Last night, I was part of the first audience to see a long-lost film for over 80 years.
I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.
This story starts with a condemned barn in New Hampshire, marked for demolition. In 2006, contractor Peter Massie did a routine sweep of the site. Let’s just say it’s a good thing he did, because, to his surprise, Massie discovered a 1920s Monarch projector and seven reels of film.
How those films ended up in the barn remains a slight mystery, although they were probably shown as part of a boy’s summer camp once located on the land there. Massie contacted Dr. Larry Benaquist of Keene State College, who sent the fragile nitrate film—the strips stuck together and the sprocket holes shredded—to Colorlab Corp. for the challenging restoration. Out of the cache, the lab identified four films presumed lost, including the 1911 Mary Pickford vehicle “Their First Misunderstanding.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint the last time when this film was shown; it might have been reissued a few years after its initial release. It might have been seen sometime in the 1920s, but it had almost definitely not been projected since the dawn of the talkies.
Until last night, when “Their First Misunderstanding” saw the light after so many years of darkness.
At Keene State College, this short film had its re-premiere, projected on a big screen from a digitized copy. Professor Benaquist and Christel Schmidt, a Pickford scholar and editor of Queen of the Movies, introduced the program. In addition to the rediscovered film, the screening included another Pickford one-reeler, “The Dream” (1911), and perhaps her greatest film performance in Sparrows (1926), all with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.
(Poster design by Caitlen Brown.)
“Their First Misunderstanding,” a concise one-reel marital dramedy, might not seem like anything special out of context. However, Schmidt explained the significance of the rediscovered film. The short movie represents a crucial piece of cinema history: it’s the first film that gave Mary Pickford billing under her real name, as well as her first film with the Independent Moving Pictures Company, or IMP.
(Frame from the collections of Keene State College and the Library of Congress.)
Pickford also wrote the scenario for “Their First Misunderstanding.” This wasn’t particularly unusual, since she shrewdly sold many scenarios to the production company she worked for, as well as to others, as a way of earning extra income. Nevertheless, I enjoyed knowing that Mary’s genius for cinema pervaded the short film, not only through her performance but also through all of the “bits of business” she had concocted. When Mary toyed with a cigarette, beat the hell out of a suitor with an enormous bouquet, or snuggled sadly by a fire, all of those actions came from her nimble, vivacious mind.
Although “Their First Misunderstanding” survives astonishingly intact for having languished in a New England barn (without the protection of a film canister) the years had taken their toll. The one-reeler begins and ends a bit abruptly due to missing footage.The opening scene of the film, which mostly likely started with a scene of the couple’s wedding, has not survived. However, in its present state, it opens with a brief shot of Owen Moore’s character frantically packing for his honeymoon.
(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)
From there, the newlyweds meet at a train station where their families ambush them with well-wishes and a cascade of rice. From her first appearance, luminous Mary Pickford looks elegant in a luxurious travel outfit of white fur, which she adjusts and preens daintily, the image of a new bride wanting every last detail to be simply perfect. Among the crowd on the train platform are an unrecognizable Ben Turpin (with nary a googly eye in sight!) and a very recognizable and dapper Thomas Ince who bobs up and down like the center of attention, seemingly unaware that he is not the star of the film. The newlyweds embark on their honeymoon, filled with hope and love.
But the intertitles warn us that marital bliss doesn’t last forever: “One Year Later: Oh! How Different It Is!” It’s always a joy to listen to a modern audience laugh at intertitle jokes, and, last night, we roared at this 1910s equivalent of the CUT TO: juxtapositions that movies still use as punchlines.
Apparently, one year later, the husband has grown into a self-absorbed lout who mostly ignores his chic wife. Mary tries various tactics to get his attention—pretending to smoke one of his cigarettes, massaging his scalp, and going into full-on melodrama mode—but none of them work. When the couple attends a party, hubby goes off into another room with a society cutie, leaving poor Mary alone to fret and worry. Never one to sit around and do nothing, she decides to do a little flirting of her own with the ludicrously caricatured poet-pianist—think Snidley Whiplash as Romeo—who’s playing at the dinner party.
(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)
To his dismay, Mary’s husband walks in on her intimate conversation with the poet. Soon the would-be romancer is visiting the couple’s home. The husband decides to rig up a little bell on the house door, so that he knows when any visitor comes to call. This, of course, leads to a number of false alarms, as the husband nearly suffers a fit of apoplexy… only to discover a deliveryman at the door. In another adorable scene, the poet does come for a visit, but has to do his wooing from the entrance of the room to keep the bell from ringing. Is this seeming like a lot of plot developments for 11 minutes? Because it’s not over yet. Mary’s scenario packed in an abundance of comedy and drama in an impressively short time.
The husband finally buckles under the suspicion and decides to leave his wife, writing, “You’re not the woman I supposed you were.” He leaves her to the poet. Mary, however, had no intention of going away with the second-rate scribbler. When the fawning suitor appears, she whips him out of the house with a bouquet of enormous flowers!
Desolate over the loss of her husband, Mary crawls into his study (read: mancave, circa 1911) and curls up with his smoking jacket to comfort herself. Let me mention that the naturalistic light in this final scene, seemingly from the single source of a fireplace, resembles a moving Rembrandt: hauntingly exquisite and warm.
The husband returns, shambling in, filled with remorse; as he looks down, he unexpectedly sees his wife. Overcome with happiness at finding that she never ceased to love him, he goes in for a kiss and she shares his joy. Until she smells the tobacco on his breath and coughs. But snuggles with him anyway. The sophisticated mixture of melancholy and humor in this conclusion save it from pure sentimentality. (One suspects that Chaplin picked a thing or two from watching Pickford one-reelers.) We realize that these flawed young married people have lost a few illusions, but gained a firmer bond of friendship and consideration. Knowing how it feels to get hurt, they will try not to hurt each other anymore.
You can watch “The Dream,” the second film on the program, online, and I eagerly recommend that you do, if only for the pleasure of watching alternate-universe Mary Pickford totally trash a living room. In the brief fantasy-allegory, another less-than-ideal husband goes out drinking and treats his wife horribly. Crashing on the sofa, he has a dream where his wife acts like him—a brazen, sardonic lush, who goes about drinking, shattering the china, and staying out late partying. He wakes up screaming, relieved to find his sweet real-life wife just as she was, and recognizes the treasure that was under his nose all along.
(Library of Congress.)
Both short films humorously advocate for equality and trust within marriage. The one-reelers focus on women who start to behave like their wayward husbands (whether in real life or in fantasy) and, in so doing, force their husbands to recognize the error of their own ways. Ironically, Pickford’s life mirrored her art—but without the happy ending. According to Schmidt, Pickford married her co-star Owen Moore two days before the release of “Their First Misunderstanding.” The nightmare marriage paralleled the bad relationship that we witness at the beginning of “The Dream” and ended in divorce. Alas, Moore didn’t learn from his onscreen acts of repentance.
It’s hard not to detect feminist undertones in the onscreen depiction of macho spouses who neglect their wives and expect them to deal with it—but who freak out when their wives pay them back in kind. The movies astutely illustrate how a husband’s lack of respect for his wife, combined with the abuse of his greater social freedom, can ruin an otherwise happy union.
I especially appreciated the nuances that Pickford brought to her character in “Their First Misunderstanding.” Unlike the droll polar personas in “The Dream,” she doesn’t strike us as either a passive bride or a scarlet woman, and flirts with another man only after her husband starts misbehaving. She may not be perfect, but she certainly comes closer than her husband. Pickford’s light touch for this sort of romantic farce comedy makes us sympathetic to her plight; we enjoy her enjoying herself, but ultimately root for her to make the right decision and turn her husband back into the man she married. Because she is clever, beautiful, and loving, she succeeds.
While these films still place most of the burden of keeping a marriage together on the women, at least they honor that burden. I imagine that Pickford’s performances and scenarios motivated quite a few husbands in the audience (in 1911 and last night) to appreciate their wives more, lest they threaten to run off with the next leering poet they meet!
William Beaudine’s Sparrows features one of the strongest, feistiest female protagonists I know of. Pickford’s performance as Molly, a spunky teenager who leads a group of orphans through miles of dangerous swamps in a desperate escape from a brutal “baby farm,” inspired the steely role of Miss Cooper in Night of the Hunter (1955). Lillian Gish immortalized that part, but as Christel Schmidt noted, this was unusual, considering her frail star image in the silent days, in contrast to Mary Pickford’s up-by-her-bootstraps persona. “Lillian Gish would get trapped on an ice floe and need to be saved by Richard Barthelmess, whereas Mary Pickford might save Lillian Gish from an ice floe.”
It was inspiring to savor the audience’s vibrant reactions to the film. Some of us even hissed and booed the vile Mr. Grimes and his nasty family. Unfortunately, the DVD print projected was not a good one, but accompanist Jeff Rapsis more than compensated for this by creating a delightfully suspenseful score. Having seen the film on DVD with a recorded score, I admired how Rapsis delicately underplayed the maudlin aspects of the film, instead highlighting its rich blend of poignant humor and tense action, all graced with glimmers of tenderness. I also have no idea how Rapsis managed, at certain key moments, to ring a bell WHILE playing his keyboard, but somehow he did. He’s also written up a wonderful piece on his blog about creating a score for the rediscovered one-reeler, which makes for terrific reading.
Without a doubt, the entire evening will take an honored place among my filmgoing memories. However, I keep circling back to those 11 minutes that no audience had collectively experienced for almost a century. As Christel Schmidt said, “This film wanted to come back to us.” This encounter was meant to be.
I found my mind drifting to the Japanese concept of ichi-go-ichi-e, or “one time, one meeting,” the idea of something that happens only once in a lifetime, that acquires a tremendous weight of destiny through its uniqueness. Cinema is almost the opposite of this—a film is the same every time you see it. Or is it? You never see the same film twice, because you are different each time. The screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” brought on this epiphany, because of the sheer onceness of that particular encounter. We live in the midst of this onceness and never quite realize it. The moviegoers who went to see that film in 1911—could they have imagined how irreplaceably precious it would become to us?
(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)
Cinema is my personal religion, so I can only describe what I felt last night as a vision, in many senses of the word. The imprint of light, of time, is caught on celluloid. Once that celluloid is gone, the soul of that moment returns no more. What was rescued from a little New Hampshire barn, then, wasn’t merely a museum piece, but a relic, something saturated with long-lost memories. At the risk of sounding a little too Proustian, the screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” last night was the restoration of lost time, the opening of a portal to another world that had been closed to us for longer than the span of the average human life.
In 1911, there were still a large number of people who scoffed at the idea that images produced by a machine could provoke laughter, tears, affection. But Mary Pickford knew different; she publicly heralded film as an art when few others would’ve dared to use the word. I think that she would have been proud to witness her films flood into a theater so removed from their time and place, yet magically connected to those bygone days through the power of the seventh art.