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.