CONCORD, N.H. — In a tale celebrating the romance of movies, a contractor cleaning out an old New Hampshire barn destined for demolition found seven reels of nitrate film inside, including the only known copy of a 1913 silent film about Abraham Lincoln.
“When Lincoln Paid,” a 30-minute film about the mother of a dead Union soldier asking Lincoln to pardon a Confederate soldier whom she had initially turned in, stars the brother of John Ford of Portland, director of “The Grapes of Wrath,” ”The Quiet Man,” and other classics.
“I was up in the attic space, and shoved away over in a corner was the film and a silent movie projector, as well,” Peter Massie, a movie buff, said of his discovery in the western New Hampshire town of Nelson. “I thought it was really cool.”
It was the summer of 2006, and the film canisters sat in his basement for a while before Massie thought of contacting nearby Keene State College, where film professor Larry Benaquist thought it was a rare find.
After working with the George Eastman House film preservation museum in Rochester, N.Y., the college determined that the film, directed by and starring Francis Ford, did not exist in film archives. In fact, it was one of eight silent films starring Ford as Lincoln; there are no known surviving copies of the others.
“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.”
The college, which plans an April 20 film screening, received a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to restore it. It took a Colorado lab a year to complete the task.
Benaquist said the images themselves were well preserved, likely because they endured decades of New England winters in the barn, which also was well sheltered by trees. Nitrate film, which was phased out in Hollywood in the 1950s, is highly flammable. The 35 mm film itself had shrunk and the sprocket holes used on projectors were 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.
Benaquist thinks the film was discovered in Nelson because the town is on Granite Lake, the site of many summer camps through the years. He said there was a boys’ camp in the area of the barn and believes the films were shown to entertain the children, then put away and forgotten.
Helping the restoration was Mark Reinhart of Columbus, Ohio, author of “Abraham Lincoln on Screen.” He had a crude video copy of the film that had been made from an 8-mm copy and included a few scenes that were missing from the film found in the barn. The college combined a DVD of the restored film with a DVD taken of Reinhart’s film for its final version.
Back in 1913, the film was praised by “Moving Picture World,” a weekly trade publication sent to film distributors, as “a great war drama” with vivid battle scenes.
Francis Ford, who died in 1953 at age 72, is better known for small, 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, who lives near Boston. “But if you go back to the teens, he was a very big and important director.”
The Fords were from Portland, Maine. Francis Ford, who introduced John Ford to the business, was quite famous as a director and star, acting in numerous silent films up until World War I, Gallagher said. When John Ford started directing, his fame overshadowed his brother’s.
Old movie buffs might remember Francis Ford in such scenes as a drunken juror in 1939′s “Young Mr. Lincoln” starring Henry Fonda, and an elderly man who miraculously rises from his deathbed to see a climactic fistfight in 1952′s “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne.
During the silent film era, Francis Ford was one of many actors who portrayed Lincoln, Reinhart said. “He’s not a particularly good Lincoln, he’s kind of short and stocky,” he said. Lincoln was better depicted by others in that era, such as Frank McGlynn and Benjamin Chapin, Reinhart said.
Massie is looking forward to seeing the restored film. “I can’t wait to see what’s on there myself.”