When movies were new
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Long before movies were about glamour and allure, before red carpets and who are you wearing, when Hollywood was just a small town in California, the motion picture industry was a business in its infancy trying to figure out its future.
Part of that figuring out process happened in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, and a collection of century-old films that reflects this period recently joined the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections. The Brinton Collection includes 16 reels of old film that will be donated by Washington, Iowa, resident Mike Zahs that sat for decades in the basements, destined for a landfill before he saved them in 1981.
Gregory Prickman, head of Special Collections and Archives in the UI Libraries, says the films were not shot in Iowa, but are still a priceless specimen of both the history of Iowa and the pre-Hollywood film industry.
“It shows us the earliest days of the film industry, and that much of the activity that laid the foundation for what it became happened here in Iowa,” he says. “It’s the whole story of the film industry from a uniquely Iowa perspective.”
Made from cellulose nitrate, the films were decayed to the point where they were long since unviewable on anything but the most advanced restoration equipment, and, given the combustible nature of the material, were also highly explosive. But many of those films have been restored with the help of Humanities Iowa and the UI Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives to the point where they can once again be viewed.
The films originally belonged to W. Frank Brinton, who lived in Washington and purchased the movies from production companies like Lumiere, Pathe, and Edison. He then toured small towns in the Midwest and Texas, showing them in the local theater, opera house, or, if the town didn’t have a natural venue, setting up a tent in the town square. None of them likely had red carpets or paparazzi.
Eventually, Brinton closed his business around the time of World War I and put the films in his home’s basement, where they sat untouched for decades after his death in 1919. They later made their way to the home of his widow’s executor, when they came to Zahs’ attention after the owner put the films and a load of other belongings out to be taken to the landfill when he sold the house in 1981. Zahs, who taught junior high history in Washington and is also a local historian, could not let such a motherlode of history be landfilled, so he purchased many of the belongings—which the owner had labeled “Brinton crap”—including the film. He recently worked with UI to have the film restored by Media Preserve, a Pittsburgh company that specializes in restoring old film without destroying the originals, which will be stored in the archives’ refrigerator.
Thailand, with decaying film near the end
A street scene from Cairo, circa 1900
An amusement park ride in England
The rapids of an unknown river
But the collection includes more than just those 16 reels, and that’s where much of its value comes from, says Rick Altman, professor of cinema and comparative literature and an expert in silent film. Along with the film, Zahs saved numerous magic lantern slides from the old Brinton house, and, most importantly from an historical and archival perspective, an array of accounting ledgers, marketing posters, ticket stubs, and other business documents that show a thriving film business in the Midwest from its earliest days.
Altman says those documents are what set this collection apart from other collections of old movies. While rare, many of the films were mass-produced by commercial production companies, so they were seen widely at moving picture houses across the country. The content was typical of films of the time—most of them are short movies of just a few minutes or even just a few seconds. They’re simple and unsophisticated, mostly produced for their novelty value for an audience that had seen few moving pictures before, if at all. They show re-creations of bank robberies, random scenes of urban streets, county fairs, international travelogues. There’s street scenes of Cairo, and animals at the London Zoo. There’s also early “newsreels” of Theodore Roosevelt at a rally or soldiers being drilled before shipping off to the Spanish-American War. Some do tell stories, though very simply, such as the tale of a group of people riding a balloon that’s hit by lightning, crashes into the ocean, and are rescued. The entire story lasts less than a minute.
“There’s also chases,” Prickman says. “Audiences back then loved chases, so there’s lots and lots of chases.”
But Altman says that while they were mass-produced, few have survived, and those that have lack the related marketing and business material that fleshes out the film’s context. He says the Brinton Collection—combined with the UI Archives’ Redpath Chautauqua and Keith/Albee collections that document vaudeville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—provide a rare insight into how Americans were entertained a century ago, and the transition from vaudeville to movies.
“This is not just a collection of films, but a window into the ways the Brintons ran their business and the earliest days of the film industry,” says Altman. “As a group, the collection offers special insight into how entertainment was handled at the turn of the 20th century.”
For instance, the documents provide an insight into the “soundtrack” of each film at each showing. Sometimes it was accompanied by an orchestra, sometimes by a lone piano player. In some stops, there was no musical accompaniment at all.
The records also tell us the road shows provided the Brintons with a very good living.
“They had a commodity that was of great interest at the time,” Altman says.
Zahs says that W. Frank Brinton himself would have made a good character in a film, as he was a man of vast eccentricities. Among them was an obsession with flying machines, and he designed dozens of them, some of which he built. He even constructed his house with a flat roof so it doubled as a landing place for flying machines, a decade before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
He was such an oddball that Zahs can remember as a boy people were still talking about that weird old man Brinton, long after his death. But Zahs says his off-center way of looking at the world may have helped him see the value of movies as a business where others just saw faddish entertainment, and it was that vision that helped bring movies to the Midwest and lay the groundwork for the film industry.