Saving Brinton

Review by Willard Manus

Film buffs will surely savor SAVING BRINTON, a documentary about the man who brought moving pictures to America’s heartland way back in 1897. Frank Brinton was an entrepreneur and entertainer who first made a name for himself by touring the midwest with a variety show comprised of slide-shows, music and jokes. Fame and wealth came his way when he added the first “moving pictures” to his program: shorts shot by such fledgling directors as the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, Thomas Edison and Sigmund Lubin. Their work included early westerns, fantasy sequences, comic bits, and “actualities” of Teddy Roosevelt, Niagara Falls, and glimpses of Burma. Brinton would run these 5-minute films through a hand-cranked projector while a band provided musical accompaniment and ushers hawked popcorn and root beer. From 1904- 1907 Brinton (and his wife Indiana) presented over 800 shows in states like Iowa, Minnesota and Texas. When they finally grew tired of barnstorming, they settled down in Washington, Iowa and managed the Graham Opera House for many years. Frank Brinton died in 1919, but his widow lived on for another three decades. When she died, Indiana left most of her estate to a friend, Victor Masson. Among the artifacts were five hours of cellulose nitrate film, a cinematic treasure that caught the eye of a local history teacher known as the “Sage of Washington County,” Michael Zahs.

Zahs, a white-bearded, affable gent with a Santa Claus demeanor, not only realized the worth of the Brinton films (and related posters, song sheets and catalogs) but set out to rescue them from obscurity. With the help of the University of Iowa, the Library of Congress, and Serge Bromberg, a French film archivist with a keen interest in George Melies, Zahs was able to save, restore and exhibit many of the rare films in the Brinton collection (including several hand-painted color films). The climax of Zahs’ valiant mission on behalf of the Brinton collection came in 2016 when he presented digitally restored prints, created from the original nitrate films, at the “Brinton Extravaganza” at Washington, Iowa’s State Theatre (originally the Graham Opera House). At the event, Guinness World Records confirmed the State as the world’s oldest continuously operating movie theater. In attendance were such Hollywood luminaries as Martin Scorcese and Alexander Payne. Also in 2016, George Melies’ “The Triple Headed Lady,” restored by Serge Bromberg, was publicly exhibited for the first time in over a century at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy, winning praise for its freshness and vitality. Directed by Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne, with cinematography by John Richard--all Iowan natives--SAVING BRINTON tells a little-known but valuable and edifying story. If you love film, you’ll surely love SAVING BRINTON.