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April 24, 2007 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Gizmo - using news footage from the 1920s to the 1950s, Howard Smith created an amusing 1977 documentary about contraptions made by the inventors, technophiles, and eccentrics of yesteryear. The last 7 minutes is Letterman interviewing Smith. (Google video, 1 hr., 19 min. Via beans beans good for your heart)
posted by madamjujujive (10 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's funny, but it isn't quite what it seems. A lot of the goofy inventions shown in those newsreels weren't genuine.

Newreel cameramen stringers got paid according to the amount of footage they produced that got used, and some of them figured out that they could make money by producing "human interest" footage. The "silly inventor" narrative was a common theme.

So a stringer would come up with a goofy invention, and get someone to pretend to be the inventor (in order to "be in pictures"). The stringer would film it and get paid. But no one really expected the inventions to work; the sole purpose was to produce interesting film for the newsreels.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:08 AM on April 24, 2007

Do you have links to show which of the goofy inventions in this documentary aren't genuine? Or could Smith have done some research to weed those out?
posted by DU at 11:20 AM on April 24, 2007

Ultimately it doesn't really matter; the original goal of those newsreels was to be entertaining, and they were entertaining. That was also Smith's goal, and his film is also entertaining.

I saw a documentary about this on PBS something like 30 years ago. It was about one particular stringer who was responsible for a lot of the most famous examples of this kind of thing; they located him and he gave them an interview where he described how he did it, and did voiceovers of some parts of the newsreels.

And yet again, it was very entertaining.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:23 AM on April 24, 2007

I am sure there was a business for that fabricated news footage, SDB, but I don't think that's what this is about - at least for the most part. Letterman specifically asked if he had any trouble sorting out fakes from the real and Smith said not after looking at thousands of pieces of footage. He also said he left out any footage with deaths because they tended to dampen the audience mood.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:39 AM on April 24, 2007

He also said he left out any footage with deaths because they tended to dampen the audience mood.

Clearly produced for the pre-internet generation, then.
posted by spock at 11:48 AM on April 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Back when I taught high school, I used to show this movie to my students as the preface to a writing assignment. It's definitely an odd duck -- there are some genuinely interesting segments, as well as the campy, staged footage alluded to above. But I've never seen the Letterman footage, which I'll have to watch tonight when i get home. Nice post.
posted by mosk at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2007

That's interesting, SCDB. Makes perfect sense though: they were producing entertainment, basically. Comedy entertainment.

The first clip used in Gizmo (the farmer playing his hands) is, of course, manualism. Anyone want to know more about it? Check my post from back in January.

This collection of clips is fun. Thanks mjj!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:54 PM on April 24, 2007

I dig the parkour-like guy starting at 43:50. Boy's got skills.
posted by bitslayer at 5:32 PM on April 24, 2007

This is missing the ending narration, which is the best part of the whole thing. Now I need to go find it somewhere.
posted by tumult at 6:59 PM on April 24, 2007

Oh my God! Thanks for posting this. Back in the stone age (the early 80's), my friend's dad got a VCR and actually bought a VHS cassette, which were then around $100 or so. He had bought this documentary, and since he was my Cub Scout pack leader, a few rainy days were spent at their house, jam packed with Cub Scouts, watching GIZMO. I believe it made the rounds on HBO back in the 80s as well. Seems like everyone in my and my parents circle of friends were talking about this movie.
posted by zardoz at 11:20 PM on April 24, 2007

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