A Year in Shorts Day 353: "You Can't Win"

We’ve gone on quite a journey with Pete Smith, haven’t we? From the first month in our Year in Shorts, Pete Smith has been that extra set of footprints in the sand. Like all journeys, there have been some wonderful highs and unfortunate lows. But all good things must come to an end, and so it must go for us the Pete Smith Specialties. (Well, for this Year in Shorts at least.) So let’s bid farewell to our favorite Smith named Pete with his 1948 short, You Can’t Win.

(via IMDb)

One has to feel bad for the directors of the Pete Smith Specialties, right? Talk about a thankless job. I guess you really can't win with that gig. Still, of all the Specialties directors, I think David O'Brien probably had the best go of it. For starters, he was also an actor so he got to cast himself in his own shorts, as he does here. Although for whatever reason his director credit reads as David Barclay, presumably to avoid accusations of self-nepotism from the moviegoing public. (He also had an uncredited role in Movie Pests, so clearly Pete Smith liked the cut of his jib.) At any rate, You Can't Win follows Dave O'Brien's "Harried Homeowner" as he tries to enjoy a day off from work. Unfortunately for said homeowner, he is soon beset by a series of inconveniences ranging from minor to major, all seeming to conspire to ruin his day. What follows is a series of sight gags, pratfalls and sorts of nonsensical humor, all accompanied by Smith's trademark delivery. Depending on your tolerance for that sort of thing (or Pete Smith in general) you may or may not enjoy this short. And while I admit that I do find bits of this short amusing (most notably a sequence with a hammock), it doesn't come together for me in a way that most Specialties do.

As you can probably tell from the quality of the video above, You Can't Win doesn't seem to be a particularly popular Specialty. It's not very hard to see why. For starters, it really doesn't do much to stand out from the pack- it doesn't show off any new video technology and it's not particularly educational. In fact, at times it feels more like a Joe McDoakes film than a Pete Smith Specialty. (So You Want to Enjoy Your Day Off, perhaps?) Really the only thing that makes it stand out is that it doesn't contain any of the Pete Smith pitfalls we've come to unfortunately look out for- there's no racist humor, and the closest we get to a sexist bit (with the protagonist demanding his wife use more starch in his shirts) resulting in his shirt being over starched. And that's all fine and good, but the absence of offensive material doesn't equal the presence of good stuff, you know?

The simple truth is that You Can't Win just doesn't feel cohesive like the other Specialties we've covered. Say what you will about them, but at least they had a clear purpose. You Can't Win, by comparison, just feels aimless, as if it were stitched together from a bunch of sketch ideas Pete Smith had but couldn't find a place for elsewhere. And hey, as far as those types of shorts go, I guess it's not the worst example of that sort of thing. Like I said, there are some funny moments, and Pete Smith's narration will always be enjoyable to me. But as regular readers no doubt know, we've seen a lot better from the man. It's unfortunate that our coverage of Pete Smith has to go out on such a wet far, but I suppose it's somewhat appropriate. One thing I've discovered in our Year in Shorts is that a lot of the Pete Smith Specialties don't quite hold up as well as I thought they did. Oh sure, a few of them are quite good, but a lot of the ones we've covered have had their issues. Still, I guess it is kind of nice to end our run on a short that isn't that great not because of any offensive content and simply because it's just not that good. We'll return to Pete Smith one day, and hopefully those shorts will live up to my perhaps too lofty expectations!

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