Saving Silent Films

By Owen, Tina | Humanities, January/February 2015 | Go to article overview

Saving Silent Films


Owen, Tina, Humanities


IOWA W. FRANK BRINTON WAS AHEAD OF HIS TIME.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, he designed aircraft long before the Wright brothers took flight, built a solar-powered house, and introduced moving pictures to awestruck audiences in the Midwest. The moving picture collection that was discovered in a basement in Washington, Iowa, contains some of the earliest silent films ever made, including one by French film pioneer George Méfiés that had been considered lost.

From 1895 until 1917, Brinton showed silent movies in small-town opera houses and tents, making up to $100 a day by charging 10,15, or 25c per ticket. He started out alone and then his wife, Indiana, joined him in 1898. The first film in the U.S. was made in 1894; the earliest in Brinton's collection dates from 1895. "When most people think of silent films, they think of Charlie Chaplin or the Keystone Kops," says the collection's archivist Michael Zahs. "But these films were made when Charlie Chaplin was in knee pants."

Purchased from companies like Pathé, Edison, and Lumière, the hand-cranked films typically ran just a couple of minutes or even a few seconds. They featured fictional dramas of gold prospectors in the Old West, news clips of Teddy Roosevelt, and scenes of everyday fife in foreign lands like Thailand, Egypt, and England.

The films were unsophisticated. Yet, they were magical to audiences who had never seen moving images. Scenes of a flowing river evoked astonishment, let alone special effects like flowers flying through the air into a woman's arms (the filmmakers achieved this marvelous feat by filming the actress throwing away the flowers and then playing the scenes backward).

Following the introduction of full-length feature films and talkies, silent movies lost their appeal. With the passage of time and the fragile nature of early cellulose, some 90 percent of movies made before 1929 have been lost forever. For a while, it seemed the Brinton collection would suffer the same fate. Forgotten and ignored, it languished in Brinton's executor's basement- until 1981. Enter Michael Zahs, then a junior high history teacher whose school was near the old Brinton home.

By chance, Zahs ran into the man who was disposing of Brinton's belongings. …

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