'GIZMO!' -- When inventors were loners

Howard Smith wanted to be an inventer, but his ideas didn't sell. Then he learned to juggle, but that was just a hobby. Youthful whimsies can pay big dividends, however: Smith is now a journalist, with a special interest in the offbeat. Most recently, his affection for people with wacky ideas and odd talents has resulted in an entertaining new movie called "Gizmo!" The stars of the show are like nobody you've seen before -- folks who have stretched their imaginations, and sometimes their bodies, outlandishly. Why? For fame and fortune. Or at least a few dollars, and maybe a smattering of applause.

By trade, Smith is the "scenemaker" for New York's major weekly paper, the Village Voice. His job is to "make the scene" at unusual places and events and report on what he finds there. "Gizmo!" got started during a dinner party with friends. "We began talking about old newsreels," he recalls, "and soon we were roaring with laughter. There were so many crazy things to remember! It occurred to me there might be a movie buried in all this. . . ."

There was indeed. "Gizmo!" is Smith's celebration of people, accomplishments , and ideas that have all but faded from memory -- except in the moldy archives of newsreel libraries, where all kinds of peculiarities have nested over the years. The movie is an anthology of the unexpected: Where else can you see a man thread his body through a tennis racket? Or play a song by cupping his hands in front of his mouth? Or demonstrate a machine that claps in front of your mouth form you? Where else can you hear a talking clock? Or watch a woman cross Times Square while hanging by her teeth, only to be arrested on the other side?

Sometimes the investers seem as daffy as their gizmos. But this isn't really their fault. Nowadays, if someone comes up with a bright idea that works, a big company is likely to buy it -- or, at the very least, a public-relations whiz will be hired to promote it. Decades ago, however, inventers were often loners -- tinkerers puttering in their basements, now employees of research corporations. When a good idea struck, inventers would often go before the cameras personally to explain their gizmos. To contemporary eyes some of them now look naive and unsophisticated.

Still, it was not Smith's intention to poke fun at the subjects of his film. "I didn't want to laugh at these people," he insists. "I wanted to laugh withm them. From my own writing career, I know that new ideas are often found idiotic -- until they meet with success, and then they sound just great!"

Smith began the production by ransacking film libraries and private film collections, and placing advertisements (wanted: gizmo footage) in movie publications. But he soon discovered that the newsreal archives had declined, along with the fortunes of the newsreel companies. New inventions were often misfiles -- not under "inventions" at all, but under such categories as "products" and "performers." Ultimately, Smith claims that he (and his 22 researcher) looked at every foot of film in every library they could find. During this process, they decided to include unusual performers as well as unusual inventions. Often the boundary line was dim and hazy, anyway.

Over lunch recently in New York, I asked Smith if he had drawn any conclusions from his odyssey through all these oddities. "Inventers always leap in where there's a problem," he replied. "For example, when cars were invented, about a thousand people invented 'people-catchers' to go on the front like cowcatchers on locomotives. We used a few of these in the film. They sounded like a great idea, but they had a problem: All of them required your cooperation as you were being hit. There's one that looks like a rolling pin, for instance, that just rolls you away. But what if you forget to lie down?"

As for off-beat performers, Smith says they tend to become more numerous during times of poor economic activity. "Even today," he says, "a good magician or acrobat can make $200 a night on a good street corner in New York, if there's good weather and a long line in front of the movies. Some of these people start doing a crazy act when they're kids. Then they get the notion of going into show business, and before you know it, you have "the human thread' working his torso through a giant needle. Or something like that. . . ."

Assembling Gismo!" was a long and arduous task. First, phony gag footage had to be recognized (not always easy!) and eliminated. Then countless choices had to be made about the shape and content of the movie. Eventually, one piece of contrived "newsreel" was left in -- the Budapest "drycleaning" operation was too funny to abandon -- and some sections were dubbed with voices, because the original soundtracks had been lost. Fine tuning was done during many private screenings for acquaintances of Smith and his colleges. Says Smith, "I made the film to make people laugh. I listened during the screenings, and after each show I'd adjust and change and abbreviate and switch the music around. . . ."

Smith calls the movie "A cornucopia of craziness." Yet it has a touching side , as well. "Look at all the flying machines we found," says the filmmaker. "Every inventer has wanted to fly. But then, so has everybody else! In the long run, it's one of the few universal dreams that man's realized. Everybody is fascinated with this quest. . . ."

Smith loves the movie business -- as a youngster he often went to five pictures a day -- and plans more cinematic works in the near future. Though his only previous picture was also a documentary (the Oscar-winning "Marjoe," about a cynical evangelist") he wants to make a horror movie next. Again, he'll produce and direct the project. And again, he knows it will mean a lot of very hard work.

"Making a fiction film won't be easy," he says, "even though I've learned pacing and entertainment from my documentary experience. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

"When I'm writing my newspaper columns, I often think I've planned an article so well that it'll just fall into place. I say, It's gonna write itself! But every time I get a new assistant, I give the person a whistle and tell them to blow it the first time they see a story writing itself. And you know, I've never once heard that whistle. . . ."

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