Contractor Peter Massie was cleaning out an old barn in New Hampshire destined for demolition when he found a complete set of reels of the long-lost 1913 picture When Lincoln Paid, starring Francis Ford, director John Ford’s brother, as Abraham Lincoln. He also found the original projector for the nitrate film.
Massie brought the whole kit-n-kaboodle home and kept it in the basement for a while until it occurred to him to contact Keene State College for help with preservation. The college contacted the George Eastman House film preservation museum in Rochester, N.Y., and found out that this copy is the only one known.
Nitrate films from the dawn of cinema have not survived well, so a great many pioneering films we only know about today from contemporary descriptions or the occasional clip. They have a distressing propensity to burst into flames, for one thing, and they need careful conservation to last.
This film has endured a century thanks to New Hampshire’s horrendously cold, long winters, and thanks to the shade-casting trees around the barn. Even so, the film has shrunk over the years and the sprocket holes that used to guide it through the projector are torn through.
The National Film Preservation Foundation gave Keene State a grant to restore the picture. They sent it to a lab in Colorado, and it took them a year to put humpty dumpty back together.
“What the laboratory had to do was remanufacture the sprocket holes to a new dimension, make it in strips, adhere it to the image, and then run it through a printing process where they would print it, frame by frame,” [Keene State College film professor Larry] Benaquist said.
Benaquist thinks the film was discovered in Nelson because the town is on Granite Lake, the site of many summer camps through the years. He said there was a boys’ camp in the area of the barn and believes the films were shown to entertain the children, then put away and forgotten.
Helping the restoration was Mark Reinhart of Columbus, Ohio, author of “Abraham Lincoln on Screen.” He had a crude video copy of the film that had been made from an 8-mm copy and included a few scenes that were missing from the film found in the barn. The college combined a DVD of the restored film with a DVD taken of Reinhart’s film for its final version.
The college plans to screen the picture in the Putnam Theater in the Redfern Arts Center on Tuesday, April 20, at 4 p.m.. Attendance is free, so if you’re in the New Hampshire area, here’s your chance to watch a movie that hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years.
You can see a clip of a climactic scene below where Mrs. Wade, the mother of a dead Union soldier asks Lincoln to pardon the Confederate soldier she once turned in.
Mrs. Wade pleads with Abraham Lincoln (played by Francis Ford) for the life of a young Confederate soldier in Francis Ford’s When Lincoln Paid.