February 6, 2009

Third Dimensional Frankenstein

In a publicity photo, an unsuspecting Pete Smith is stalked by Ed Payson’s Frankenstein.

With a background as a Billboard reviewer and a studio publicist, Pete Smith was hired as Head of the Publicity Department at MGM in 1925. By 1930, he had drifted to the Production Department, moonlighting as writer and narrator of short subjects, where he found his true calling. Smith’s nose for novelty, his gently ironic humor and his folksy, mock-serious delivery clicked with audiences. By the mid-thirties, Smith was a full-time producer/narrator churning out the enormously popular one-reel comic documentaries that came to be known as Pete Smith Specialties. Sometimes billing himself as A Smith Named Pete, he would produce over 150 of his signature oddball one-reelers over a period of 25 years.

A favorite subject of Smith’s was sports, providing humorous looks at everything from tennis, ping pong and bowling to ice hockey, sail-, horse- and auto-racing, an annual look at football, and bizarre athletics like hurling, human surfboarding, and donkey baseball. With their emphasis on trick shots and spectacle, these shorts were the forerunners of the sports highlight reels on TV today.

Animals were always good as a ten-minute program filler, with Smith expounding on exotic birds, rare fish, rambunctious sea lions and, especially, dogs. A documentary on dogcatchers was done from the point of view of the catchee, and two shorts were devoted to Fala, President FDR’s famous First Pooch. Semi-serious subject matter, illuminated with wry commentary, included a history of anesthesia, the “romance” of radium, a look at chain-letter fraud, cooking lessons, dancing tips with Arthur Murray, a Depression-era feature on inflation, and, as the war years unfolded, patriotic episodes dealing with marines in training, scrap metal drives and hiring people with disabilities.

Some of Smith’s output was outright comedy, notably a series of fake newsreels repurposing old silents with new narration, presented as Metrophony and Whataphony Newsreels, or Super Stupid Pictures.

Smith’s writers included Thorne Smith, creator of Topper, and the team of Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo, who would go on to script the classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Directors were a who’s who of B-Movie journeymen like Felix Feist, Nick Grinde (director of Boris Karloff vehicles at Columbia), Edward L. Cahn, Joseph M. Newman, and short subject specialists like Ray McCarey and the formidable Jules White who would oversee the screen career of The Three Stooges. Jacques Tourneur, who would go on to direct Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie and Out of the Past made his first American films for Pete Smith, notably Killer Dog, a short about a dog on trial for murder. A few of Smith’s directors would graduate to ‘A’ pictures. Fred Zinneman went on to make High Noon and George Sidney would direct splashy, big budget musicals the likes of Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra and Viva Las Vegas with Elvis Presley.

In the Forties, Smith found a kindred soul in Dave O’Brien, a character actor with a flair for the absurd and a talent for pratfalls. O’Brien is best remembered today as the panicky pothead — “Faster! Play it faster!” — in the cult classic Reefer Madness (1936). O’Brien also played opposite Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat (1940), and he was Republic’s Captain Midnight.

Under Smith’s supervision, O’Brien wrote and, as “David Barclay”, directed numerous Specialties in which he grappled with household appliances, lawnmowers, breakaway furniture, goofy inventions, mothers-in-law, hiccups and hair loss. Introduced as Silas Q. Softheart, Chris Crusty, Joe Thunderstruck, Thadeus E. Thud the Third, Wrong Way Butch, or The Indestructible Falstaff Pratt, O’Brien was Smith’s onscreen alter ego, stepping and stumbling his way into domestic chaos, do-it-yourself mishaps and assorted minor catastrophes. When the Pete Smith Specialties wrapped in 1955, the last episode, The Fall Guy, was a tribute to O’Brien, compiling his most spectacular misadventures.

On several occasions through the years, Smith explored visual effects with episodes devoted to microscopic lenses, the history of photography, and a 1940 Oscar-winning entry, Quicker’n a Wink, featuring the stroboscopic cinematography of Harold Edgerton that first introduced a wide audience to super slow-motion films such as a bullet hitting a light bulb and a hummingbird in flight. Scenes from the film would be reused in documentaries and television programs for years to come.

Pete Smith’s eventual encounter with The Frankenstein Monster was seeded in 1935 with Audioscopics, an experiment in two-color 3-D using the Leventhal and Nordling anaglyph system. The short was so popular it spawned a second entry, The New Audioscopics, in 1938. The films explained the 3-D process and then proceeded to assail the viewers with sundry objects — ladders, slide trombones and so on — poking off the screen. Posters for the 3-D shorts show a movie audience looking up at a gigantic screen as a pitcher throws an enormous baseball over their heads. Another poster featured a rampaging elephant leaping into the audience. The same type of poster would be commonly used by exhibitors in the 3-D craze of the early Fifties, with lions, projectiles, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon bursting off the screen. In fact, the effect is still used today. A poster for the recent My Bloody Valentine 3D shows an audience recoiling from a looming pickaxe.

In 1941, a third 3-D film was made, this time with a simple storyline. Written by Jerry Hoffman and directed by George Sidney, Third Dimensional Murder (also known as Murder in 3-D) presented its 3-D tricks in a haunted house framework. The scary cast of this trapdoor and cobweb infested mansion included a cackling witch, a wooden Indian, a chattering skeleton and one character with a bone through his nose (referred to as a zombie) shoving tarantulas, spearheads, clubs and claws at the viewer. The recurring menace here is “Frankenstein” who first appears on a landing brandishing a lantern.

King-sized character actor Ed Payson wore a pasty-faced buckethead makeup by Jack Kevan, and the bulky sheepskin vest seen in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein in 1939. The climax has Frankenstein hurling masonry and a burning log off the roof, ultimately pulling a Quasimodo and pouring “hot sizzling molten lead” onto our heads, and even throwing the cauldron after it.

MGM’s 3-D shorts proved immensely popular and tens of thousands of cardboard glasses were handed out to patrons as the films were booked over and over again through the years. During the 3-D craze of the Fifties, the three shorts were cut together and released as Metroscopics for a last lap around the track. In the years since, as Pete Smith once ubiquitous films lapsed from popular memory, Third Dimensional Murder was rarely shown again, acquiring something of a cult reputation. Now, in the age of YouTube, the film is freely available on the net.

You need 3-D glasses to watch it, but even then, the two-color separation seems to be a bit too wide and it’ll look fuzzy even with the special eyewear. Nevertheless, Frankenstein’s first 3D adventure is fun, if corny, and it’s a fascinating curio.

Here's a typical “Pete Smith Specialty”, Things We Can Do Without, written by and starring Dave O’Brien, from 1953. On Hit City Video.
Pete’s Scopics, an article on Pete Smith’s 3-D films.


Max the drunken severed head said...

Seeing photos from this short as a kid, I was always amazed that a PROFESSIONAL HOLLYWOOD MOVIE could feature a makeup job that even a kid like me coulda done it! I mean, it appears to be made from masking tape! (Not even Harry Thomas or Roy Ashton would have used tape for a makeup.) Maybe the hair was yarn, too! ;)

I did not see 3 DIMENSIONAL MURDER as a kid, but I was familiar with Pete Smith's short films. (Some were even funny!) One can never get the narrator's smirking nasal monotone out of one's memory...

rob! said...

Once again Pierre you have shown me something totally new. Amazing how much stuff is out there, and that you keep finding it! Awesome post.

Why wasn't this included on one of the many Frankenstein DVDs?!?

Anonymous said...

Rob: Probably has to do with getting permission of whoever owns the rights.

Pierre Fournier said...

Max: That makeup looks like its an over-the-head paper bag job.

Rob: Glad you've discovered this 3D Frankenstein. It was an MGM film and might not be available to Universal, but you're right, it would make a great DVD extra.

rob! said...

Yeah, it probably does have something to do with the rights, but what the hell is MGM going to do with it? Don't they pretty much just exist to make Bond movies? Hand it to Universal for a Favor To Be Named Later.

I'd love if--when--Universal does yet another Frankenstein Special Edition, they'd add that.

Anonymous said...

You are right about the separation being to wide on the YouTube video of "Third Dimensional Murder," which destroys the 3d effect (along with the very poor resolution of YouTube in general).

Also note that the "red is right eye" rule is usually just the opposite on the internet. Usually, on the net, the red is the left eye, so don't just assume red is for the right eye. Perhaps it should be, but that is usually not correct on internet 3D.

phil in NC