A LONG-LOST silent movie about President Lincoln is to get its first screening in over 90 years after being discovered in a clear out.
When Lincoln Paid was among seven fragile reels of nitrate film found by a contractor cleaning out an old barn in Nelson, New Hampshire, destined for demolition.
The 30-minute movie is particularly notable for starring and being directed by Francis Ford – older brother of celebrated film director John Ford.
Movie buff Peter Massie, who discovered the reels alongside a 35mm Monarch projector, said:
“I was up in the attic space, and shoved away over in a corner was the film and a silent movie projector, as well. I thought it was really cool.”
Massie found the film canisters in summer 2006 and temporarily stored them in his basement, before contacting a film society at nearby Keene State College.
The George Eastman House film preservation museum in Rochester, N.Y., became involved after Keene State Film professor Larry Benaquist recognised the historical and cultural significance of the material.
The college determined that the film did not exist in film archives and furthermore was the only one of eight silent films starring Ford as Lincoln to survive.
“The vast majority of silent films, particularly from the early period — the first decade of the 20th century — are gone,” said Caroline Frick Page, curator of motion pictures at George Eastman House.
“That’s what makes these stories so incredibly special.”
With a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the college was able to restore the two-reel film in a Colorado lab – a delicate process which took a year to complete.
The images themselves were well-preserved, likely due to cold New Hampshire winters and the sheltered location of the barn, said Benaquist.
But the 35mm nitrate film, phased out of Hollywood during the 1950s due to its volatile, flammable nature, was shrunken, brittle and damaged, with the sprocket holes (used on projectors) shredded.
“What the laboratory had to do was remanufacture the sprocket holes to a new dimension, make it in strips, adhere it to the image, and then run it through a printing process where they would print it, frame by frame,” Benaquist said.
When Lincoln Paid – about the mother of a dead Union soldier asking President Lincoln to pardon a Confederate soldier she had turned in — stars the brother of John Ford, the legendary director of classics such as The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath and The Quiet Man.
Benaquist thinks the film was discovered in Nelson because the town is on Granite Lake, the site of many past summer camps. He explained that a boys’ camp was in the area of the barn and that he believes the films were once shown to entertain the children before being shelved and forgotten.
Helping the restoration was Mark Reinhart, author of Abraham Lincoln on Screen. He had a poor video copy of the film made from an 8mm copy that included a few scenes missing from the 35mm print.
The college combined a DVD of the restored film with another of Reinhart’s film to make its final version, to be screened on April 20th.
Released in 1913, the film was praised by Moving Picture World – a weekly trade publication for film distributors – as “a great war drama” with vivid battle scenes.
Director and main star Francis Ford, who died in 1953, aged 72, is better known for minor, mostly comic roles in at least 30 of his younger brother’s films, “often playing a coonskin drunk who can spit across the room,” said Tag Gallagher, author of the book John Ford.
“If you’re into these things, you quickly recognize him and it becomes a kind of cult thing to finding him, and he’s quite delightful,” said Gallagher.
“But if you go back to the teens, he was a very big and important director.”
According to Gallagher, Francis Ford had an important influence on John, whose fame soon overshadowed his.
During the silent-era, Francis Ford was one of many actors who portrayed Lincoln on film.
“He’s not a particularly good Lincoln, he’s kind of short and stocky,” said Reinhart, who prefers the portrayals of Ford’s contemporaries, Frank McGlynn and Benjamin Chapin.