'The First Degree': long-lost silent film from the 1920s has been recovered

The highly flammable nitrate film reels were stored in an unmarked box in an Illinois home

'The First Degree' was, for decades, presumed to be a long-lost classic of silent cinema. Twitter / Chicago Film Archives 
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It was, for decades, presumed to be a long-lost classic of silent cinema.

Now, the Chicago Film Archives has announced that it has recovered 1923 melodrama The First Degree in its entirety.

The silent film, starring Frank Mayo, tells the story of a banker turned sheep farmer who is incessantly extorted by his brother because of their mutual love for a woman named Mary. The courtroom drama was produced by Universal and directed by Edward Sedgwick, who is best known for the Buster Keaton comedy, The Cameraman.

The First Degree received favourable reviews upon its release, with the Exhibitor's Trade Review saying: "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." The review then goes on to praise Mayo's portrayal of the lead character, Sam Bass, calling it "his best bit of work" and saying it "deserved unlimited praise".

However, the film has been long out of the public eye and it was listed in the American Silent Feature Film Database as lost. All five reels of the 50-minute movie have now been reclaimed. They were found stashed in an unmarked box in a house in Illinois.

The box had been sitting close to a water heater, threatening the film’s survival. Nitrate film reels are highly flammable and will typically deteriorate in temperatures above 21 degrees Celsius. The box was initially recovered in 2006 by a Chicago filmmaker and donated to the CFA, but the reels it contained remained unexamined for 14 years. The CFA has now restored and digitally transferred the work.

The movie is still not, however, available for the public to view. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Olivia Babler, the archive's director of film transfer operations, said she hopes a public screening will be arranged with live musical accompaniment once the coronavirus pandemic fades.

“It’s pretty amazing it’s survived,” Babler said. “All five reels.”

As for the reason the reels remained unexamined for so long, Babler said that it was down to a "backlog of processing and cataloguing"

"And with the pandemic, we’ve had a lot more time to focus on our collection,” she said.

According to a 2013 study by the Library of Congress, 75 per cent of US feature films produced between 1912 and 1929 are now considered lost. Only 14 per cent exist in complete 35mm copies. The CFA notes that 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 the Library of Congress, said the recovery of The First Degree is worth rejoicing, especially "given the abysmal survival rate of American silent films".

"The CFA's discovery of The First Degree also renews our collective hope of uncovering similar treasures in other archives and collections," he said, "and underscores the importance of preserving these precious pieces of our cinematic legacy."