Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Tribute to Pete Smith

When I was growing up, one of my favorite television programs was the occasional showing of a batch of theatrical short films known as "Pete Smith Specialties." Filmed during the 1930's, 40's, and early 50's, they covered a wide variety of topics, including several of what may well have been the world's first cooking videos. Usually, these films were of a decidedly humorous nature, to the point of making me howl out loud with laughter. Some, however, were of a more serious tone, such as his story of Louis Pasteur's development of immunization, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and amateur radio. Even these, however, invariably contained that special touch of sly, dry wit that was Pete Smith's hallmark throughout his career. In all, over 300 of these films were produced and distributed to movie theaters throughout the United States over a 25-year period. Two of these, "Penny Wisdom" and "Quicker'N A Wink," won Academy Awards for Best Short Subject of 1937 and 1940, respectively.

In addition to producing and narrating these delightful cinematic gems, Pete Smith was for many years the head of publicity and advertising for MGM, where the films were made. Upon his retirement in 1954, he was awarded a special honorary Oscar in recognition of his unique contribution to American filmmaking.

Sadly, his post-retirement years were not kind to Mr. Smith, who had to be hospitalized more and more frequently. Finally, depressed and despondent over his failing health, Pete Smith committed suicide on January 12, 1979, by jumping out of his 9th-floor hospital room window. He was 86 years old.

Even more sadly, however, despite their widespread popularity both in theaters and on television, Warner Home Video (which apparently now owns them) has steadfastly refused to make the Pete Smith Specialties collection available to home video audiences, either on videocassette or DVD. Occasionally, however, the Turner Classic Movies cable broadcasts one or two in between other motion pictures, or in a special presentation, such as their "Marathon of Shorts". Also, a few of them are included in DVD collections of other films, such as those of Esther Williams.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to find four Pete Smith Specialties on YouTube, of all places! The four shorts in question are "Menu," Radio Hams," "Penny Wisdom," and "Fisticuffs". I was glad indeed to be able to see them, to laugh at them, to enjoy them again. How I wish that somebody at Warner Home Video would have the brains--and the guts!--to make the entire collection available on DVD. I think they would be VERY pleasantly surprised at how popular they would once more prove to be! Warner Home Video, are you listening?


Rick said...

Thanks I didn't know he made 300. Also I have been looking for Pete Smith's work for sometime, now you have answered the question of why I have had so much difficulty locating the material.

Next again

Art Wheeler said...

Tom, I've been collecting Pete Smith Specialties for sometime now. I have found ways to get them from my DVR to avi files. I have been able to capture over 100 of these shorts. I also keep any eye out on Warner Archives website. They have released all of the Robert Benchley, Joe McDokes, Crime Does Not Pay and Dogville Comedy shorts. I hope that Pete Smith is not too far behind.