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August 3, 2020

‘Lost’ Film From 1923 Uncovered in CFA Collection


In late June 2020, while weathering the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago Film Archives’ staff rediscovered a 35mm domestic distribution print of ‘lost’ silent feature film, The First Degree, within our collections. Hiding in plain sight among agricultural and sponsored films that came out of Peoria, Illinois, was a Universal production that likely hadn’t been exhibited in 97 years. With only 25% of American silent feature films surviving, CFA is thrilled to have uncovered this little known feature, thereby widening our understanding of an important era in cinematic history.

Directed by Edward Sedgwick, The First Degree is a ‘rural melodrama’ that revolves around a courtroom confession of murder. Frank Mayo stars as Sam Purdy, a banker-turned-politician-turned-sheep farmer who is repeatedly blackmailed by his jealous half-brother Will (Philo McCullough) over their mutual affection for Mary (Australian actress Sylvia Breamer). The screenplay by George Randolph Chester and Lillian Chester was based on the short story “The Summons” by George Pattullo, published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914.¹ The film’s cinematography was done by Benjamin H. Kline. William Worthington was the first director attached to the project, replaced by Sedgwick early in the production.

The film was a member of the Universal-produced and Carl Laemmle-endorsed “The Laemmle Nine,” a group of nine films released between Christmas 1922 and February 19, 1923. Moving Picture World reported in December 1922 that “The Laemmle Nine will be expedited so that the prints will all be in the various Universal Exchanges before the release date of the first of the series.”² The other films in the bunch were A Dangerous Game, The Flaming Hour (also starring Mayo), The Ghost Patrol, Kindled Courage, The Power of a Lie, The Scarlet Car, The Love Letter, and The Gentleman From America; all are now thought to be lost. Universal has the poorest survival rate of all the Hollywood studios (15%), having destroyed their silent film negatives in 1948.³

Spread in Universal Weekly (vol. 16, no. 16), December 2 1922. Via Media History Digital Library.

Spread in Universal Weekly (vol. 16, no. 16), December 2 1922. Via Media History Digital Library.

The First Degree was released on February 5, 1923 to strong reviews. Variety’s review praised Kline’s cinematography and Sedgwick’s direction: “in photography the picture stands out as something unusual, being particularly sharp and clear. The direction sends the story along nicely and holds the interest, the suspense being maintained to the end.”4 Exhibitor’s Trade Review was similarly impressed: “There are five reels of bully entertainment in this picture, with no waste material clogging up the action, and a surprise finish that gets across with tremendous effect.”5 Sedgwick, who primarily directed westerns and comedies including Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), tells the story largely through flashbacks, and cinematographer Kline includes several impressionistic flourishes.

Most of the reviews for the film also expressed enthusiasm for Mayo’s performance. In a review for Moving Picture World, Mary Kelly wrote “This Universal feature has an assured emotional and dramatic appeal due largely to the splendid performance of Frank Mayo.”6 Exhibitors Trade Review called Mayo’s performance “the best bit of work he has yet accomplished on the screen,” pronouncing it “an intensely vivid and life-like performance quite different from any of his previous roles and a lasting tribute to his versatility and dramatic powers.” Variety argued that Mayo should stick to lighter roles, but noted “[The First Degree] might have been the rip-roaringest meller ever screened had not Frank Mayo given a really corking performance.”7 Mayo appeared in over 300 films during his career, including Souls for Sale (1923), King Vidor’s Wild Oranges (1924), and with Colleen Moore in The Perfect Flapper (1924). He was directed by John Ford in several features that are now considered lost.

Lobby cards for The First Degree, imaged by Heritage Auctions

Lobby cards for The First Degree, imaged by Heritage Auctions

CFA’s print of The First Degree is part of the Charles E. Krosse Collection, which contains over 120 16mm and 35mm films produced and/or distributed by C.L. Venard Productions of Peoria, Illinois. From the teens until the early 1980s, the company offered a full range of film services to central Illinois, including selling and renting film equipment, producing sponsored films for local businesses, and distributing national and international films to local audiences. Their distribution wing offered educational films focused on agriculture, as well as comedies, newsreels, and feature length narratives. Most of the 35mm films in the collection were distributed, not produced, by Venard.

Krosse obtained the collection from Venard in the early 1980s and subsequently donated it to CFA in 2006. That year, archivist Carolyn Faber (then a CFA volunteer) and filmmaker Stephen Parry drove down to Peoria to see the collection, as Parry was looking for footage for a film he was making about the National Barn Dance, The Hayloft Gang. Faber recalls of that day:

I will never forget that trip, the visit with the Krosses: nitrate stored in a closet next to the hot water heater, scorched trees in the back of their amazing ranch house from setting nitrate powder on fire (Charles [Krosse] didn’t know what to do with it so he torched it), tuna sandwiches in the living room, and Steve Parry and I skittishly agreeing to take all the films (not just the ones [Parry] needed for his film) under pressure – despite attempts to negotiate less hazardous transport, Charles said if we didn’t take them he was going to throw them out.

CFA, barely two years old and just about to hit its stride in the archival world, thankfully made the decision to keep the films and ensure that the collection was at the very least moved to our climate-controlled vault, rather than leaving it to languish in an unstable environment. That some of the nitrate films were burned well before arriving at CFA makes the survival of The First Degree’s five reels all the more incredible. Krosse passed away in 2016.

The First Degree has no concrete Midwestern connection; shot at Universal City in Hollywood,8 the film is set in a vague rural setting (“Lincoln County” — of which there are 23 in the U.S.). Given that the work at CFA is driven by the mandate to preserve and highlight films representing the moving image heritage of the Midwest, some of the films in the Krosse collection did not immediately get prioritized. While the donated films were quickly inventoried and checked for obvious signs of deterioration, due to the fact that the 35mm prints were by and large distribution prints with no clear tie to the region, many of them were not fully inspected or catalogued until 2020. CFA’s human capacity and financial resources—as is the case with many archives the world over—are typically focused on different strategic priorities, thus accounting for the fairly recent efforts to research our print of The First Degree, which turned out to be utterly unique and no longer in existence elsewhere.

Upon further evaluation, the fact that the film was found in CFA’s Krosse collection is not altogether surprising: Venard’s distribution wing was heavily focused on agricultural themes, and it makes sense that The First Degree would have appealed to the largely-rural central Illinois region that Venard covered. Why this print stayed in the hands of Venard, and then Krosse, is a bit more mysterious. Silent features were distributed based on a staggered release system, starting in large cities, then on to mid-sized towns, and lastly to rural theatres.9 While Peoria was a “first-run” city, Venard distributed to theatres further afield that may have been among the last in the country to get the latest Universal releases. According to Gary Smith, who worked with Venard (and inherited another large stash of his film collection, which has recently been acquired by CFA), Venard would screen silent films in barns throughout the Midwest.


Section of an original reel band for reel 2 of The First Degree

Miraculously, the partially-tinted, nitrate distribution print in CFA’s collection has suffered only minor mechanical damage and very little deterioration in the 97 years since it was struck. The edgecodes of the print (Pathe Cinema Paris 2215 5) indicate that it was struck the year of the film’s release but, interestingly, all five reels have head leader for the 1932 film Call Her Savage. There is a moderate amount of sprocket damage but very minimal scratching within the frame. The print is missing a small amount of footage, falling short of the original 4395’ length. Other than damage, another possible explanation for the missing footage could be local censorship to match regional sensibilities. A review of the film in Screen Opinions suggested exhibitors may want to excise an intertitle of questionable morals: “A subtitle which might be eliminated with good moral effect condones a murder on the grounds that the supposed murderer had done a benefit to humanity by committing the murder.”10 Such a title does not appear in CFA’s print, implying that an exhibitor may have taken the advice to heart. (Screen Opinions listed The First Degree’s “moral standard” and “spiritual influence” as “average.”)

Sylvia Breamer in The First Degree

Sylvia Breamer in The First Degree

One of the exciting elements of this film’s discovery is the ways in which it can contribute to our understanding of the melodramatic film genre, which is typically colored by our familiarity with the lush Douglas Sirk productions of the 1950s. The First Degree was marketed as a rural melodrama, and it’s clear that the intended audience was male and primarily from the heartland. The aesthetic choices made by the filmmakers serve to highlight the psychology of Sam Purdy, who is wracked with guilt, haunted by images of murder and in desperate search for redemption. The romantic plot is secondary to the issues of masculinity and morality that the story explores, which results in a film that inevitably skews our heavily gendered perception of the melodramatic genre. It will be interesting to uncover further research on the particularly niche ‘rural melodrama,’ and understand what it can tell us about moviegoing audiences during the 1920s.

Since identifying the print of The First Degree, CFA’s Director of Film Transfer Operations Olivia Babler has scanned all five reels on our 4K Kinetta Archival Scanner. Providing access to the materials we preserve has always been one of CFA’s utmost priorities, and we hope to be able to hold a theatrical premiere with live accompaniment once we are able to safely gather again, and we also plan to stream the film in due time (the film entered the public domain in 2019). We additionally hope to secure funding for a full photochemical preservation of this print, to ensure its continued accessibility for future generations.

While uncovering this previously lost cinematic gem is an important milestone for CFA, we hope that it ultimately underscores the vitality of independent regional archives, and their crucial work in preserving and interpreting the filmic legacies of their respective locales. CFA’s collections represent a wide swath of local history, and incredibly diverse film styles and genres that speak to the innovation of film production—both amateur and professional—in the Midwest. The vast majority of the works housed at CFA are singular—documentaries and experimental films made by important yet historically excluded filmmakers, home movies that serve as visual documents of eras gone by, and other works made outside of the mainstream of commercial filmmaking. Arguably, these lesser known works made on the margins of society are more revealing than the mainstream fare we have grown accustomed to. The First Degree is unusual for CFA’s collections—as an archive that does not actively seek commercial, feature length films—and we are delighted that it has ended up safely in our vault. However, we do hope that this discovery sheds light on the many one-of-a-kind films housed at CFA, and the importance of preserving them and ensuring their accessibility to a wider audience.

Ad for The First Degree  in Universal Weekly (vol. 16, no. 16), December 2 1922. Via Media History Digital Library.

Ad for The First Degree in Universal Weekly (vol. 16, no. 16), December 2 1922. Via Media History Digital Library.

By Olivia Babler & Yasmin Desouki


(1)  The film originally took its title from the short story, but was changed to The First Degree in November 1922. “Studio and Player Brevities,” Motion Picture News, November 4 1922: 2274.
(2) “Will Push Work on the Laemmle Nine,” Moving Picture World, December 2 1922: 422.
(3) David Pierce, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929,” Library of Congress, 2013:
(4) Review of The First Degree, Variety, February 1 1923: 42.
(5) Mary Kelly, review of The First Degree, Moving Picture World, February 3 1923: 477.
(6) Exhibitors Trade Review, vol. 13, no. 11: 574.
(7) Review of The First Degree, Variety, February 1 1923: 42.
(8) “Universal City Active,” The Film Daily, October 11 1922: 4.
(9) David Pierce, “The Legion of the Condemned – Why American Silent Films Perished,” Film History vol. 9, no. 1, Silent Cinema (1997): 5.
(10) Screen Opinions, vol. 11, no. 15 (March 1923): 247.