Saving Brinton documentary review: the man with a mission to rescue a slice of cinema history

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Saving Brinton green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A charming tribute to one remarkably dedicated cinema fan and historian, and to his decades-long hard work to save an essential piece of the pop-culture past and cultivate its story for the future.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Who’da thunk that a small town in the rural American Midwest would be such a hot stop on a global tour of the history of cinema? Thirty years ago, former history schoolteacher Michael Zahs, of Washington, Iowa, was gifted a collection of old film memorabilia from the estate of Frank and Indiana Brinton, a husband-and-wife team of entertainment impresarios who brought fun, news, and visions of distant lands to audiences across the heartland of America in the days before radio, TV, and cheap and easy international travel. They didn’t merely show the short films that Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès and others were making then, in the late 19th century: they crafted entire evenings of diversion around those films, using music as well as “magic lanterns” (which created the illusion of movement from still pictures) and other steampunk wonders. Incredibly, the collection that landed with Zahs didn’t only include old films but also documents detailing the nitty-gritty details of the business, such as the Brintons’ commercial travels and their nightly takings, plus posters and advertisements for their shows, and much, much more. The collection is an astonishing peek into early pop culture — surely on a par with what PT Barnum did — that we can barely conceive of today.

Still from a Georges Méliès film in the Brinton Collection.
Still from a Georges Méliès film in the Brinton Collection.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, all of this stuff sat in a barn on Zahs’s homestead for decades. Because he couldn’t get anyone interested in it until just a few years ago, when the University of Iowa was happy to add this glorious treasure trove to its libraries. (You can virtually explore The Brinton Collection at the University of Iowa website. It’s still in the process of being digitized but you can already watch some of the films online. It’s catnip for cinema lovers.)

“MOTION PICTURES SINCE 1897.” Gives me chills.
“MOTION PICTURES SINCE 1897.” Gives me chills.

This is where documentarians Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne come in, introducing us to the Brintons and the remarkable Zahs. Saving Brinton isn’t just about rediscovering a nearly lost piece of history; it’s about what it takes to ensure that history doesn’t get lost in the first place. The ebullient Zahs is an everyday hero, a rescuer of all things that need rescuing: dogs, kittens, church steeples about to be demolished. (A bumper sticker on his truck honors him as a 12-gallon donor of blood. Hero.) We watch here as he travels the nation and the world — from a Library of Congress facility outside Washington DC to restoration laboratory Lobster Films in Paris (OMG their Instagram!) and beyond — with a Méliès short that had previously been thought gone forever. (The collection has barely begun to be catalogued. There may be many more “lost” films in there.) We’re there as he presents evenings of Brinton-style entertainment in an opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa, where the Brintons themselves once put on shows; and in the State theater back in Washington (Iowa), which is the oldest operating cinema anywhere on the planet (more film history!).

The Brintons once brought the world to rural America. Zahs is bringing the Brintons back to the world. Though the modest Zahs would pooh-pooh the notion, he’s not so very different from them in his passion. This film is a charming tribute to him, and to the hard work of cultivating history.

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Mon, May 21, 2018 8:05pm

That sounds amazing!! I love reading/seeing early footage like this. There was a recent discovery of mostly silent film footage, but in Technicolor, announced by the BFI National Archive. These were snippets that had been added to films from the 1920s as “leaders,” which would go through the projector so the film being screened wouldn’t get damaged. One of the snippets is a costume test of Louise Brooks from her first credited film, which has been lost.