Soundies and Fantomas
Soundies were a short-lived phenomenon of the early 1940s. Filmed for reverse projection through mirrors in nickelodeon-style jukeboxes, the Soundies all have titles which, when projected normally, are backwards.
"Soundies" were a trademark of RCM Productions, an acronym of the last names of messers Roosevelt, Coslow, and Mill, obviously the founders of the enterprise. Sam Coslow was the Executive Producer of the Soundies shown tonight, and the films have such now-forgotten directors as Reginald LeBorg and Josef Berne, or had no directors listed at all. Novelties in their own time, the Soundies continue to fascinate, if only as historical oddities. They were decidedly camp, and a bit risque when they first appeared. Some were downright tawdry, but not as bad as their contemporaries, Coincraft films, which were more nearly peep shows.
In all, Soundies seem to have prefigured those ubiquitous staples of contemporary culture, music videos.
The first in the series (they will be screened interspersed with the silent films) comes without its credits, and gets catalogued as simply "WESTERN SWING NUMBER." Some have maintained that this short was the inspiration for the now-classic Devo music video, "Whip It," but that's hard to verify.
The second Soundie is "LAMP OF MEMORY," directed by Reginald LeBorg, who went on to some renown for horror features such as the 1944 "The Mummies Ghost (sic)," with Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine; the 1963 "Diary of a Madman" with Vincent Price; and "Psycho Sisters," (1972) with Susan Strasberg, which some consider a classic of the 70s horror/exploitation genre. The short stars Yvonne DeCarlo who, before she joined the TV cast of The Munsters, made a number of passable films such as "Passion," "Criss Cross," and "Liar's Moon." Though there are no prizes for choreography here, DeCarlo appears fetching. Since all Soundies were lip-synched, it's difficult to tell if this was DeCarlo's own voice.
The third Soundie, directed by Josef Berne, and starring Corinna Mura, is BABALU, which might have inspired Ed Wood. The prop department was raided for headdresses and grass skirts, and central casting supplied some overweight drummers and warriors, not to mention some fairly clueless dancers, in this "gone native" rendition of frenzied human sacrifice. Some say that the song is part of Santaria ritual, but that didn't hold back this production.
Lina Romay is the apotheosis of pert in the fourth Soundie, the old standard, DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE. Set on a soundstage "beach," clearly a truckload of sand dumped who knows where, the short showcases Romay, who sings, and does something akin to the hokey-pokey. Romay was also in films with Mae West ("The Heat's On") and Clark Gable ("Adventure").
The last Soundie presents Evelyn Dall singing SALOME, a slightly ribald song that could have been the "music club number" from a nearly legitimate 40s B-movie. The film is interesting because, since she's singing with a performing band, it seems as though the Soundie was recorded live in a continuous take, with two-camera cross-cutting, which would set it apart from its mates.
(French, 1913, 43 minutes, black & white, 16 mm)
FANTOMAS is a bedazzling film, not simply because of its many new, and at times revolutionary, film techniques, but because it is often quite difficult to follow. Since the main characters, the arch criminal, Fantomas, and his policeman nemesis, Juve, so often wear disguises, attention to the opening sequence, wherein each actor is presented in a preview series of false mustaches, beards, and different costumes, will save later frustration.
Rene Navarre, who plays Fantomas, appears in a shot without makeup, and is seen then first as Dr. Chaleck, a Svengali-type with a long beard; second, as Loupart, a roue in a bowler hat and moustache who's always smoking a cigarette; and third as "the man in black," a darkly clothed figure wearing a balaclava pulled down across his face.
Monsieur Breon plays Juve, and we see him, after his un-made-up shot, in two guises: first in a bowler hat with a heavier moustache and heavy eyebrows (at times this outfit will confuse the viewer with Fantomas's Loupart disguise, and at others with Fandor, Juve's fellow-cop). Second, Juve is disguised with a fedora, mutton chops, and a light-colored overcoat or duster.
Two accomplices of Fantomas, Josephine (who sets up Monsieur Martialle, a wine merchant carrying a lot of cash on the Simplon Express), and the mysterious Lady Beltham, in whose abandoned villa some of the action takes place, appear and disappear, but usually in recognizable guises.
The plot and action that take place remarkably prefigure the big budget adventure thrillers of the last decade or so: two cops chase our anti-hero, who continually outwits them with high-tech aids. There's a train wreck, a huge fire, intercepted communiques, a deadly snake, people crawling through ductwork and hiding with breathing tubes underwater in cisterns, and an apocalyptic explosion.
Cinematically, the film is full of marvels. Although a number of scenes (one between Juve and Fandor in which they discuss their plan of attack, another between Fantomas disguised as Dr. Chaleck with Lady Beltham in her boudoir) seem to occur in real rather than film time and so seem abnormally slow, on other occasions we see aspects of pre-World War I Paris that seem fresh and new to our eyes: exteriors with a steam trolley passing by like something out YELLOW SUBMARINE; people dancing the latest dance at "Au Crocodile," a Parisian nightclub; possibly the first live-action camera work on the Paris metro; and interior shots that show, through windows, passersby outdoors.
In all, this is blockbuster filmmaking, circa 1913.
—Donald Faulkner, NYS Writers Institute
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.