Restoring Mary Pickford's Lost Film
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Restoring Mary Pickford's Lost Film
Actor, screenwriter, producer and United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford made 205 films in her very productive life. Of those, says Pickford biographer/film historian Christel Schmidt, ten features and 25 shorts were lost.
As of October 2013, one more Mary Pickford short – Their First Misunderstanding (1911) – was saved from oblivion. The incredible story of how a lost film was found and then salvaged involves more than a little luck, along with the knowledge and skillset of a group of committed film archivists and film preservationists.
The story begins in a dilapidated barn in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire. A contractor was hired to tear down the barn, which had been part of a long-ago children's summer camp. Inside, he found an old film projector and seven reels of nitrate film. The contractor contacted Professor Larry Benaquist who founded and led the film program at Keene State College, which now has a film archive of over 1,000 films.
First came the effort to figure out what was found in the barn. Among the seven film reels was Parson Sue, a lost film of French-American director Alice Guy-Blaché. "Kim Tomodjoglou, who works for Library of Congress was doing a retrospective of Guy-Blaché when she heard about this film being found and called us," says Colorlab President Russ Suniewick, who had been contacted to restore the films. "But because nitrate film is considered hazardous material, we couldn't go pick it up. It had to go through Keene State and they were having problems knowing how to meet the hazmat requirements for shipping."
Eventually, Colorlab's operations manager, who telecommutes from Providence, Rhode Island, drove to Keene State College with the necessary packing materials that allowed the college to ship the films via Fed Ex.
"The box arrived, and when we opened it up we found three reels, powdery with red nitrate powder," says Suniewick. In addition to the Guy-Blaché film, Colorlab identified Mary Pickford in one of the other reels. "We do a lot of curating, but we're not scholars," says Suniewick. "We've known Christel Schmidt since she was a student at the George Eastman House and because she knows so much about Mary Pickford, we know she'll know what movie this is."
A still from Their First Misunderstanding, a 10-minute comedy-drama about a newly-married couple's first fight, was released on January 9th, 1911, just two days after the actors, Owen Moore (left) and Mary Pickford (right) were actually wed.
Schmidt immediately knew that the film was a remarkable find for several reasons: the ten-minute Their First Misunderstanding was Pickford's first for IMP (Carl Laemmle's Independent Moving Picture Company) and was the first movie where she was credited by name. Before this IMP short, Pickford had acted in movies produced by Biograph, which never listed the names of their actors. Pickford, who was 18 at the time she made Their First Misunderstanding, also wrote the film's scenario and co-stars with her first husband Owen Moore. Thomas Ince is believed to have directed the film; he appears in a cameo. "We believe Mary made 35 shorts for IMP, and now only 13 survive," says Schmidt. "Two of those only survive in fragments." IMP only existed for a year, absorbed by Universal Pictures.
Released on January 9th, 1911, Their First Misunderstanding is notable not only as Mary Pickford's premiere picture for Carl Laemmle's new studio, Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP), but also as the first movie in which she was credited and promoted by name. Photographer: Ray Lotier
The fact that the nitrate film survived for decades, outside a film can, open to all the elements is a minor miracle in itself. "It tells you how cold it is in New Hampshire is all I can say," says Schmidt. "That probably did wonders for preserving the nitrate films. This film really wanted to live."
Photographer: Ray Lotier
Colorlab restored Parson Sue, but the Pickford film languished. "Months after we'd met the deadline for the Guy-Blaché film, Christel started lighting fires under people," says Suniewick. "We got the collaborative OK to do the preservation here.
The "collaborative OK" was a greenlight from the Library of Congress' film division [view our article by preservationist Ken Weissman at the LOC – editor's note], which funded the restoration of Their First Misunderstanding as well as many other recovered films. The Library of Congress has more than a passing interest in a Mary Pickford short, being the repository chosen by Pickford during her life to inherit the body of her existing films. "She looked for an archival home for her films in the 1930s and 1940s and finally decided on the Library of Congress," says Schmidt. "When the government pulled funding for motion pictures in 1948, she paid for their archiving. Most of her films still exist because of her." [The U.S. government restored funding for the preservation of motion pictures in the Library of Congress in 1979.]
The actual restoration of Their First Misunderstanding was a collaboration between the Library of Congress, which paid for the restoration, and Colorlab, which performed the actual work. Located in Rockville, Maryland, Colorlab is a frequent collaborator with the Library of Congress, as well as a wide range of government and private film archives in the Washington, D.C. area.
As a full-service film preservation laboratory, Colorlab has three telecine suites with proprietary film scanning and recording, and expertise in 16mm, Super 16, and 35mm color, B&W negative original and intermediate timing, processing, and wet-gate contact and optical printing. Its small-gauge services include experience with transfers from 8mm, super 8, 9.5mm, 17.5mm, and 28mm, with full film preservation services in all formats. Colorlab also offers tape-to-tape restoration, specializing in ¾-inch, 1-inch, and 2-inch Quad, mastering to Digital Betacam in NTSC and PAL.
When the film first arrived at Colorlab, Suniewick did the first hands-on inspection. He took the photographs found here – the train platform images and the bedside image – during his initial inspection of the film. After that, Colorlab Preservation Project Manager A.J. Rohner took charge. "Pretty much any film that is 80 to 100 years old will have damage especially if it's found outside of a can in a barn," he says. "It definitely needed a little tender loving care." Prepping meant that Rohner went through the film reel a couple of feet at a time, cleaning away dirt with perchlorethylene and carefully going through splices and re-doing them where necessary. What he found was a happy surprise.
The bedside image. This fragile type of film was subject to breakage, fire, and the constant threat of lost frames.
"Nitrate film will decompose and eat away at itself," he says. "I'll get some rolls that are completely stuck together. The emulsion has just fused itself to the base and the image just isn't there. With this footage, maybe the first 30 or 40 feet had some decomp. It ate away a few frames, but nothing like I have seen and like I was expecting."
The damaged first feet, however, meant that the film has no opening title or inter-titles. But Rohner was able to salvage almost everything else. "The perchlorethylene will take away ground-in dirt and it's also used in our liquid gate system," says Rohner, who says he spent approximately eight hours cleaning the 800-foot reel. "When hand-cleaning, I'm winding through with a glove that's got perc on it and winding through, letting it dry as I wind through and stopping at points where there's a bunch of gunk. I'll also use a Q-tip for a little action. It's really trying to get whatever loose dirt I can. With these old films, we'll never be able to get them completely clean but I can always make the film better. It's at the discretion of the client. Usually with archives, some of them consider the dirt part of the historical document now."
Colorlab used its proprietary scanner, which can scan without the perforations often missing or broken in these older films. "It's great for old nitrate which can sometimes get brittle and fall apart at the touch," says Rohner, who says it scans at 2.5 frames per second.
Cinematography for Their First Misunderstanding was by Tony Gaudio for director Thomas H. Ince. Both Tony and his younger brother Eugene Gaudio, who served the same apprenticeship with both the family studio and with Italian filmmakers, would emigrate to America and become prominent cinematographers (Eugene was one of the founders of the American Society of Cinematographers in 1919; Tony would become a member of the organization and then serve as president). [Source IMDB]
"The perforations on the driving side are the first to go with a film that's been played over and over again," adds Suniewick. "Our scanner can transport the film over the scanning site without any perforations and then we do a digital stabilization after it's been scanned to a 3.5K data file. Not only is it scanned to 3.5K but it's a true liquid gate scan, scanned through a liquid that is the same refractive index as the emulsion. That means the light, as it shines through scanning, goes around dirt and scratches and isn't interrupted. The interruption of the light is what captures the dirt again."
Once Their First Misunderstanding was scanned to a 3.5K file, the digital restoration – using Pixel Farm software – began. "At the time this film was projected, every time there was a splice, the projector could break the film," Suniewick continues. "Sometimes there was a fire, sometimes not. So the projectionist was continually losing frames.
The film-out, to 2K, also relied on a proprietary system. "We delivered the 35mm B&W preservation polyester master from our film out," says Suniewick. "As well as a 35mm B&W answer print of the film out of the new master negative; Blu-rays made directly from the finished 2K data files; and the data files on a hard drive."
"Preservation to a data file isn't really preservation," he adds. "It needs to be on another piece of polyester film."
For Schmidt, adding another film to the Pickford collection is another piece of evidence in remaking the Mary Pickford legend: the woman who often played children was often dismissed as the girl in curls. Co-founder of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Pickford is in the process of being restored to her rightful position in the pantheon of early Hollywood pioneers.
"Mary Pickford's reputation was in danger, and I've been trying for 15 years to redress that," says Schmidt. "People relied on a few of her films and Victorian images of her in Mary Janes with beautiful curls to define who she was. The further away you got from people who knew her, the less in touch people were with her importance. People in her day would have been floored how low her reputation has fallen because she was such a force of nature, as an actress and a producer."
"If you could make a case to save the films of the most important female figure of the silent era, I don't think anyone would argue that point," she says. "Mary Pickford was the first Hollywood movie star, her own producer, and earned a fortune because she was smart enough as a business woman to get what she wants out of her production company."
We haven't heard the last of Mary Pickford. Julie Pacino (yes, Al's daughter) and Jennifer DeLia's Poverty Row Entertainment and producer Said Zahraoui have acquired rights to Eileen Whitfield's Mary Pickford biography Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. The producers are developing a feature about Pickford's life; DeLia will direct. In other research, I found a great resource about women film pioneers here, at Columbia University.
Though Their First Misunderstanding isn't likely to come out on DVD or Blu-ray any time soon, alas, it's good to know that the Library of Congress, along with film preservation labs such as Colorlab and a host of other interested film historians, are doing the work of restoring film history. Film, especially on nitrate, can be an ephemeral medium – especially in the digital age – and the work done to preserve it is not only laudable but also important.