Archival Spaces 287:
Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans
Uploaded 21 January 2022
Several years ago in a piece on “Preserving Race Films” (2016, edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack) I noted that much African-American film history from the 1930s and 40s had only survived in 16mm copies, which were often treated by archives as reference copies, rather than master material. Among the primary collections I discussed were the “Soundies” from the 1940s that only existed in 16mm, even though they were originally shot in 35mm. Produced for visual jukebox machines, these three-minute MTV-like clips of famous bands and singers were very popular in the World War II era and featured large numbers of African-American acts from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington big bands to Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge, Mable Lee, and the Mills Brothers. Now Susan Delson has published a new book on Soundies, Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen. One Dime at a Time (2021, Indiana University Press), which fills in the little-known history of this short-lived film genre.
As Susan Delson notes in her introduction, African-Americans participated in over 300 of the ca.1880 Soundies produced between 1940 and 1946, making them the first mass entertainment media in which they were not marginalized or relegated to racist stereotyping. Not that Soundies didn’t also sometimes feature racist images, which were still the norm in Hollywood’s film production and the society at large, but their extremely low budgets ironically gave both filmmakers and performers the freedom to express real emotions to their own community, as well as to the white majority. Furthermore, the weekly release of reels with six to eight Soundies, including at least one black-themed film, featured a wide variety of musical styles and acts and thus now constitute important documents of Black cultural history.
While the 3000 to 4500 Panoram movie jukebox machines were manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, the Soundies films were produced by affiliated subsidiaries, like RCM Productions in Hollywood and Minoco Productions in New York, and distributed by the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America, another subsidiary of Mills Novelty. Placed in bars, restaurants, defense plant lunch rooms, bus and train stations, and other public spaces, the Panoram machines allowed viewers to see a film for a dime, in the order they appeared on the reel, a limited market – given the number of machines in circulation – that forced producers to turn out Soundies quickly and extremely cheaply. Nevertheless, the whole financial structure of the operation remained shaky at best, until finally, it collapsed in the immediate post-World War II years.
The 17” by 22” Soundies screens were large enough to allow a dozen or more viewers to see the films, but small enough to call for a performance and visual aesthetic that anticipated television rather than follow big screen norms. While the quality of the productions varied greatly, depending on the producer, many of the black-cast Soundies allowed for experimentation and performative self-expression, giving urban African-American audiences non-racist images of themselves for the first time ever. In subsequent chapters, Delson not only introduces many of the filmmakers and performers populating these films but also their vision of black culture and life.
Given the war years, it’s surprising that only a “sliver of the hundreds of Soundies that feature Black performers” (p. 89) reference the War itself, possibly because African-Americans were initially ambivalent about the war, due to the rigid segregation of the Armed Services. While news of racial tensions, especially the riots of 1943, were excluded from Soundies, films, like When Johnny Comes Marching Home and We Are Americans Too, emphasized Black patriotism and sacrifice, their impact exceeding their numbers.
Many Soundies featured black urban spaces, city streets and living rooms, dance, and culture, as well as expressions of heterosexual romance, when Hollywood was still neutering African-American men and women, thus presenting images of black modernity to the community and white audiences. Then, as now with rap music, urban cool became a model for black and white teenagers. While Soundies situated in Southern rural locations were more apt to follow racist stereotyping, many were also imbued with a modern urban sensibility ”that flatly contradicts the good-bad, country-city binaries of many Black-cast Hollywood films…” (p. 116)
But the emphasis in most Black cast Soundies was on a joyful and playful heterosexual romance and sexuality, which was still invisible in mainstream media. Expressed primarily through dance and movement, sexuality was often slyly communicated through direct address to the audience, breaking down Hollywood’s fourth wall with a wink or a flash of leg. And while Black-cast Soundies were more heavily censored by local censorship boards than comparable white cast films, in particular when light and dark-skinned performers raised the specter of miscegenation, many films demonstrated both female agency and intimate onscreen pairings that must have delighted black audiences, especially those featuring Dorothy Dandridge who would cross-over to Hollywood stardom a decade later.
Integration, on the other hand, remained elusive in Soundies, “more often achieved in the editing room than on the film set…” (p. 193). Integration in fact only became visible when mixed black white bands appeared, e.g. Gene Krupa’s big band included African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge, while Phil Moore’s post-war Soundies featured white guitarist Chuck Wayne. Delson closes her excellent book with several appendixes, detailing every Black-cast Soundie produced, as well as the performers and filmmakers involved in their production. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of African-American popular culture.
Today, many Soundies are still available on YouTube. Soundies Susan Delson discusses are available on her website: https://www.susandelson.com/video/#videos. There has also been a vigorous trade in the 16mm film collectors market of soundies, which are easily identified by the fact that the image is reversed on the film, allowing for the original back-projection through mirrors.