Lost Mary Pickford film, recovered in barn, to be screened at Red River
Mary Pickford stars in “Their First Misunderstanding,” a newly rediscovered film previously thought lost, to be screened tonight at 7 at Red River Theatres.
Mary Pickford also appears in the full-length drama “Sparrows.”
To describe the outbuilding in Nelson where six rare silent films were found as a barn would be generous. To be fair, the building had seen decades of scorching summers and bitter winters with little help or disruption to its contents from outsiders. That is until 2006, when a contractor hired to do some work by the property’s new owner stumbled on the stack of films, next to a 1924 film projector.
“I took [film historian] Crystel Schmidt to the barn to see where they were found,” said Larry Benaquist, the professor emeritus of film at Keene State College who coordinated the restoration of the films. “It was a windy day in November or December, and she looked at the barn and said, ‘I can’t believe this. The films were up here?’ She said to me, ‘These films were waiting to be found.’ ”
Films by Thomas Edison, first female director Alice Guy-Blache, Francis Ford, a Mary Pickford flick – all neatly stacked one on top of the other, each one more rare and impressive a find than the next.
One of those lost and recently restored silent film finds, Their First Misunderstanding, will be screened tonight at Red River Theatres. The event, hosted by Schmidt, will feature the 1911 short drama starring Pickford and her then-husband Owen Moore. This film is particularly exciting, Benaquist said, because it was Pickford’s first credited screen performance. Further, this particular copy of the film is believed to be the only one in existence.
Frankly, the fact that the film still exists at all is a mystery, Benaquist said.
In all there were seven reels found of six films (one was in two parts), in the barn on the property that used to be a summer camp back in the early to mid-1900s. Among the films was one part of a six-part Thomas Edison serial, Who will Marry Mary? the Francis Ford film When Lincoln Paid, and the western Parson Sue by Guy-Blache.
Although many of the films weren’t even in canisters when they were found, they were in remarkably good condition, although the beginnings and ends of many of the films were damaged or lost.
“When film shrinks, you can’t show it on a conventional projector because the sprocket holes will get torn on the gears,” Benaquist said. “And I think that’s what happened to (the beginnings and endings) of these films, because a lot of it is missing. . . . I would guess maybe sometime in the 1930s, they tried to show these films again and they had so much trouble – they wouldn’t go through the machine – that they just stopped.”
When Benaquist got a hold of the Pickford film, he found that the beginning of the film was stuck to the rest of the reel. Benaquist knew better than to try to pull it apart, since doing that could cause further damage. So, still not knowing what he had, he sent it off to a film lab where he knew they could treat the film with a solution to get it unstuck.
Once freed, technicians in the lab looked at the film and recognized Pickford and Wilson. After some reasearch online, they were able to find the name of the film and realized that Benaquist’s was the only copy.
The beginning of Their First Misunderstanding is missing, but the end is still there, Benaquist said.
The film shows a very different, more powerful side of the actress who would mistakenly be remembered for playing only wholesome characters. Likewise, in the film Sparrows (1926), which will also be shown tonight, Pickford single-handedly protects a group of orphans from an evil guardian, battles a pack of criminals and leads the orphans through an alligator-infested swamp.
The screening at Red River will be only the second time Their First Misunderstanding has been publicly screened since its restoration.
“We’re thrilled to be hosting only the second-ever screening of this early Pickford film that was discovered right here in New Hampshire,” said Shelly Hudson, executive director of Red River in a statement. “It’s amazing that this piece of cinema history has been unearthed in our own backyard, and we’re glad to be able to give Granite State residents a chance not only to see it, but also understand more about its importance.”
The films will be accompanied by live music created by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician and Red River’s house film accompanist. Rapsis said instead of using music that would have accompanied silent movies of the time, he’s chosen scores of contemporary film composers to play along with the film. In that way, he said, he hopes to make the films more relevant to a contemporary audience.
And this is important, since only about 10 percent all silent films produced in the U.S. before 1930 survive today, Benaquist said. Most were lost to decay, neglect or deliberate destruction. As a result, any one of these films is significant.
“These films are a window into our own history that has been closed,” Benaquist said. “Each one of these films is not just a glimpse of dress and movement and so forth, but relationships, the way women were treated.
“These (films) were the way the world saw itself back then. I really think that film is the world showing itself to itself. And the fact that ninety percent of these films are missing means that every one that we find is just another piece of the quilt, another little opening into what we had learned about ourselves. And we’re not going to find many more of these anymore.”
“Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies” will be presented tonight at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, located at 11 S. Main St. Admission is $15 per person and includes the screenings of Their First Misunderstanding as well as the feature film Sparrows. Schmidt will host the evening and will sign copies of her book Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies following the screenings. For information, call 224-4600 or visit redrivertheatres.org.