Tales from the Vault: “Specialties” of the House

Steve Seidman

LONG BEFORE NFL FILMS GAVE PRO FOOTBALL THE HOLLYWOOD
TREATMENT, PETE SMITH EARNED A STAR ON THE WALK OF FAME BY
SHOUTING “LIGHTS-CAMERA-ACTION’ AT THE GAME’S GREATEST PLAYERS.

Let me take you back to a time long ago, before there was NFL Films, even before television embraced pro football, married it, and then conceived bouncy little highlight packages. This was a time when if you wanted to see pro football depicted on celluloid, the pickings were slim indeed.

In the movie theaters, there were newsreels, of course. Hearst Metrotone News and “The March of Time” were among the companies that produced a weekly recap of the world and national news. A typical newsreel likely consisted of footage involving floods, fires, and other assorted calamities, European royals waving to their loyal subjects, skyscraper and dam construction, the Nazis advancing, the French retreating, and so on. When it came to the sports segment, the newsreels offered the occasional pro football game recap in their weekly newsreels, but during the Golden Age of movie exhibition, pro football took a rumble seat to the college game. Besides, the sports segment often gave producers the opportunity to explore the more off-beat and esoteric side of sports, meaning that newsreels were more likely to focus on chimpanzees playing table tennis than Bill Dudley ping-ponging off defenders on his way to the end zone.

On the rare occasions when a newsreel included pro football highlights, they were presented in straightforward fashion. There were no ground-level angles, no slow-motion, and no sync sound. But creative treatments of pro football weren’t completely absent from the big screen. Short subjects and one-reelers (so-called because the content ran as long as a single reel of film – approximately 10 minutes) provided a rich source of sports-related subject matter. The redoubtable Harry Wismer, future owner of the AFL’s New York Titans, narrated sports shorts for Pathé while a series entitled Ted Husing’s “Sports Slants” was produced by Vitaphone.

Pete Smith with Frankenstein's monster

But from 1931 to 1955, the undisputed king of short subjects was Pete Smith, whose name appeared on a popular series entitled “The Pete Smith Specialties.” A former MGM publicist, Smith didn’t direct any of the films which bear his name* and he has only a few writing or “continuity” credits. Smith’s “specialty” was his droll, nasal-voiced commentary, which he applied to the pitfalls of domestic life (MENU), the examination of how things worked (RADIO HAMS), and the shenanigans of household pets (CAT COLLEGE, DOG HOUSE), He also made an early experiment in 3-D, entitled MURDER IN 3-D, which was also unique in that it marked one of the few times that Smith actually appeared on camera. These productions – and all of the “Specialties” for that matter – centered on Smith’s idiosyncratic and ironic take on various aspects of American life.

Most of the 150 one-reelers that bore Smith’s name were about sports. For over 20 years, the “Specialties” covered every conceivable kind of athletic endeavor, from trout fishing to bowling to boxing. There was the FOOTBALL THRILLS series-within-the-series that centered on the college game, and there were three short subjects involving pro football: PRO FOOTBALL (1934), PIGSKIN CHAMPIONSHIP (1939) and PIGSKIN SKILL (1948). All of the sports-related “Specialties,” and particularly the pro football shorts, were heavy on trick plays and trick photography. Nearly every scene was filmed in slow motion, and there were also freeze frames and various optical effects. Smith didn’t seem to be as interested in the fundamentals of the game as he was in showing players performing fanciful plays that were highly unlikely to be used in an actual NFL game, such as triple laterals, behind-the-back passes, and the “hidden ball” play. Nearly everything was played for laughs – the obvious influences on the Smith pro football shorts are the game sequences from classic movie comedies like THE FRESHMAN (1925) and HORSE FEATHERS (1932).

The pro football “Specialties” are virtually devoid of the spontaneity of a real game. Every action was staged for the camera, which was often placed on tracks or positioned below the players. In an interview we conducted with former Packers End Bernie Scherer in 1995, he recalls that:

MGM wanted to make a picture of us in a Pete Smith Specialty. When we found out that there was going to be money involved we said “Let’s go for it guys.” They had directors shouting to us all the time. They were right down there with cameras and it was well-planned. We spent about 10 days doing that. The thing that was good about it was we got 500 bucks apiece.  That was quite an honor to work for MGM.

PRO FOOTBALL**features the 1933 Chicago Bears, who as the defending world champions, came West on a barnstorming tour in 1934, playing semi-pro teams such as the Westwood Cubs and the Salinas Icepackers. MGM knew “star power” when they saw it, and the Bears, coached by the immortal George Halas, were the starriest of any team playing in the young NFL. Their roster included future Hall of Famers Red Grange, George Musso, Bronko Nagurski and Bill Hewitt, all of whom appear in PRO FOOTBALL and look resplendent in white leather helmets and satin pants. While Grange is introduced as “pro football’s Superman,” at this stage of his career the pudgy halfback was more The Man of Flesh than The Man of Steel. But we get to see him juke a potential tackler with a move that puts Barry Sanders to shame.  It’s so obviously a set-up mainly because, by 1933, after several knee injuries, Grange’s juking days were a memory (1934 would mark his final season as a pro).  Grange’s move also gives the “Specialty” technicians a chance to use “wacky” sound effects (here, it’s a car hitting the brakes when Grange plants his foot before faking out the defender). The triple lateral play makes its first appearance here, and after we see it once, Smith’s voice-over commands, “Let’s go back boys, and do that again.” The film reverses at sound speed, accompanied by more of those “wacky” sound effects, including galloping hooves and whistles.

Red Grange

The finale of PRO FOOTBALL shows Grange and his teammates “acting” effeminately as they swivel their hips and saunter up to the line of scrimmage, skip into the end zone, then do a post-touchdown celebration that would get flagged today for “excessive political incorrectness.” This so-called “pansy humor” was frequently employed in the “Specialties.” MENU features character actor Franklin Pangborne, whose swishy mannerisms made him Hollywood’s go to gay, er, guy, for playing mincing fussbudgets. In nearly every “Specialty,” Smith himself would at some point add a “hint of mint” to his narration.

Don Hutson (AP)

In PIGSKIN CHAMPIONSHIP, it’s the 1938 world champion Green Bay Packers who are given the star treatment. This film shows Packer quarterback Arnie Herber breaking  a pane of glass with a 60 yard throw, four unnamed players kicking – and making – field goals at the same time, and the ‘double spinner play” which is shot below a glass platform to make it look like the Packers are floating on air. There are naturally plenty of “wacky” sound effects (i.e., whistles, slide trombones, crashing vehicles, etc.) and Smith’s commentary reaches for laughs at the Packers’ expense. Interestingly enough, Don Hutson is the only Packer who’s allowed to keep his dignity. The legendary wide receiver is shown doing what he did better than anyone else in NFL history until Jerry Rice came along – catching long passes and outrunning defenders. No tricks, no sound effects, just 100% pure unadulterated Don Hutson.

PIGSKIN THRILLS is the only one of the three pro football “Specialties” to be shot in Technicolor and the emphasis is on “jokes” rather than “thrills.”  A running gag finds Bob Waterfield trying to knock a pipe out of teammate Fred Gehrke’s mouth with a forward pass thrown from 30 yards away. While Waterfield performs the trick flawlessly the first time, he hits Gehrke squarely on the head every time thereafter. Each time the ol’ noggin gets rocked, we get the same close-up of the dazed Gehrke, eyes fluttering and lips quivering. Given the many recently documented cases of brain damage suffered by players from this era, the repetition of the gag is cringe-worthy stuff in retrospect.  And even if there were no players from this era who suffered brain injury, the repetition of the gag would still be cringe-worthy. The highlight of the film is Waterfield executing a perfectly placed coffin corner punt (echoing a similar effort by Clark Hinkle in PIGSKIN CHAMPIONSHIP). We also get to see a broken field run – as elaborately staged as the car chase in THE FRENCH CONNECTION – by Tom Harmon, the glamorous Michigan star whose pro career was cut short by injury.

PRO FOOTBALL, PIGSKIN CHAMPIONS and PIGSKIN THRILLS don’t leave you with the sense that Smith loved pro football, or was even interested in it. My own feeling is that he saw the game as another subject ripe for his so-called “witty” commentary.

Bob Waterfield (AP)

Smith was sort of a lowbrow version of Robert Benchley, and while his verbal humor was the distinguishing feature of the “Specialties”, there was also plenty of slapstick comedy.*** I’ll confess that Smith’s enduring popularity over three decades is a bit of a mystery to me – I find his narrations about as funny as lung cancer, actually. By the time he started crediting himself as “A Smith Named Pete” he had crossed over the line from comedy into insufferable preciousness. I suspect, however, that audiences embraced Smith’s “whimsical” take on familiar facets of Americana, and they especially responded to the way that these shorts were largely centered on transforming the familiar into the “fantastic.”

Smith won two Academy Awards for his “Specialties” as well as an honorary Oscar for his “pungent observations on the American scene.” He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The short subject began its decline during the mid-50’s, and Smith’s final one-reeler was released in 1955. Plagued by ongoing health problems, he committed suicide in 1979. He is pretty much forgotten today, although the “Specialties” frequently turn up as filler on Turner Classic Movies.

While the humor of the pro football-themed “Specialties” may seem dated today, their value for football fans is incalculable. They provide a ground-level glimpse of Hall of Famers in action, including Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Don Hutson, Clarke Hinkle and Bob Waterfield.

While Pete Smith has never been explicitly acknowledged as an influence on NFL Films, the narration for “The Football Follies” is a direct descendant of Smith’s voice-over style in the “Specialties.” Similarly, the sound effects that have accompanied assorted fumbles and foul-ups through the years (and still accompany them) are right out of the Smith playbook. The slow-motion coverage of a football in flight that dominates the visual style of the three pro football-themed “Specialties”, obviously, is a technique that became a staple of the NFL Films style. Also check out this clip from our very first production – the 1962 NFL Championship game (often referred to as PRO FOOTBALL’S LONGEST DAY). Jim Taylor’s touchdown and subsequent reverse repeat, accompanied by the line, “He seemed to enjoy that so much, let’s have him do it again and retrace his steps” is certainly Smith-worthy (although the word “irony” is not in narrator Chris Schenkel’s vocabulary). While Ed and Steve Sabol have clearly been more concerned with the beauty and artistry of the actual game of pro football than Pete Smith was, the Sabols, like Smith, created a deeply personal and highly unique universe built entirely around their vision of what the game meant to them.

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