dontate now

Join Email List

Facebook  Become a Fan on Facebook
twitter  Follow Us on Twitter

329 West 18th Street Suite #610
Chicago, Illinois 60616
(312) 243-1808

July 31, 2020

Chicago Film Archives Discovers Lost Silent Film in Collection


Chicago Film Archives is excited to announce that a complete 35mm print of lost silent feature film The First Degree (1923) has been rediscovered in our collection. There are no known surviving elements from the film held by other archives, and it is included on the Lost U.S. Silent Feature Films 1912-1929 list maintained by the Library of Congress.

Directed by Edward Sedgwick and produced by Universal, 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 (Sylvia Breamer). Sedgwick, who primarily directed comedies including Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), tells the story largely through flashbacks and includes several impressionistic flourishes. The film was released on February 5, 1923 to strong reviews; Exhibitor’s Trade Review indicated, “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.”

CFA’s Director of Film Transfer Operations Olivia Babler identified the film as unique while prioritizing films for digitization. Since identifying the print, Olivia has fully inspected and scanned all five reels on our Kinetta Archival Film Scanner. The tinted, nitrate distribution print has suffered only minor mechanical damage and very little deterioration in the 97 years since it was struck. CFA’s print of The First Degree is part of the Charles E. Krosse Collection, which contains films produced and/or distributed by C.L. Venard Productions of Peoria, IL. 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, largely with an agricultural focus. Krosse donated the collection to CFA in 2006 and passed away in 2016. Many thanks to archivists Carolyn Faber and Andy Uhrich for their instrumental early work on this collection.

A 2013 study by the Library of Congress concluded that 75% of American feature films produced between 1912–1929 are now considered ‘lost’; a mere 14% survive in complete 35mm copies as originally released. Universal has the poorest survival rate of all the Hollywood studios, having destroyed its silent film negatives in 1948. Mike Mashon, Head of the Moving Image Section at Library of Congress, says, “Given the abysmal survival rate of American silent films, the emergence of a previously lost complete feature—especially one from Universal—is cause for rejoicing. The CFA’s discovery of The First Degree also renews our collective hope of uncovering similar treasures in other archives and collections and underscores the importance of preserving these precious pieces of our cinematic legacy.”

Thanks to the generous financial support received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, CFA staff has been able to dedicate more time to working on films within our own collections during the ongoing pandemic. The current crisis has encouraged us to look inward and find new approaches to researching and advocating for our collections that document Midwestern culture and history.

For more information, see our latest blog post.