The Vault

Watch the Extremely Simple Short Films That Charmed Late-19th-Century Iowans

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This reel of clips comes from a group of brief films that Iowa entrepreneur W. Frank Brinton took from town to town at the very beginning of the film era. The University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives has recently restored the movies, which sat in a basement for almost the entirety of the 20th century.  

The University of Iowa’s Tom Snee writes that Brinton purchased the film from companies like Edison Motion Pictures, the Lumiere Brothers, and Pathé, and showed them in opera houses and theatres, or in a tent in the town square. (Here’s an image [PDF] of a small-town opera house in Washington, Iowa, where Brinton had a recurring gig.) In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the documents in Brinton’s archive show, he made a good living out of this business.

The films were short, and almost devoid of narrative. The early viewing audience was impressed by the very medium of presentation, as a clip like the third one in this reel (at the 1:42 mark) suggests: It depicts a rushing river. Subjects in motion, like an amusement park ride or a street scene, provided proof of film’s ability to capture movement. As part of the show, Brinton arranged for an orchestral or piano live “soundtrack” for the films; sometimes, he showed them without any accompaniment at all.

The final film on the reel, of Thailand, is partially deteriorated, showing how the cellulose nitrate material of the Brinton films degraded over the years. The effect (which starts at 3:26) is ghostly, with figures and scenes disappearing and reappearing behind Rorschach blotches of decay.

Brinton, clearly a forward-thinking man, was also noted in his native Washington County for his experiments in early flight. In 1893, the local newspapers reported that he had built a craft with four 12-by-6-foot wings, run by a steam engine; in 1899, he tried and failed to fly a homemade dirigible.