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.