The Tree in a Test Tube
THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE was made as a non-theatrical industrial film. It utilized the services of Laurel & Hardy to help convey a message aimed at wartime audiences from the United States Department of Agriculture about wood-related products. Although not nearly as entertaining as HIS WOODEN WEDDING (1925) with Charley Chase, or ARBOR DAY (1936) with Our Gang, THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE does offer rare and informal footage of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in vibrant color, as well as Pete Smith in fine voice; that's the draw for today's viewers and listeners.
As this educational short opens, off-screen narrator Pete Smith detains Laurel & Hardy passing on the street just long enough to demonstrate how many articles of wood products everyone carries around and takes for granted. After which, the single-reel curio clumsily seques to pretty much unrelated commentary designed to arouse patriotic fervor and which is tied into wood-industries footage showing factories, laboratories, forests, parading soldiers, and the United States Capitol Dome.
In response to fan mail during the 1960s, Stan Laurel made essentially the same representation to at least each of then-young admirers Dean Kaner, Ray Atherton, and Gene Davidson. "Laurel & Hardy made one film in color, it was for M.G.M.," Mr. Laurel wrote Mr. Kaner in 1963. "We supported the star, the late Lawrence Tibbett. He was a well known opera singer at that time. The film was titled THE ROGUE SONG. This was the only color film we appeared in."
THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE was such a casual, unstudied production, and received such limited and possibly haphazard distribution, that only two decades after appearing in this short, Stan Laurel seemed to have forgotten it. Which is difficult to understand, because although never an American citizen, when he came over from England, Laurel was proud to live in the United States, and one might imagine he would remember such a nationalistic project.
Or was it, as happened in BEAU HUNKS (1931), that he forgot what he came here to forget?
Daughter Lois Laurel-Hawes does remember her father saying -- at some point -- that the film was "shot during a lunch break at 20th Century-Fox." Yet also, he maintained a hand-written "list of pictures since 1915." TREE IN A TEST TUBE was not among them. Possibly Laurel didn't forget, and only failed to list the picture because it was not a theatrical, entertainment film.
If that's not the reason, well, everyone makes mistakes.
In view of its intended primary distribution by the United States government throughout the non-theatrical institutional market, maybe Stan Laurel never even saw THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE. Since the short was issued in color it seems that such a novelty would have made a lasting impression, if ever the comedian attended a screening. Perhaps he didn't because he wasn't interested, because THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE wasn't released theatrically, because it was more of an amateur, promotional endeavor. And yet, we know how conscientious, how professional Stan Laurel was concerning any appearance before any camera for any purpose.
It was 1967 when I first determined -- almost accidentally -- the existence of TREE IN A TEST TUBE as an obscure Laurel & Hardy short subject. Till then nothing published anywhere about the work of Laurel & Hardy reflected this unusual government short, made in 16mm using the Kodachrome color process. It had been commissioned by the Department of Agriculture with the intent of demonstrating how wood products were used in everyday activities, and how important they were. Utilizing their pantomime skills, Laurel & Hardy's scenes were filmed silent, which was no burden for two such renowned visual performers. A soundtrack was added with synchronized music and sound effects, while the narration told us this reel was also meant to reinforce wartime conservation efforts.
THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE was included in the 1972 and 1974 published filmographies I compiled, with the subject's year pegged as being 1943. And so it has remained ever since in subsequent books and articles that mention this short.
Mea culpa; I was wrong about the date. As Stan Laurel himself said to his partner in WAY OUT WEST (1937), "That's the first mistake we've made since that guy sold us the Brooklyn Bridge."
Laurel & Hardy's scenes for TREE IN A TEST TUBE were actually filmed only one week in advance of, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it, "a date which will live in infamy," when the nation of Japan attacked an American naval base, at a place called Pearl Harbor, on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.
On Friday, November 28, 1941, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER carried an item headlined, "Laurel & Hardy Make Government Forestry Short."
The story read, "Laurel & Hardy will be starred in a government short produced this weekend by the Forestry Division of the United States Department of Agriculture. Picture, showing uses made of timber, will be shot on 16mm and will be blown up to 35mm. It will be photographed at 20th, with Charles McDonald directing and Anthony Harold Sintzenich as cameraman."
From this description the short did not sound like a patriotic, flag-waving film, but the United States was still not yet at war. It was during post-production that the project was invested with a more persuasive edge of nationalism, particularly in the second half which is more in the nature of a straight, serious industrial film and in which Laurel & Hardy do not appear at all.
Some speculation has been offered that since M-G-M's Pete Smith served as narrator of the Laurel & Hardy segment, consequently TREE IN A TEST TUBE must have been made at Metro during a time in the 1940s when the team was also contracted there. Not so.
While TREE IN A TEST TUBE is not listed on the official 20th Century-Fox production number list, nor reflected in the Fox legal file, it was shot at Fox. Principal photography took place Saturday, November 29, 1941, outdoors on the back lot of what was then known as the 20th Century-Fox "Fox Hills" Movietone Studio in West Los Angeles (as opposed to the original Fox Studio operation at Western Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood). This same back lot was eventually demolished during a sad period of retrenchment at 20th Century-Fox during the 1960s. Office buildings and hotels like the Century Plaza stand tall there today next to what remains of the adjacent studio facilities, all of which now exists within the boundaries of what's known as Century City -- the area having been re-christened in honor of the studio.
Most of the TEST TUBE technical crew was assembled from Fox employees who were between assignments. Credited on screen as the editor, Boris Vermont was then engaged at Fox as a cutter. In 1948 the studio made him a producer in charge of foreign versions and also documentaries. He won an Oscar for a Fox short called LIGHT IN THE WINDOW (1952), but certainly merited no prizes for cutting THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE with its many printed in physical edits visible on the screen as splice lines.
Plus there's a scene where Stan produces a book for Pete Smith to see. While not shown in closeup, it's bright red and by its size also almost certainly was a book ubiquitous nowhere else but the Fox lot, because of its title: CATALOGUE OF THE STORIES AND PLAYS OWNED BY THE FOX FILM CORPORATION.
Why was TREE IN A TEST TUBE shot in color? Perhaps it was as simple as the sponsor having been the Forest Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The point of this short was to have been wood products and wood conservation. As if we didn't know, the plot explains how wood comes from trees, and it certainly helps underscore the message if audiences can see how green and beautiful they are. What better way to draw attention? Show the color.
THE ROGUE SONG, made in 1930, was a product of the two-strip Technicolor process. By 1941 the motion picture industry had embraced the much improved three-strip IB (for "imbibition") Tech system. Despite all the many so-called technical advances in every aspect of motion picture production and printing, no color film issued since -- and not one! -- has looked better on a screen than a 35mm IB Tech nitrate print made and shown to anyone with the price of a theater ticket in 1941. Exhibition of nitrate "Blazing Technicolor" prints during that era was the apex of color film projection quality, and it has yet to be surpassed.
Therefore why was TREE IN A TEST TUBE shot in 16mm Kodachrome instead of glorious full-color 35mm Technicolor? For one thing it was more economical. Dye-transfer Technicolor was expensive, an important factor in its demise. For another reason, all the three-strip Tech cameras may well have been tied up in far more important studio productions. And finally, the intended distribution for this humble instructional short was the institutional, educational, and non-theatrical market of town meetings, civic groups, libraries, schools, churches, industry, wood-related companies, etc. Such assemblies ordinarily projected film in the 16mm safety, home-use, amateur gauge. Dangerous, flammable 35mm nitrate film exhibition was the province of commercial theatres.
While THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE was not primarily meant to be shown as entertainment in movie houses, in order to service the few bookings in theatrical situations, the plan called for prints to be blown up from 16mm Kodachrome to the 35mm Technicolor format. The extent to which such 35mm prints were struck remains unknown. No 35mm nitrate prints appear to have survived, nor did the Hollywood trade papers publish any reviews.
Kodachrome -- introduced for the home-use market in 1935 -- was a tripack color reversal process for the substandard safety film gauges of 8mm, super 8mm, and 16mm. In most cases the original camera film became the projection print. In the instance of TREE IN A TEST TUBE, an intermediate printing negative was manufactured therefrom.
These two 16mm master elements constituting the original preprint material, together with an answer print or reference print, are now stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults, according to the United States of America General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service, in Washington, D. C.
Although slightly shrunken, the original negative was used quite successfully to manufacture crisp and rock steady 16mm Kodachrome release prints throughout the 1970s and up through at least the early 1980s. The title section, especially, did reflect a lot of minor abrasions and imbedded dirt inherent in the negative, and there were a few intermittent hair-fine lines, but these and other nominal built-in defects could be happily overlooked in view of the sharp, dense, rich color picture.
The distinguishing feature of film shot and reproduced on either the Technicolor or Kodachrome formats is that unlike almost every other color process, these will not fade. Technicolor and Kodachrome both retain their original, vibrant color values. Enterprising collectors who purchased these prints directly from the Department of Agriculture now have a rare and true record of Laurel & Hardy in life-like color only a few years past their prime.
Unfortunately at least two of these prints were used to strike bootlegged dupe negatives, which were edited to exploit only the Laurel & Hardy footage, then issued for resale to film collectors in 16mm using the Eastmancolor format.
First introduced in 1952 as an economical alternative to Technicolor, Eastmancolor and derivative processes soon captured the market. Distributors saved money up front, but everyone paid a price over time. Trouble was, the color faded. These Eastman reprints of TREE IN A TEST TUBE lost their green and blue hues, with all colors fading fast to a repulsive rust red. Unfortunately among 16mm copies in circulation today for fans to screen, the inferior faded dupes far outnumber the vigorous-looking original prints, thus unfairly tainting the critical assessment, reputation, and enjoyment of THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE.
Audiences viewing one of these abridged dupes won't be able to see, as Lois Laurel says, that her father "had very, very blue eyes, and reddish-brown hair, or light-auburn hair. As a boy growing up in England he had a nickname, 'Ginger,' because 'Ginger-red' was a phrase well-known there at the time."
Charles McDonald, announced as the film's director, was an older man, a veteran of the Spanish-American War. He'd been a circus performer, was a silent film actor, and like Charlie Chaplin, Max Linder, and Hal Roach, was once associated with the pioneering Essanay company. Then he became vice-president and managing director of Van Beuren Corporation supervising the production of several hundred one and two-reel comedies over a ten year period. In 1929 McDonald joined the U. S. Department of Agriculture filming educational movies. He was 65 when he made THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE, retired in 1944, and died in 1953.
Although it's yet to be located, there must have been a press release announcing plans for THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE since another Hollywood trade paper, DAILY VARIETY, ran a similar item, also on November 28, 1941.
The VARIETY headline: "8-Week Tour Set For Laurel, Hardy."
The story: "Laurel & Hardy open an 8-week personal appearance tour in Fort Wayne, December 31. Comic team returns to the Coast to start work in their next at 20th-Fox's PITFALLS OF A BIG CITY, for which Stanley Rauh is writing a script, around March 15. Papers calling for their appearance in PITFALLS were formally inked yesterday with 20th-Fox holding an option for ten pictures within the next five years. They will appear in a short sponsored by the U. S. Department of Agriculture dealing with lumber and other forest products as applied to national defense."
The trades also carried stories on December 2 and 3 detailing first a personal appearance that coming Wednesday at the U. S. Marine Corps barracks in San Diego, and then a revised personal appearance tour calling for more skits to follow immediately in Milwaukee, then Chicago on December 17, then Fort Wayne. At each stop Laurel & Hardy performed their "Drivers License" sketch.
So the comedy team was between pictures when they filmed TREE IN A TEST TUBE. The mistaken impression seems to have been they skipped lunch one day while shooting a post-Roach feature film in order to appear in this short. What is certainly true is how little time the shoot, and its preparation, must have taken.
For starters the film was planned as a silent; no sound recording was necessary. There were only four camera set-ups for the sum total of Laurel & Hardy's footage. Except for wearing derby hats, neither Laurel nor Hardy appears in costume. Both are dressed in off-camera, casual California winter wardrobe. Stan Laurel is wearing a yellow sportcoat, which was neither selected nor provided by studio costumers merely for its bright color. Lois Laurel remembers it belonged to her father because she didn't particularly like it! Oliver Hardy is wearing a sportcoat that is tan or light-brown plaid. Laurel's hair is slicked back. Hardy's is combed forward in typical fashion, but how long did that take to achieve?
At Hal Roach Studios, according to Laurel's preference, the comedians always wore white, pancake makeup. This covered Hardy's perpetual tan, well-earned playing golf the year round. Neither actor appears to be wearing any makeup here. So little effort was put into this project that when Hardy -- on his feet, outdoors, heavily dressed, in the sun -- starts visibly perspiring on camera, no one bothered to stop and remedy the problem. No one fixed it, no one thought it was important enough to take those scenes over again.
Years previously the attorney Benjamin Shipman left his position as business manager with Hal Roach Studios to manage certain affairs for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. When all three were eased out at Roach, they formed Laurel & Hardy Feature Productions. Shipman served as business manager, but did not represent the corporation or its artists in negotiations with the studios or for other important engagements. This was handled by the Orsatti Agency, operated by brothers Al, Ernie, Victor (married to June Lang, who made three features for Hal Roach) and Frank Orsatti (former bootlegger, pimp, and the closest friend of Louis B. Mayer). These were the boys who delivered Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy to 20th Century-Fox. As in words once spoken by a man handing over a valuable deed, "Signed, sealed, and n-o-w delivered." They did it.
Laurel & Hardy concluded principal photography on GREAT GUNS, their first of several misguided feature films for Fox, early in August of 1941. Through Orsatti, 20th had contracted with Laurel & Hardy Feature Productions to deliver the acting (and acting only) services of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy for the sum total of $50,000. So GREAT GUNS had been produced under the provisions of this single picture contract with an option for the parties to renew their affiliation pending the success of this initial, trial venture. The multi-picture pact referenced in the November 28 VARIETY story indicated they'd all decided Laurel & Hardy's association with Fox was going to continue, whether anyone else liked it or not. Did anyone? Certainly not that they'd concede in retrospect. As everyone knows, or can learn by the painful experience of screening the evidence, Laurel & Hardy were simply lost without Hal Roach and his studio.
"We had no say in those films," Stan Laurel reflected bitterly years later, "and it sure looked it....It was sickening."
That Stanley Rauh script for an alleged comedy he called PITFALLS OF A BIG CITY became Laurel & Hardy's second Fox folly, A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO. A-hiking back down Motor Avenue towards Culver City is where they should have gone. Randy Skretvedt said it best that "if Stan and Babe had written a script about working for Fox, they could have called it PITFALLS OF A BIG STUDIO."
So Laurel & Hardy worked at Fox on a picture by picture basis. Their arrangement was not exclusive, and in between Fox projects they were free to do whatever they wished, including other films such as TREE IN A TEST TUBE or appearances on radio or the stage.
Shooting began on A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO a week later than indicated by the VARIETY story. While Laurel & Hardy were out on tour appearing before live audiences, the comedy geniuses back at 20th could develop their literary blueprint for slapstick hilarity without any interference from the lowly on-camera talent. There is no other explanation for how executives at both 20th and M-G-M regarded the creative abilities of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Apparently management never knew any differently; they never learned, and they never cared, as witness the films they made exploiting the marquee value of Laurel & Hardy as built up at Hal Roach Studios.
Each of these first two Fox films made on either side of TREE IN A TEST TUBE were "B" budget projects, and sold to exhibitors as programmers. Consequently there was never -- and positively not -- any thought given to producing these efforts in color. Tinted photos for both these motion pictures exist, however, issued in the so-called "Color-Glos" process, featuring gaudy, artificial color added as an overlay to what were originally black and white stills. These were attention grabbing colors. Lime was a favorite. Lots of lime outfits -- the kind never seen, and not anywhere, except in these stills. Come to think of it, lime-colored outfits actually did make a comeback of sorts when a more recent wave of geniuses colorized and tampered with films made and meant to be seen in black and white.
Because TREE IN A TEST TUBE is presently so difficult to see -- in either Technicolor, Kodachrome color, or as lying film peddlers used to claim when trying to unload their inferior dupes, "no, it's not Technicolor, it's beautiful color" -- herewith following is an abridged transcript of the continuity, complete insofar as Laurel & Hardy's scenes are concerned. Parenthetical insertions are stage directions or descriptive comments. "LS" indicates long shot; "MS" indicates master shot; "CU" indicates close up; "MCU" indicates master close up.
LS: (Fade in.) (Voice of Pete Smith.) Hey, you mugs! Uh, I mean gentlemen. (Laurel & Hardy stop walking away.)
MS: Well, well, it's Laurel & Hardy, as if I didn't know.
MCU: Hello, boys, this is Pete Smith, as if you didn't know. (Laurel waves.)
MS: (Hardy performs tie twiddle.) Say, I'd like your help here for a minute. Do you mind? No, of course not. I just want you lads to show the audience how much wood the average person totes. Wood -- got any?
LS: No? Like most guys, you don't realize how many articles made of wood products you carry around -- for instance, that newspaper.
MS: The newspaper (THE LOS ANGELES TIMES) is largely made of trees -- wood pulp. Of course, most people know that, but many people don't know that a lot of other objects come from a wood base. Take Stan's glasses -- the rims are plastic. About sixty per cent of plastic is wood flour -- powdered wood, my friend. Got a fountain pen? (Laurel begins producing items for the camera, then hands them over to Hardy, some of which are then piled on the bumper of the very green automobile they are standing behind.) Just as I thought -- plastic barrel. Okay, gents, anything else in your pockets? Be careful of fish hooks, Stan.
MCU: A billfold -- imitation leather made from cellulose acetate, a wood product. (Hardy removes lady's stockings from the wallet.)
LS: Oh, oh, what's up? Why, Mr. Laurel! Oh, sure....
MS: Your wife's, of course. Anyway, they're rayon, another wood product. Well, what else, boys?
MCU: A cigarette case, made of plastic. Also a cigarette holder, more plastic. Any more wood, my lads? (Hardy taps Laurel's head.) No, but there's wood in his hat -- the sweatband, right, more imitation leather.
CU: (Laurel reaches up in the air to catch his hat as it bounces up off his head.) A new spring hat, eh? Ouch!
MCU: More, yeah, a pipe, the bowl of which is wood; the stem, plastic. Book matches. These matches are wood pulp, so is the cover. It's amazing the amount of wood we use. Ain't it the truth? And now a penknife -- the handle? Plastic. Let's see what's in the suitcase, boys. The suitcase, do you mind?
LS: That's it. Let's see what we have here. Any slippers? Yes, here we are. They're real leather, like your shoes and belts, but tanned and made durable by tanbark from the forest. Then, too, the counters and insoles are wood fiber.
MS: Okay, Ollie, let's proceed.
MCU: Wood in bottles? Well, hardy, uh hardly, no pun intended. (Hardy sniffs the open bottles and makes faces.)
MS: Anyway, witch hazel and cascara are just two of several hundred drugs and remedies from trees. (Laurel & Hardy bend towards the camera.)
MCU: Next, an imitation leather toilet case. Mirror with plastic back. Brush back is plastic. Bristles of both brushes are cellulose plastic. This bottle top, is plastic. So is the soap container. Bath sponge is cellulose plastic, and I'm not at all surprised. Hey, Stan, what else you got? Come on, fellows, don't tell me you're running out of plastic. Let's look at some more of your junk -- uh, I mean nice things. Ah, a razor -- handle is plastic, as are most electric shavers. (Laurel touches the blade with his finger.) Ouch! That blade ain't no plastic, bub. And now, writing paper, scratch pad, envelopes and books. All wood pulp, kiddies.
MS: Pajamas are rayon. And rayon is a wood product, remember? Hey, what you got there, chum? Oh, shorts, eh? More rayon, but Stan, such colors. And now a shirt, tie ...
LS: (Laurel bends over to suitcase.)
MCU: ... and socks, all rayon.
LS: Say, the suitcase. Yeah, even that's made out of laminated wood, covered with canvas. It's a good thing these guys didn't come around here with a trunk. We'd be here for days. Oh, boys, you can go now. Goodbye Stan. So long, Oliver. And thanks very much, guys, darn nice of you to help. Hey! (Car drives off with their belongings on the rear bumper as Laurel & Hardy run after it into the distance.) Oh well, they need the exercise anyway. G'bye now. (Fade out.) (Voice of Lee Vickers picks up the narration.) And thanks to you, Pete Smith. This is Lee Vickers carrying on. Well, Laurel & Hardy little realize the importance of wood in their daily lives ... blah, blah, blah, and blah.
Except for that fact that both segments focus on commercial uses for wood, together with its many properties, there is nothing in the visuals or narration to connect the lighthearted first half of THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE with the morale-building second half. The latter portion is completely different in all respects, and amounts to little more than a patriotic industrial film.
Perhaps the second half was appended to the L&H footage as a result of the events on December 7, 1941, which immediately and forever altered everything everyone was engaged in throughout the free world. Lois Laurel remembers her father phoned her and her mother that Sunday morning to reassure them that right would triumph over might, free nations would triumph over demagoguery, and not to be afraid. They were, anyway. Who wasn't? Lois also recalled her father changed his travel plans so as to remain in town for her birthday on December 10.
To resume near the end of the dialogue and cutting continuity, after instructional scenes in factories, military bases, and research laboratories (where we see that scientists can "figuratively put the tree in a test tube"), this one reeler concludes, in wooden fashion, as follows...
MS: (A chemist is shown in a laboratory as Lee Vickers intones in his best documentary announcing-school-graduate voice.) Forests and forest products are indispensable. America should make sure they are produced abundantly ...
LS: ... and perpetually. (Military troops shown in street parade.) America should develop from its forests new uses and new industries, so that when these boys come home again, there will be a job for each of them.
LS: (Soldiers march in field.) To help do this, to produce better war supplies for the front, and most important of all, to help teach pirate nations that the American people hold those liberties, conceived ...
LS: (American Legion shown in parade formation.) ... by our patriot forefathers, baptized in precious blood at Valley Forge, at San Juan Hill, at Chateau-Thierry and at Pearl Harbor, those liberties so jealously guarded ...
MS: (Shot of the United States Capitol Dome.) ... by our national government, more important than life itself. (Lap dissolve into Forest Service building.)
LS: That is the number one job of the men at the forest product laboratories, the men behind the men behind the guns.
MS: (Lap dissolve into American flag as it waves.) Let us, too, help keep it flying. (Fade out.)
CU: (Fade in to text title stating "The End" superimposed over United States Department of Agriculture seal on blue "V" for victory logo.)
It would make sense to have issued THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE during the spring in conjunction with Arbor Day festivities throughout the United States, but so far there is no hard evidence of a specific release date.
Nor, again, have any period reviews been found in wartime publications, or newspapers, or any of the approximately one-dozen trade papers serving the motion picture industry in Hollywood. Contemporary criticism is scant also, but Randy Skretvedt has written that following the first five minutes of Laurel & Hardy pleasantries, "the film reverts to serious footage about new wood products -- which, inadvertently, is even funnier than the Laurel & Hardy routine."
Maybe funnier, maybe not. Positively less entertaining.
The more recent assessment of Scott MacGillivray is worth excerpting: "It may be a minor footnote to Laurel & Hardy's comedy legacy, but thanks to Kodachrome THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE is a major highlight of the team's film career."
And besides, look at all the useful things we learned about wood and wood products. Didn't we? Even though, now, most of these items are in fact obsolete, having been superseded by some cheaper, new synthetic product of lesser quality, and therefore consigned to the trash heap of history. Not unlike what happened with respect to both of the superior color processes, Kodachrome and Technicolor. These are gone too.
Finally, Pete Smith. Who, who doesn't like, or even love Pete Smith? Who? Because whomever doesn't like Pete Smith is not worthy of love, or worth loving! Well, isn't that right? Because the nearly 300 distinctive Pete Smith shorts made for M-G-M between 1931 and 1955 are delightfully entertaining. Pete Smith was once, and deserved to be, an American institution.
Billing himself as "A Smith named Pete," he started as a film critic, became a press agent, and then landed the top position at M-G-M's publicity department. Then Smith took over the studio's advertising division.
He started writing, producing, and narrating Metro's factual short subjects just as a sideline. They were so successful, especially his "Pete Smith Specialties" series, he was forced to relinquish his executive chores and make movie one-reelers full time. His unique style, and wry, rasping narration were punctuated by puns, caustic remarks, folksy clichés, and self-deprecating humor. There's been nothing like his Pete Smith Specialties before or since.
Like TREE IN A TEST TUBE, the Pete Smith shorts for M-G-M were shot silent to save time and money. Reflecting no pretensions, the Pete Smith point of view was always curious, and reassured audiences that "This is only a movie, folks." None of which was an obstacle to being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with two Oscars, more than twenty nominations for Academy Awards, and a special life achievement award "for his witty and pungent observations of the American scene."
Pete Smith's familiar sign-off, just as in TREE IN A TEST TUBE, was always "G'bye now." Sadly one can't help wondering if this crossed his mind in 1979 on the day when, at age 86, in failing health, he jumped to his death from atop a convalescent hospital. Pete Smith was one of many important M-G-M names who committed suicide.
Finally, memorable Pete Smith shorts include THIRD-DIMENSIONAL MURDER (1941), shot in 3-D; FALA (1943) starring President Roosevelt's dog!; I LOVE MY HUSBAND, BUT! (1946); MOVIE PESTS (1944); SEEING HANDS (1943) a dramatic story with Spanky McFarland; and MODELING FOR MONEY (1938) with Hal Roach's daughter, Margaret, acting under her stage name of Diane Rochelle.
And Pete Smith's DONKEY BASEBALL (1935) is fun since it was shot in Culver City and shows Main Street, which fans from all over the world still make pilgrimages to see, and where so many silent Roach comedies were filmed on location. This truly strange one-reeler features the lowest strata of character actors and stunt men (Eddie Baker, Bobby Dunn) playing baseball, on donkeys! One of the ballpark billboards carries advertising for Hal Roach's mother, Mrs. C. H. (Mabel) Roach. She was running for city council, promising "a bigger, better Culver City," the ad says. She lost. So she returned to her home at Hal Roach Studios -- she lived there -- which about the same time as they made TREE IN A TEST TUBE Laurel & Hardy must have wanted to do as well.
-- by Richard W. Bann --
THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE copyright by Richard W. Bann 2001