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Audioscopiks (1935) Wonder

The first 3D film to be nominated for an Oscar (short subject)

Audioscopiks (1935) Wonder
Balthasar, Apr 4, 2018
    • Balthasar
      You probably have never heard of Pete Smith, but anyone who went to the movies between 1931 and 1953 would know the name immediately. Smith was the producer, narrator, and often director of the Pete Smith Specialties, which were short features, usually between eight and ten minutes in length (a.k.a. "one reelers"), although they were occasionally as long as 20 minutes (or "two reelers"). These were often provided by studios to theaters in packages that also included newsreels, cartoons, serials, and the like, for the theater to play in-between the feature films.

      Smith began life as Peter Schmidt, of New York City. He started as a copy writer, worked his way up to press agent and Trade Magazine editor, then publicist, then movie publicist, working his way steadily up to representing the Famous Players-Laskey Studios in New York. In 1916 he helped found the Association of Motion Picture Advertisers [AMPA], which remained active for the next four decades.

      In 1925, Smith was hired as the head of publicity for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer. One day he was recruited to overdub the the narrative for one of the studio's Dogville Comedies, describing the actions of trained dogs for the filler short. He did so well that he was called back to do more. Smith would go on to narrate the studio's sports newsreels; he would embellish the action by running certain scenes in reverse, or adding his own commentary. It turned out that he had a flair for comedy, and his "get a load of this" delivery was popular with movie audiences, so the studio gave him his own series, The Pete Smith Specialties, and from the early '30's until 1955, Smith made 150 short films about a dazzling array of subjects, from bowling tips to donkey baseball to sports highlights (this was before TV, of course). In 1943, Smith narrated a patriotic short for the U.S. Government, The Tree In a Test Tube (1943), filmed in color, featuring Laurel and Hardy in a demonstration of household wood products, with Smith humorously interjecting and explaining the various exhibits for the viewer. That and 14 other shorts earned him Academy Award nominations and two Best Live Action Short Film Academy Awards. At the 26th Academy Awards, Smith was awarded an Academy Honorary Award "for his witty and pungent observations on the American scene in his series of Pete Smith Specialties."

      Audioscopiks was one of the early ones that caught the attention of the Academy in 1935, nominated for Best Short Subject, Novelty, the first time that a 3D film had ever been nominated, much less considered for an Oscar. It was directed by John A. Norling and Jacob F. Leventhal, who had previously made a series of stereoscopic shorts called Plastigrams (1922-25) for Educational Pictures (with Fredrick E. Ives), and the "Stereoscopiks Series" (1925) for Pathé. This was MGM's first foray into 3-D, filmed using the red-green anaglyph process, with prints produced by Technicolor.

      The main point of the short was to show off 3-D film technology. In it, audience members are given a lesson on how 3-Dimensional movies are made. After being taught about 3-D, patrons are then instructed to put on their 3-D glasses. They are then given a demonstration of 3-D with various objects moving towards the camera, including a ladder, a baseball being thrown and a woman on a swing. Smith narrates each short clip, most being 20 seconds or less.

      Although there are no box office numbers available, Smith and MGM apparently felt that the short was a success, and followed it up with The New Audioscopiks (1938). The success of the two Audioscopiks films encouraged MGM to produce one more "2-reel" short in anaglyph 3D, another Pete Smith Specialty called Third Dimensional Murder (1941). Unlike its predecessors, this short was shot with a studio-built camera rig. Prints were by Technicolor in red-and-blue anaglyph. The short is notable for being one of the few live-action appearances of the Frankenstein Monster as conceived by Jack Pierce for Universal Studios outside of their company. While many of these films were printed by color systems, none of them was actually in color, and the use of the color printing was only to achieve an anaglyph effect.

      Pete Smith retired in 1955, but his legacy lives on in nearly every comedic short subject film with a narrator that you've ever seen, both in movies and on television (America's Funniest Home Videos, and in clips for ESPN's Sportscenter, for instance). Over the years his style was lampooned and mimicked so many times that its origins were finally forgotten. For his contribution to the film industry, Pete Smith received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1621 Vine Street.

      3-D didn't really catch on with audiences until the 1950's, when it experienced a brief surge in popularity, and wouldn't be used regularly as a medium for mainstream studio feature films until the early 21st century.
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