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Saving Brinton (2017)

In rural Iowa, a beloved history teacher uncovers the century-old showreels of one of America's first motion picture impresarios and sets out to premiere the films at the world's oldest continuously operating movie theatre.

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Credited cast:
Michael Zahs Michael Zahs ... Himself
Serge Bromberg ... Himself
Greg Prickman Greg Prickman ... Himself
Kathryn Fuller-Seeley Kathryn Fuller-Seeley ... Herself
Rick Altman Rick Altman ... Himself
George R. Willeman George R. Willeman ... Himself
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Jan Boland Jan Boland ... Herself
Carey Bostian Carey Bostian ... Himself
John Dowdall John Dowdall ... Himself
Charity Nebbe Charity Nebbe ... Herself - Radio Host
Harvey Solberger Harvey Solberger ... Himself
Mitch Thompson Mitch Thompson ... Himself
Elaine Zahs Elaine Zahs ... Herself
Julie Zahs Julie Zahs ... Herself


In rural Iowa, a beloved history teacher uncovers the century-old showreels of one of America's first motion picture impresarios and sets out to premiere the films at the world's oldest continuously operating movie theatre.

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Release Date:

17 June 2017 (USA) See more »


Box Office

Opening Weekend USA:

$2,690, 17 September 2017, Limited Release

Gross USA:

$47,419, 16 August 2018
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User Reviews

Two Early-Cinema Showmen
6 November 2017 | by CineanalystSee all my reviews

"Saving Brinton" follows former-schoolteacher Michael Zahs on his journey to bring recognition to and preservation for a collection of historical materials that came into his possession in the 1980s, including reels of 35mm films from the turn of the 20th Century, from the itinerant early-cinema exhibitor Frank Brinton and his wife, Ina Brinton. I admit that I'm biased in favor of this documentary. Besides being interested in early cinema, as many of my IMDb reviews will attest, I've also met some of the people involved in this film, including its present-day subject, Zahs, as well as attending his shows, and have researched the film's historical subject, the Brinton Collection, which is being housed at the University of Iowa and which Zahs saved. Regardless, "Saving Brinton" does some things exceptionally well. It's focus on the showmanship, travels and other traits of Zahs underscore how much he resembles, including facial hair that seems to belong to a bygone era, Frank Brinton, a man who has been dead for nearly a century.

For years, annually, Zahs has exhibited his collection of Brinton's films at an old opera house in the tiny Iowan town of Ainsworth—one of the venues that the Brintons visited regularly during their tours of rural communities and small cities in American Midwestern and Southern states. Additionally, the climax of sorts of "Saving Brinton" is a show by Zahs at the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa. Formerly the Graham Opera House, this Washington theatre was managed by Frank Brinton, who also managed a now-gone, open-air "Airdome" theatre in the same town, after he retired from being a traveling showman due to the monopolization of the motion-picture business by Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company and the emergence of permanent movie houses, including nickelodeons and repurposed opera houses.

Although Brinton (and Zahs, for that matter) didn't produce his own films, early cinema was very much a collaboration of a kind between film producers and film exhibitors—especially before multi-scene story films became prevalent. What the exhibitor did was to assemble a series of often single-shot views, but also early story films, into an evening's entertainment (like today's feature-length movie, if you will) and to elaborate on these films with lectures and other entertainments, such as magic lantern slides, music, theatrical acts and other presentations. This is what Brinton did at the turn of the last century and what Zahs has done at the turn of this century. Like Brinton, Zahs is also very much a prominent figure of his local community in the rural Iowan county of Washington; indeed, much of "Saving Brinton" involves his other local historical interests. Scenes of his now-late mother also touch upon the passing of history. The documentary does well to include images of this shared landscape, which centers a documentary that itself is very much a local product of small-town Iowa.

Yet, the very same collection of films and other materials led both men to travel far and wide. One difference in their travels, however, is that Zahs is preserving history. His efforts take him to the Library of Congress to preserve the films, for instance, and overseas to confirm and exhibit the discovery of a once-lost Georges Méliès film. Brinton, on the other hand, was a world traveler, including living near Jerusalem for a time, before going into the movie business. At a time when such tourism and world, or even national, travel was far less common, Brinton's films brought the world and a tourist sensibility to the rural American heartland. Fueled with films from companies from around the world, from Edison in the urban U.S. to Gaumont, Méliès and Pathé abroad, among others, his programs were generally organized around this theme of tourism. Also fitting into this travel theme—an invention of Brinton himself— were his presentations of his not-so-successful airships.

"Saving Brinton" can only share a glimpse of the Brinton Collection, and it does so largely through Zahs meeting some of today's experts in early cinema, including Serge Bromberg overjoyed by the rediscovery of the Méliès film, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley comparing Ina Brinton's record book for the Brinton Company to her own research on early-cinema exhibitors (see her book "At the Picture Show: Small- Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture"), and Rick Altman rifling through magic-lantern slides and music sheets while he and Zahs break into song. (By the way, one interesting thing I found in the Collection, which isn't mentioned in the documentary, is the Brintons tours of the Chautauqua circuit, which compliments well research that Altman has done on Chautauqua events and early cinema, such as in his book "Silent Film Sound.")

This is special. "Saving Brinton" brings two showmen separated by a century together through a wonderful collection, preserving and recreating history and the magic of motion pictures, interspersed between localism and the broader world through cinema.

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