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When that afternoon the curious bystanders started to gather around the doors of a Parisian cafe, some of them remembered that other session at the city’s Grand Café, so long ago, in which the audience had laughed with L’arroseur arrosé before being scared to death by L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. Sixty-five years had gone by, but the initiation component made many of them compare that night with the première of the invention of the Lumière brothers.
The thing would end up with much more modest results, but that 23rd of December of 1960, when television was only a consumerist dream available to an almost inexistent minority, the presentation of the scopitone had something baptismal about it. A huge device, elephantiasic almost, two metres high and weighting nearly two hundred kilos, that the company Cameca was convinced could sell to any pretentious venue in France, and which besides had the bait of being something known to all. Because it was like an old jukebox, but with a magical new addition: a fifty-four-centimetre screen, an inconceivable luxury in those pre-television times, in which for a one-hundred-franc coin you could not only listen to a song but also watch images in motion of the singer or band performing it. And choose among thirty-six 16mm films with as many different songs. And in full colour!
And when the honours were made and the first coin was inserted, magic was produced. Before the amazed eyes of the spectators, there appeared the images of Salade de fruits, a vaguely Hawaiian-sounding tune by Annie Cordy, the popular Belgian queen of music hall. And indeed, she was singing the song herself while the camera chased her among fake trees and canes. The box of Pandora had been opened.
The first films showed the big stars of the times. In general, the so-called ‘chanteurs de charme’, those French crooners half operetta and half varietés and particularly keen on the fantaisies espagnoles (Henri Salvador and his Juanita Banana; Danyel Gérard and Le petit Gonzales), but also the great names of la chanson (Jacques Brel with Madeleine) and even pioneers of rockabilly in France (Les Chats Sauvages covering Ray Charles or Les Chaussettes Noires doing the same with Gene Vincent).
The filmmaking was meagre: one camera only, usually a natural set, a budget that was absolutely third worldly, never more than two hours of shooting, a single frame and a young and imaginative director in charge to be able to find solutions for the performer’s scarce resources when it came to performing. A woman director was the real pioneer of this invention: Daidy Davis-Boyer, old concert promoter for Django Reinhardt, Édith Piaf or Charles Aznavour and improvised director so prolific that she was re-christened “Mamy scopitone” after shooting several hundreds of pieces in no time with la crème de la crème of French music in those years. But also fundamental names of film, television and even the avant-garde such as Claude Lelouch or Jean-Christophe Averty gave there their first steps to learn how to manage a camera.
The success was immense. Scopitone became immediate bait for the masses and soon there was no French place à la mode without one. Even Cahiers du Cinéma gave an aura of prestige to the format by devoting to it an article on its pages. The device was exported to the US, England and Germany, and the Italians, always keen on fantasy but not so much on having to pay royalties, developed their own local clone, called Cinebox. Scopitones shot in France for the emigrant market soon jumped to their original colonies, giving way to mad local shootings, halfway between trash and bizarre, which became unexpected first-class sociological documents: a model for the most medieval male chauvinism would be the one that Algerian Salah Saadaoui did for his hit Hebit mera enezewej whedi.
The idea finally boomed in 1964, when the ye-yé wave invaded France. Teenagers, who for the first time in history started having pocket money of their own thanks to the consolidated economic boom, went in mass to bars, cafés and bistros to spend their one-hundred-franc coins to see in motion those idoles that up until then they could only see as fixed images thanks to magazines such as Salut les copains. The first hit would be Françoise Hardy’s famous scopitone of Tous les garçons et les filles, where she appears on the big wheel of boulevard de Rochechouart. That of Noir c’est noir, with Johnny Hallyday covering Los Bravos on a black and white stage, Loco-motion with Sylvie Vartan playing Little Eva at the little train of the Parisian Jardin d’Acclimatation, or France Gall performing Serge Gainsbourg jewels such as Laisse tomber les filles became iconic images of the French youth of the times and of De Gaulle’s France itself. The format was definitely consolidated and directors had no limits to materialise any idea, no matter how mad. If one day they shot a terror and comedy melting pot with bigmouth girl Stella at the witch train (Le vampire), another day they put Dalida in an operetta shell camp and mixed these images with others from documentaries of D-Day (Le jour le plus long). The three minutes those celluloid film reels lasted seemed the only limit when it came to shooting. We can even find among these works one of the masterpieces of scopitone: that of comedy singer Georges de Giafferi singing his ode to extreme love in song Sado maso.
It all stank of money, lots of money. And the SACEM, French equivalent of Spanish SGAE, wasn’t going to miss its chance. In 1965, scopitones free of tax up to then, will be severely taxed and thus the business will become a lot less buoyant. In the midst of the ye-yé boom, when scopitone projection seemed to project itself towards the stratosphere, the business ceased to make money. There were less and less films available each time and owners of venues started thinking about eliminating that junk box that took so much space and attracted less and less people.
The coup de grace would arrive with the May 68 hurricane. The hurried changes brought about by Parisian revolt dynamited the political res, but in a domino effect, they affected as well musical taste. Young people no longer chose playful and hedonistic songs, but singers-songwriters with a message, songs that evolved towards progressive rock with long instrumental developments that wouldn’t fit in a single celluloid reel. Idoles themselves looked for more ambitious paths: Serge Gainsbourg would direct his first pieces to be projected in cinemas (no distributor wanted to buy them: oh, that vampire face…), Johnny Hallyday, always bigger than life, started thinking about 5+1, the filming of one of his concerts with which to conform a complete film alternating the footage with the recording of the Rolling Stones’ concert at Hyde Park. Attacked from all fronts, scopitone realisation descended to the minimum. Cameca ended up closing its factory on that same 1968 and the business disappeared as fast as it had arrived. Or maybe not, because the invention of the scopitone would keep on muting and surviving until the beginning of the nineties: this journalist still remembers how his school breaks were spent at a bar with a LaserDisc video machine, oh that format! But none of that made much sense anymore. Scopitone had been substituted by music videos long ago and the MTV generation, having the possibility of seeing them at any time of day just by flipping a channel no longer needed a one-hundred-franc to have the world on their hands.