This was another instance of coming in the back door: I was trying to find the name of one of those old penny-arcade flip machines where you put in a penny or a nickel and turned a crank and looked in a little window and a big revolving thingammy with photos attached to it flipped around and provided a crude kind of motion picture. These were peep-show things that often showed mildly dirty movies, all of 30 seconds long. I couldn't find the name of it, so couldn't really get any information or see any YouTube clips on it. At some point, having gone through zoetrope and a bunch of other names I can't remember because they were so weird, gizmatrons and walbergerscopes and stuff, the name mutoscope popped out.
A funny thing to call it, but that's what it was. The few existing functional mutoscopes are pretty pathetic to look at, the photos all rotten at the edges like the underside of a mushroom. Women dance around with scanty clothing on, a man touches a woman's leg, two women get into bed and tickle each other, etc. Hot stuff. Ministers and arbiters of morals thundered against them:
In 1899, The Times printed a letter inveighing against "vicious demoralising picture shows in the penny-in-the-slot machines. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the corruption of the young that comes from exhibiting under a strong light, nude female figures represented as living and moving, going into and out of baths, sitting as artists' models etc. Similar exhibitions took place at Rhyl in the men's lavatory, but, owing to public denunciation, they have been stopped."
A collector's site describes the contents of one such reel, "Birth of the Pearl" which "pictures a nude woman rising from a seashell and standing." The site notes "this reel has some damage to a whole chunk of photos. They are all in a section where there was full frontal nudity and the cards are quite worn off."
Pretty hot stuff, eh? But then I started to think about a movie I saw eons ago (EONS, EONS!: see former post) called Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. I had a thing for Joel Grey then, and he looked plain sexy in this, with a full beard that was obviously real. He looked downright Biblical in it, and I lusted. Anyway, at some point one of BB's girl friends trucks a sort of musical contraption into the Wild West show. It was a big ornate wooden cabinet with a revolving metal disc in it, and it played this unearthly music. It took me a while to track these down, too: they turned out to be just music boxes, except with exotic names like 27 Inch Regina (which, come to think of it, sounds vaguely obscene). I think they produce a sound from another time, lyrical and sweet, reminiscent of antique merry-go-rounds and Victorian parlours with tweeting canaries. The tuning is actually pretty good on these two, and the pieces complex.
I don't know who made these, or how, but it must have been quite an art. I LOVE the clatters and bangs at the start and finish, reminding us that these are, after all, hunks of tin. A marvel of design and musicianship. The way the notes decay or die off is sweet and bell-like, making the notes float into each other in a way I find enchanting.