A Year in Shorts Day 230: "Romance of Radium"

You know what we haven’t talked about in a while? A Pete Smith Specialty. And yes, the last couple of ones we covered were a bit offensive. And yes, it certainly did make me reevaluate my fondness for them. But today’s short, Romance of Radium, certainly couldn’t offend anyone, right? It's a documentary about radiation! At worst it might just mildly bore them. And… you know, it could be worse! Right?

(via TV Tropes)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Romance of Radium is a 1937 short about the history of the discovery of radium and the uses of radiation in science and medicine. Narrated (as always) by Pete Smith, Romance of Radium follows the discoveries of scientists like Henri Becquerel and the Curies (who had their own Oscar-nominated movie released six years later in the film Madame Curie, reuniting Miss Miniver costars Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon) as they discover both its destructive and medicinal properties. Of all the Pete Smith specialties we've covered, this is probably the most educational. It's also the most dry, lacking in the typical wit and sardonic delivery we've come to associate with Pete Smith. While that allows the film to get the job done, it does result in a rather dry experience. Still, there are some pretty neat moments, most notably the scene in which Smith goes through the safety procedures necessary to capture radium on film. While the end result doesn't seem that spectacular now, it must have been quite a treat for contemporary audiences.

Remarkably, despite the rather dry subject matter, Romance of Radium STILL manages to have some potentially offensive material in it! (Oh, the 1930s.) Still, judging by the standards of the day, it could be much worse. While calling someone an "Oriental" is certainly offensive, the film mostly avoids any crude stereotypes. And the scene with the African villagers arguably calls out the racism of the white hunters more than it indulges in any racism on the film's part, showing their suspicion of any "mumbo jumbo" to be misplaced and ignorant. No one could really call this film progressive in its portrayal of other cultures, but for 1937, it's certainly a lot better than most.

(via IMDb)

But of course, The Great Oscar Baiter is not a blog in which we explore how offensive or not offensive a film is. Admittedly, it certainly sometimes feels that way, and it is important to analyze these things, but that's not the only metric by which we consider these shorts. Ultimately The Great Oscar Baiter is just a place in which I can express my thoughts and feelings on the multitude of Oscar-nominated films I've seen. And by that metric, I have to say that Romance of Radium is honestly my least favorite of the Pete Smith Specialties we've covered. Yes, it certainly lacks the offensive material which bothered me about the other shorts. But it also lacks a lot of the elements which make me like the series in the first place. I don't really watch Pete Smith's films to learn things; I watch for the snarky narration and neat camera tricks. Romance of Radium has none of that, and what we're left with is just ten minutes of learning. And who wants that?

Still, as far as educational shorts go, I suppose you could do worse. I'm never exactly sure how to judge these things, but I suppose it's perfectly serviceable. It does what it sets out to do, but not much else. I guess if you wanted to learn about the history of radium as quickly as you could, this would be the best place to go. But I can't help but imagine that literally any other source would almost certainly be a more enriching experience.

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