The First Degree

Much of silent cinema is lost to us forever. In an illuminating report from 2013 titled “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” historian and archivist David Pierce revealed that approximately 75 percent of American silent-era feature films are considered lost. But that’s no longer the case for Edward Sedgwick’s The First Degree (1923), one film included in the exhaustive database of lost U.S. silent features maintained by the Library of Congress. Last month Chicago Film Archives, which houses upwards of 30,000 films, announced that they had found among their collections a complete, partially tinted, nitrate distribution print of The First Degree that, according to them, suffers only minor mechanical damage and has deteriorated very little in the decades since it was struck. The news was met with excitement in both local and far-reaching archival film communities.

It’s rare to find a lost silent feature—and it’s even rarer to find a complete print that’s in good condition. Olivia Babler, director of film transfer operations, who discovered the film, jokes that it’s “very nerve-wracking in a lot of ways, to have the only copy of a film by a major Hollywood director from the silent era.” She found it in the archives’ Charles E. Krosse collection, which CFA acquired in 2006 and contains films that were either produced or distributed (or both) by the now-defunct, Peoria-based C.L. Venard Productions.

Chicago Film Archives is a regional archive, focusing primarily on films that are connected to the midwest; this discovery is thus a curious one considering their usual fare. “We have the educational and experimental films, industrial films, corporate films, documentaries, amateur films, home movies,” says CFA’s founder and executive director Nancy Watrous, “[the latter of] which typically aren’t regarded as important, certainly not important to other people. And of course that is incorrect.” Managing this vast collection and handling the organization’s operations are five staff members, four full-time and one part-time. The CFA office was closed for several months due to the pandemic, and they only recently started going back with staggered schedules. “I honestly don’t know when we would have identified this film as being a lost film if it hadn’t been for the pandemic,” says Babler, “because we have so much more time right now to work on our own collections,” as opposed to client work unrelated to their holdings.

“I was inspecting some reels that were labeled ‘unidentified narrative,’ and those didn’t end up being any lost film,” Babler says. “But it got me excited about what else is in here. I ended up searching the titles in the Library of Congress’s lost-film database, and I got to The First Degree, and it was in there. I was very excited, but I was very cautious as well. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions unless I was absolutely certain it was what it said it was.”

Cautious for good reason but ultimately correct. While The First Degree, which was produced by Universal Pictures, isn’t a fabled lost film—like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle (1926) or Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927)—this compact five-reeler is of note for having been directed by Sedgwick, who later codirected most of Buster Keaton’s features for MGM with Keaton, including The Cameraman (1928; Sedgwick had sole onscreen credit).

In The First Degree, prolific silent-era actor Frank Mayo stars as a beleaguered man summoned to testify against the thieves who stole his sheep; unaware of why he’s been called in, he instead confesses to murdering his half-brother, who’d previously implicated him in a crime he didn’t commit, during a fight the night before—or so he thinks. According to a 1923 issue of Exhibitor’s Trade Review, “It is an extremely original ideal which furnishes the pivot upon which the plot turns—the summoning of a man before a Grand Jury to testify in a certain case and his totally unexpected confession of a crime which he supposes he has committed while remaining in ignorance of the true reason for which he has been called.”

Explaining how something of this sort ended up in Peoria, Babler notes that “C.L. Venard Productions was a large distributor of films with a rural and agricultural focus, and this film is a rural melodrama about sheep stealing.” How it ended up in Peoria indefinitely, as well as how it was exhibited around the area during its original run, they’re not yet sure. Finding it among their collection was a surprise. “[It] kind of caught us off guard,” says Babler. “It’s not the thing that we typically collect.” As to when the general moviegoing public might be able to see the film, which entered the public domain last year, Babler says CFA would like to exhibit it theatrically at least once with live musical accompaniment, though that won’t happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, they are considering other options, including the possibility of the digital transfer being available to stream online.

In his influential survey American Silent Film, historian and archivist William K. Everson elegantly sums up the importance of the discovery of a lost film: “While the history of the world is relatively safe from the sudden discovery of evidence that will cast new light on the achievements of Hammurabi or Alexander the Great,” he writes, “the much younger history of film is always liable to reassessment through the reappearance of a single print.” Whether the print in question is a major Hollywood production or a modest home movie, this kind of potential reconsideration is feasible largely through the work of archives and archivists. How the discovery might impact Chicago Film Archives, collections manager Yasmin Desouki says, “I hope that it helps to bring attention to a lot of our other collections and also highlights the important work that regional film archives do.”

Those interested in delving deeper into CFA’s holdings can follow them on social media, where they frequently post selections from their collection, or visit their website, which has hundreds of full-length works available to view for free.   v