty Company was contracted by the War Department to produce war-related films. The big bands also recorded their share of songs with a patriotic flavor. Mitchell Ayres' performance of "You're A Lucky Fellow Mr. Smith" and Spike Jones' film version of "Der Fuehrer's Face" are some of the clips used illustrate this genre of soundies.
Other clips feature fan dancers and other tempting bits of female pulchritude (a trait continued, albeit much more crudely, in today's music videos) as well as performances by popular singers and entertainers like Nat "King" Cole, Merle Travis, Doris Day, Cyd Charisse, Dorothy Dandridge, and Liberace.
The end of WWII brought about the end of the Panoram machine, as soldiers got married and stayed home instead of heading out to local night spots for entertainment. Money became tight in the postwar recession, and a new marvel called television offered to bring video entertainment right into the family living room. About 15 years after the demise of the Soundies, the Scopitone Company revived the musical jukebox tradition. Unfortunately the Scopitone films are mostly known today for their B-list performers and over-sexed, campy production values that scraped the bottom of the low budget barrel. But for lovers of Big Band era pop and jazz, the classic Mills Panoram soundies, nearly all of which have survived, provide a valuable visual record of performers generally known only through records.Soundies: A Musical History
was given limited distribution by Liberation Entertainment around the time of its PBS airing, and a DVD of the program was offered as a gift during the PBS pledge drive. As of this writing, a public DVD release of this program is not yet available.