Seven years ago, a contractor was commissioned to tear down a decaying barn in the small New Hampshire town of Nelson. Before destroying the building, he checked out the barn to make sure it was empty.
On the second floor were an old film projector and seven reels of highly volatile nitrate films that weren't even stored in cans. Four of the films had been considered lost including the 1911 Mary Pickford short "Their First Misunderstanding," a comedy-drama about a newlywed couple's first argument.
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The Library of Congress is funding the restoration of "Their First Misunderstanding," which was the first movie "America's Sweetheart" made for Carl Laemmle's IMP (Independent Moving Picture Co.). The Library has the largest collection of Pickford movies, including the Oscar-winning actress/producer's personal collection.
"Their First Misunderstanding" marked the first time Pickford was credited by name in a movie. The 18-year-old Pickford also wrote the film's scenario and co-stars with her first husband, Owen Moore, whom she had just married. Legendary producer-director Thomas Ince, who is believed to have directed "Their First Misunderstanding," also appears in the short.
On Oct. 11, the restored film will have a special screening at Keene State College in Keene, N. H. Pickford scholar Christel Schmidt, editor of "Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies," will present the film along with Pickford's1926 silent "Sparrows" and another 1911 Pickford-Moore IMP short, "The Dream."
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"It's a big deal," says Schmidt of the discovery. "She has been making films for the D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Co. from around April of 1909, but Biograph's policy was that they did not release the names of their actors. She was known as Little Mary but nobody knew she was Mary Pickford."
IMP, which lured her away from Biograph, "wanted her because she was a known commodity. She is somebody people want to see on screen," Schmidt noted.
Mike Mashon who heads the Moving Image Section Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, added that "Their First Misunderstanding" is important because Pickford had such a "short-lived association" with IMP. "This film fills an important gap."
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Larry Benaquist, who started the film program at Keene State, which now has an archive of about 1,000 films, was contacted in 2006 by contractor Peter Massie about what he found in the barn.
"He was kind enough to call me," said Benaquist of the find in nearby Nelson. "That kind of thing happens around here. Keene is not a large town. Because of the film program often things related to film will get run past me."
Last year, said Benaquist, he sent Colorlab Corp. — a lab that specializes in difficult restorations of nitrate films — two films from the barn that were stuck together. Once the lab was able to separate them, they discovered one was a 1910 Mary Pickford Biograph film, "The Unchanging Sea," of which copies are in existence, and the other was eventually identified as "Their First Misunderstanding."
Russ Suniewick, president of Colorlab, which is located in Rockville, Md., said the restoration of the lost Pickford film is nearly complete.
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"There are a few places where you have jumps in action but you can completely follow the story," added Schmidt. "There is no significant amount of footage lost of this film at all."
Benaquist contacted Schmidt, who previously worked at the Library of Congress, about the find. "I convinced him to consider donating it to the Library of Congress," she said. "The library was willing to preserve this film in a timely fashion for the donor."
"It was a confluence of forces," noted Mashon. "We have a collection of nitrate film that Larry has found over the years. So we were already on Larry's radar, but having Mary Pickford in the mix was an added layer. We make a special effort here to collect and preserve the films of Mary Pickford. We feel a very close affinity to her."
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