‘Saving Brinton’: Film Review

Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne’s documentary ‘Saving Brinton’ concerns a collector who discovered century-old film reels that had been exhibited by a barnstorming movie pioneer.

Anyone who loves movies is bound to love Mike Zahs, the genial Iowan at the center of this documentary co-directed by Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne. And anyone who loves movies is bound to love Saving Brinton. This delightful film, recently showcased at DOC NYC and scheduled for theatrical release next year, centers on Zahs‘ efforts to preserve the legacy of an early 20th century pioneering showman who traveled throughout the Midwest projecting silent films to awestruck audiences.  

Zahs, a former history teacher whose long white beard and portly physique qualify him for work as a department store Santa, is what can only be described as a “character.” An obsessive with a deep love for things from the past, his idea of dressing up is wearing a tie featuring a reproduction of Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic.”

The Bottom Line

A cinephile’s delight.

Years ago, Zahs fell into possession of the estate of Frank Brinton and his wife Indiana, which had been languishing in the basement of a farmhouse for decades. Brinton, who like Zahs lived in the small town of Washington, Iowa, had traveled with his wife throughout the Midwest from 1897 until his death in 1908, showing films from, among others, the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies and Thomas Edison’s studio. Zahs discovered thousands of reels of nitrate film, including rare footage of Theodore Roosevelt and, as he eventually found out, a Melies film that had long been thought lost. The artifacts also included Brinton’s original equipment such as an 1870s-era “dissolving projector” that gave still images the appearance of movement.

Zahs made it his goal to preserve the films and bring them to the attention of researchers, historians and, ultimately, audiences. His mission was supported by the University of Iowa, among other organizations. This doc includes a scene depicting a film scholar beside himself with joy after seeing the Melies film, still in pristine condition. “We have a new one!” he exults.

Zahs‘ success was both national and international, as demonstrated by the segment in which he introduces a screening of the Melies short at an Italian silent film festival, telling the crowd that it’s the first time an audience has seen the movie in more than a century. He also hosts a screening of many of the treasures from the Brinton collection at the State Theater in his hometown, which is claimed to be the oldest continuously running movie theater in the world, in operation since 1897.

The doc is as much a profile of its passionate central figure as an account of Brinton’s importance to the history of cinema. As such, it occasionally gets digressive with such flavorful scenes as Zahs visiting his elderly mother in an assisted living facility, giving a lecture about Iowan history in front of a class of eager grade-school students, and attending his high school reunion.

It’s the films he showcases, however, that ultimately prove Saving Brinton‘s main attraction. The numerous clips on display, including several hand-tinted color prints, have not lost their magic or ability to enthrall in the 100-plus years since they were made. The flickering images serve as a poignant reminder that it’s estimated that up to 90 percent of all silent films have been lost forever. That is, unless another miraculous discovery is made and someone like Mike Zahs is on hand to champion it.

Production companies: Bocce Ball Films, Northland Films
Directors: Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne
Producer: Andrew Sherburne
Executive producer: Trish McDonald
Director: John Richard
Editors: Tommy Haines, John Richard
Composer: Michael Kramer
Venue: DOC NYC

87 minutes