Lost Silent THE FIRST DEGREE Redisovered

The First Degree

A complete copy of a presumed lost 1923 silent film melodrama has been rediscovered.

The Chicago Film Archives has announced that they have uncovered all five reels to the silent film The First Degree. The film was discovered in a collection of reels that were donated to the archive in 2006. A majority of those films were educational or agricultural in nature and those were given priority in accordance to the Archive’s charter.

The film was discovered just this past June but has already been scanned by the Archive to create a 4K digital print. Due to the pandemic, there are no current plans for a screening.

Based on the short story “The Summons” by George Pattullo, The First Degree centers on a sheep farmer (Frank Mayo) who is being blackmailed by his half-brother Will (Philo McCullough) jealous over their mutual affection for Mary (Sylvia Breamer).

The First Degree was part of a promotion featuring series of nine feature films that Universal Studios’ chief Carl Laemmle named, somewhat immodestly, “The Laemmle Nine.” The other eight films in the series are still considered lost.

According to the Chicago Film Archives press release, the print is in remarkably good condition, exhibiting only “minor mechanical damage and very little deterioration.” The only missing footage seems to be one interstitial card which stated that a murderer in the film “had done a benefit to humanity by committing the murder.” It was most likely removed at the insistence of some local censorship board with moral objections.

Now admittedly, The First Degree is probably not on the top of many people’s list of lost silent films they are hoping are recovered. Its star Frank Mayo may have been a popular star during the silent era and was even able to weather the transition to talkies, but he mostly is remembered today by die-hard film historians than the general public.

Director Edward Sedgwick is a bit better remembered. Coming out of a family of vaudeville performers, Sedgwick arrived in Hollywood as a comic supporting player, before settling in as a director at Universal and then MGM. There he teamed up with Buster Keaton and was responsible for most of the iconic comic’s feature output at the studio including the classic The Cameraman. Sedgwick stayed at MGM after Keaton was fired by the studio in 1933.

With a bulk of his career being in comedy, Sedgwick seems like an unusual choice to direct the more melodramatic The First Degree. This may make the film something of a draw for silent film buffs.

While there are most likely a few films thought to be lost still waiting to be found, their number and their chance of being discovered continue to dwindle. Time and the laws of chemistry are not kind to old nitrate prints as they deteriorate into useless and unrecoverable dust. Print recovery also relies on the people discovering these long secreted away reels to know what they are looking at and not just tossing them into the trash. This may not be the last time a find like this is reported on, but it will be one of the last times.

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About Rich Drees 7001 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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