SAVING BRINTON – Review
Review by Roger Carpenter
It has been estimated that no less than 90% of silent films have been lost for all time. This is partially due to the silver nitrate contained in early film stock, which is extremely flammable. Entire film catalogs from some of the earliest production companies in existence were destroyed in warehouse storage fires as far back as the 1920’s. Other famous fires occurred as late as the 1960’s, destroying the only known prints of some silent films. Another reason for the loss of these films is, quite simply, they were thought of as disposable. During the silent era, especially in America, film wasn’t considered a legitimate art form. Films were considered cheap entertainment, the bastard child of the more prestigious form of art known as theater. Thus, some films were recycled by their own production companies for the valuable silver they contained while others were summarily tossed in the garbage just as we would toss out a cheap VHS copy of a film nowadays. It wasn’t until decades later when film began to be recognized as a form of art that companies began to consider preservation.
Cinematic history is strewn with legendary stories of “lost” films being rediscovered. Some films are found in routine searches of various film archives, sometimes simply mislabeled, while others are found in rather stranger locations such as barns, antique sales, estate sales and flea markets. Others are found in the possession of private collectors who may—or may not—know what they have. One silent film was famously discovered in a closet in a French asylum while another was discovered buried in the director’s back yard—hidden to protect it during wartime bombing runs and then forgotten. One of the largest caches of silent films to be discovered were accidentally dug up in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, in 1978. Used decades earlier for fill during a construction project, hundreds of silent newsreels were found, including the infamous Black Sox World Series double play that exposed the players’ conspiracy to throw the Series, as well as early films from D.W. Griffith and Tod Browning.
Saving Brinton is also about a cache of early silent films. But this documentary is also about more than just rediscovered films. Frank Brinton and his wife, Indiana, were show people who traveled the country in the final decades of the 19th century, entertaining crowds in opera houses with variety shows, storytelling, and magic lantern shows which were the immediate precursors to moving pictures. When the first films were made available for public viewing, around 1895, Brinton was quick to grasp the novelty and excitement surrounding the medium and kept busy producing shows throughout the first decades of the 20th century. Brinton is credited with showing the first moving images to most of the American Midwest. Brinton was a collector and kept much of what he used at his shows. After he and his wife passed away, the collection was inherited by a family member. After that family member also passed away, Washington, Iowa local Mike Zahs ended up with the collection from an estate sale. That was in 1981. A history teacher by trade, Zahs incorporated the films into his classroom, often trying to drum up interest from various organizations to preserve the films. No one was much interested and Zahs retired from his classroom job though he remained a pillar of the community, organizing everything from high school reunions to historical bus trips to musical concerts. He also kept beating the Brinton drum by re-enacting Brinton’s shows using original films as well as original equipment he’d obtained from the estate sale.
This all changed in 2013 when someone finally recognized what Zahs had. To be clear, what Zahs had was a document of some of the earliest films ever produced, ranging all the way back to 1895. Most of these films hadn’t been seen in over a century, including a lost film from cinematic pioneer Georges Melies dating from 1902.
But while this is a story about Frank Brinton and an amazing collection of early films, it is also the story of Mike Zahs. Standing 6’ 3” tall with a long, white beard, Zahs is an imposing figure. But just a few moments of talking with the man and one understands he may be the size of a bear but he has the demeanor of a pussycat. He is a teacher, a historian, a storyteller, and a local celebrity. Many would describe him as a hoarder as his home is filled to the brim with artifacts from the past, much of which he has collected during his career as a teacher and used in his classroom. He can still be found in the local schools as a special guest speaker and he takes some of his collection with him each visit. I think this may be what separates Zahs from true hoarders: he actually uses the things he collects. His collection of what some people would describe as “junk” is purposeful.
In an area of the country famed for its can-do attitude, Zahs himself is a perfect role model for this attitude. He is the quintessential Midwesterner. He loves helping others and they all love him back. Ultimately, the film is less about Brinton and his amazing collection or even Zahs and his effort at preservation of the Brinton collection; rather, the film is about a lifestyle. It’s hard work, family, friends, fellowship, and fun, all Midwestern values as exemplified by Zahs and the good folks who live in and around Washington, Iowa. One can’t help but root for Zahs because, well…he’s just so down-to-earth.
Saving Brinton is a wonderfully entertaining film about two men, both teachers and entertainers, who cross paths in the same town but a century apart. It is a gentle film about a gentle giant who persevered for over three decades before recognition of his find was finally obtained. But it is also about a location in America where the people are blue collar and salt-of-the-earth, where America’s values were first established over a century ago and which live on in Mike Zahs and the townsfolk of Washington, Iowa. The film will be interesting to cinephiles simply for the story of this miraculous treasure trove of early films and the move to save them before they melt away. But for those tired of the constantly negative reports on the daily news and who just want something to pick them up, this is a feel-good film that leaves the viewer with a smile.
Saving Brinton just wrapped up showings at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). For more information including, hopefully, a forthcoming DVD release, go to brintonfilm.com.