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Editorial: A long-lost film, rescued and restored

In her day, a century ago, Mary Pickford was one of the most powerful women in America. If you’re not a film buff, you can be excused for not knowing about “the girls with the curls,” perhaps – but she’s definitely worth your time. That’s why we’d encourage Red River Theatres in Concord to bring a newly rediscovered Pickford movie with an intriguing New Hampshire connection to town as soon as possible.

Pickford, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” was the first female superstar in Hollywood. Born in Canada, she became a hero to women moviegoers in this country and beyond. Most notably, critics credit her with bringing a new maturity and realism to silent films, at a time when silliness was often the rule. To her fans, she nearly invented movie acting.

Pickford often played strong-willed, working-class women who triumphed over adversity. She was beautiful and sweet – but also an early feminist. In Tess of the Storm Country, for instance (a 1914 film available in full on YouTube), she responds to an unwelcome kiss by picking up a dead fish and swatting her suitor in the mouth. Take that!

In all, Pickford made more than 250 films, both silent movies and “talkies.” But that remarkable productivity only begins to explain her outsized power, at a time when women rarely had much at all.

Pickford was so popular – particularly in the 1910s and ’20s, that she basically ran Hollywood; few female actors have ever been so dominant.

In addition to acting, Pickford was a movie producer who ran her own studio. She was a co-founder of United Artists. And she was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the academy that awarded her a best actress Oscar in 1929 for a film called Coquette.

A few years back, a contractor tearing down a barn in Nelson – a small town near Keene – discovered an old film projector and a cache of old films, not even stored in protective cans. Among them: a silent film that experts had considered lost, the 1911 Pickford feature called Their First Misunderstanding about a couple of newlyweds’ first argument.

The film, short though it is, is notable for a variety of reasons. It’s the first time Pickford was credited by name in a movie, and it was the first movie she made for Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Picture Co. (Before that, Pickford worked for a movie house that didn’t release the names of its actors; Pickford was known only as Little Mary.) At just 18, she not only starred in but also wrote the movie. And her co-star was her first husband, Owen Moore.

The movie, in fragile shape, has now been restored with funding from the Library of Congress, which has the world’s largest collection of Pickford films. It’s apparently in good enough shape for viewers to really enjoy. Next month, Their First Misunderstanding will be screened at Keene State College. For most Concord moviegoers, that’s a long drive for a short film. But Red River would no doubt draw a good crowd for a long-lost film which, but for the double-checking of a barn wrecking crew, might easily have disappeared for good.

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