More than a century ago, a petite and rather pretty young actress then known only as the "Biograph girl" and "Little Mary" appeared in Their First Misunderstanding, a comedy about young newlyweds. This entertaining though otherwise typical 10 minute short marked an important turning point in a legendary career.
The 1911 film was the first made by Mary Pickford under her new contract with the Independent Moving Pictures Company, known as IMP. More importantly, the 18-year old actress -- already a veteran of dozens of productions -- received her first on-screen credit.
In the earliest days of motion pictures, actors did not receive screen credits and were largely anonymous. Audiences, however, began to take notice of "the girl with the curls" and soon Pickford developed a following. "Little Mary" became one of first individualized screen personalities, or what today would be called a movie star.
Pickford wrote the scenario and starred in Their First Misunderstanding with her then new husband, actor Owen Moore. Within a few years, the actress would move into feature films and nearly unprecedented world-wide fame as "America's Sweetheart." Many of her later films, like Tess of the Storm Country (1914), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), and Pollyanna (1920), were enormously popular.
Today, Pickford is widely recognized as one of the most powerful and influential women in the history of Hollywood.
Her influence -- both as an actress and a businesswoman -- derived not only from her enormous fame (she often appeared before crowds numbering in the tens of thousands), but from her groundbreaking accomplishments.
In the Teens, Pickford negotiated contracts with the major studios giving her both greater compensation as well as control over the films in which she starred. In 1919, Pickford even formed her own studio, United Artists, along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and future husband Douglas Fairbanks.
Pickford also produced her own films, as well as those of others, wrote scenarios, and was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Pickford took home the first of her two Oscars for her role in Coquette (1929).
Until recently, Their First Misunderstanding was considered lost. It, along with half-a-dozen other movies, were found in a decaying barn in New Hampshire in 2006. The battered films, which included another known Pickford work, a film by pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché, an episode of a Mary Fuller serial, and a lost 1913 film about Abraham Lincoln starring Francis Ford, the brother of legendary director John Ford, were donated to the film department at nearby Keene State College. The films have undergone restoration by the Library of Congress.
On October 11, Their First Misunderstanding will be given its first screening in decades. Author and Pickford scholar Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), will introduce the newly restored film at a special screening at Keene State College.
According to Schmidt, the qualities that helped make Pickford a star -- charm, cleverness, spunk, and youthful beauty (as well as her trademark curls), are all apparent in Their First Misunderstanding. Schmidt, who has spent years studying Pickford's career, noted the actress was "somebody people wanted to see on the screen from the beginning of her career."
Schmidt considers this early Pickford work, directed by another legendary figure, Thomas Ince, important in film history. Schmidt has seen a digital scan of the restored film, and thinks it not only historically significant but also entertaining.
The considerable press given the discovery of this once lost film reflects a growing interest in Pickford and the role of women in the silent era film industry. Recently, Columbia University has launched a new website on the subject of Women Film Pioneers, and a bio-pic based on Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, a 1997 biography by Eileen Whitfield, is currently in development with Lily Rabe in the role of the screen legend.
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and silent film enthusiast. He is also the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club devoted to the iconic film star. Gladysz has organized exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress's films around the world.
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