Lost Mary Pickford film found in barn, restored

Their First Misunderstanding, a 1911 Independent Moving Picture Co. (IMP) short starring Mary Pickford in her first fully credited film appearance, will make its second debut more than a century after its first at a special screening on October 11th at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. It’s a milestone in Mary Pickford’s rise to global superstardom and in the development of the very concept of a movie star. This is the first picture in which she was credited as Mary Pickford rather than “Little Mary.”

Pickford had been working since 1909 for D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Company, cranking out a nickelodeon a week. Although Biograph never listed its actors’ names in the credits, a standard practice in the early days of the industry, Mary was soon very popular with audiences. Movie theater owners tapped into her popularity and advertised her presence in a film describing her as “The Girl with the Golden Curls,” among other nicknames.

She was just 18 years old when she left Biograph to join pioneering film producer Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company. Laemmle was instrumental in the birth of what would become the Hollywood star system, hiring away the most popular actors from companies where their work was uncredited and giving them marquee billing. He also perpetrated the first fake star death PR hoax in 1910 when he spread around the rumor that Florence Lawrence had been run over by a streetcar in New York City, only to later unveil with great fanfare that she was not dead, but rather shooting the upcoming IMP picture The Broken Oath, soon in theaters near you!

Laemmle poached Mary Pickford from Biograph just as he had Florence Lawrence: by guaranteeing her name billing. Mary also was allowed an impressive amount of control over her IMP pictures. She wrote the screenplay for Their First Misunderstanding and cast her newlywed husband Owen Moore as the newlywed husband in the film. The director is thought to have been the soon-to-be legendary Thomas Ince who also makes a brief appearance in the film.

Like many of the silent pictures from the 1910s and 20s, Their First Misunderstanding was lost, with no known copies in existence for decades. That changed in 2006 when contractor Peter Massie found seven reels of old nitrate film, empty film canisters and a 1934 Monarch silent film projector on the second floor of a barn in Nelson, New Hampshire. Massie was looking through the barn before tearing it down when he hit on this magical little jackpot. Being a film buff, he took the reels and projector home.

Massie contacted Larry Benaquist, founder of Keene State’s film program, to alert him to the finds. Benaquist thinks the films were in the barn because there were several summer camps in Nelson, including a boys camp near the barn in the 1920s. He believes the shorts were shown to the boys on movie night and then tossed in a corner and forgotten. It’s astonishing that the reels and the barn survived. Nitrate film is highly flammable and so are barns.

Last year Benaquist sent two of the nitrate reels which were stuck together to Colorlab, a Maryland company that specializes in restoring volatile nitrate film. They were able to separate the two and identify them: Their First Misunderstanding, and the 1910 Biograph film The Unchanging Sea which also stars Mary Pickford and of which there are plenty of extant copies.

The Library of Congress, which has largest collection of movies by Mary Pickford, funded the restoration, to the tune of an estimated $9,000. It is money well spent. Despite having been stuck to another film and left in the open in a barn for nigh on a century, almost the entire picture has been restored. There are a few spots with missing frames where the action skips, but it doesn’t impede understanding. The restored film is considered complete.

You’ll have to head to New Hampshire on October 11th with $5 in hand to view the entire film. Here’s a clip from the restored Their First Misunderstanding to tide you over. The picture quality is mind-blowing for any 100-year-old film, even more mind-blowing when you consider it was stuck in unhealthy gelatinous co-dependence with The Unchanging Sea for decades.

14 thoughts on “Lost Mary Pickford film found in barn, restored

  1. Oh, nice!

    “I idled away large amounts of time […] watching silent movies like a big nerd”

    Spending lots of time watching silent movies makes me a big nerd? I’m good with that. Does this mean you’ve been watching a lot [more] of TCM and The Story of Film recently, like myself?

  2. This is the second film to be restored from the film cache. The first, When Lincoln Paid, was presented in 2010. The director was Francis Ford, older brother of John Ford. It is the only surviving copy. I had the opportunity to view the film at Keene State College. I will be returning October 11th to view this one, also. I didn’t realize there were 7 films discovered. I wonder if the others have been restored, too?

  3. This is great news for old silent movie fans like myself.

    Also thanks for keeping this blog rolling on a daily basis, it’s on my “go-to” list and one of the best around.

    The insightful commentary is excellent and you also go the extra mile to post high quality pictures and relevant media whenever possible.

  4. Oh, sure, give me more to watch! It isn’t as though I have anything else to do with my life. At least I only have to bookmark this, as opposed to filling up my DVR with ridiculous numbers of silent movies (and they’re showing Hitchcock every Sunday this month — although at least I own a number of those — AND they’re having a Ginger Rogers day on Tuesday).

    But, really, thanks for the link. I’ll definitely watch that at some point.

  5. I went to the screening last night. Packed house. Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford, Queen of the Movies, presented the biography of Mary Pickford. Their First Misunderstanding was the first reel, followed by The Dream, or part two. Both were written by Ms. Pickford when she was just 18. Ms. Pickford’s legend in Hollywood is all the more remarkable as she never had a formal education, but was raised in dire poverty until she and her siblings started acting in films.
    Of the 7 films found in the cache, 4 more are only extant copies known to exist, and NONE of them were in canisters!. These are being restored.
    It is so important to remember that Peter Massie, the contractor, decided to contact Larry Benquist at KSC and donate the films, rather than destroy what he couldn’t identify.
    Thank you again for your posts. I appreciate this blog, and it is one of the first things
    I check every morning.

    1. Thank you so much for reporting on the event. I’m thrilled to hear it was a full house. I’ve read several reviews of Christel Schmidt’s talks accompanying various screenings of Pickford movies and they’re uniformly glowing. I hear she gives great anecdote.

      Peter Massie truly deserves a medal. Not only could he easily have discarded the films, but he could have even more easily destroyed them with just a little bit of inadvertently rough handling. He is the reason these lost treasures have been returned to us.

      Thank you for reading, Emily, and for being our roving reporter! :thanks:

  6. :boogie: I think its great that people enjoy these movies ever since I did a book reporton theda bara in college in 1998 ive been hooked on silent films I own some now . I think their a joy my man thinks im crazy ,I love vintage films 😉 thanks for restoration .

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