CHICAGO — It played in Peoria, and everywhere else.
Then, the world’s only remaining copy of a 1923 silent melodrama produced by Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, presumed lost by film historians, remained stashed for decades in a box of unmarked and highly flammable nitrate film reels. The box sat perilously close to a hot-water heater in a closet, in a house, in Peoria.
Now, Chicago Film Archives has digitally transferred and restored the rarity titled “The First Degree,” about a sheep farmer with a secret and the climactic courtroom confrontation that spills the beans. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, best known for Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman,” the film is not yet available for general viewing, online or otherwise.
CFA director of film transfer operations, Olivia Babler, hopes that a public screening with live musical accompaniment can be arranged as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic abates, and allows others to make the discovery for themselves.
“It’s pretty amazing it’s survived,” Babler says. “All five reels.”
Like most silent films considered lost and then, miraculously, found, “The First Degree” tells a story of near-misses and pure chance.
It began with the Charles E. Krosse Collection, named after a Caterpillar Inc. marketing executive. Krosse acquired a collection of films, mostly agricultural trade films, from C.L. Venard Productions of Peoria. To CFA, Krosse donated the largely unlabeled load of 35 millimeter and 16 millimeter reels, many of them nitrate film prints ranging in quality from “well preserved” to “literal powder.”
In 2006, Chicago filmmaker Stephen Parry drove down to Peoria to look through the collection in hopes of finding rare barn dance footage, in whatever form, for his documentary on the long-running Chicago radio variety show “The National Barn Dance.” (The documentary’s called “The Hayloft Gang.”) He sorted through the boxes with the help of then-CFA archivist Carolyn Faber, now the Media Preservation & Digitization Librarian with School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“We had one day to go through about a hundred film cans,” Faber remembers. In one closet, a stack of boxes, full of combustible and largely crumbling nitrate film stock, teetered inches away from a hot-water heater.
Krosse and Parry lugged the “really smelly cans” outside. Faber noticed a strange sight in the back yard: many of the trees had scorch marks, “pretty high up.” Krosse told her that he knew he shouldn’t throw away the disintegrated nitrate film stock. So he tried lighting it on fire to get rid of it, to which the nitrate said: ka-boom.
Back in the CFA Chicago office, the surviving boxes of marked and unmarked films remained mostly unexamined for 14 years. Babler, who came to the CFA in 2017, says that “we’ve known we had reels labeled ‘The First Degree,’ with a question mark, since the donation came in.” The “lure,” she says of this collection, “wasn’t that it was mainly agricultural films; it’s that a lot of films were unlabeled, or came with a question mark, or weren’t quite legible. Or simply said ‘unidentified silent narrative.'”
Like “probably every archive in the world,’ she says, “we always have a backlog of processing and cataloguing to do. And with the pandemic, we’ve had a lot more time to focus on our collection.” In late June 2020, Babler at last got a good look at what turned out to be a remarkably preserved nitrate film stock edition of “The First Degree.”
The film’s star, Frank Mayo, was a big name at the time; here he plays banker turned sheep farmer, an ex-con wrongly convicted of a crime. “Strangely silent and aloof” is how he’s described by one intertitle.
The story pits Mayo’s character against a vicious and manipulative half-brother. Both men love the same woman. Much of “The First Degree” unfolds in flashback, as Sam is brought before a grand jury for reasons unknown.
The plot sidewinds to a courtroom climax jam-packed with incident and gunfire and a happy ending. It was good enough for The Chicago Daily Tribune. “I don’t see why we can’t have more pictures with Mr. Mayo in them,” the unnamed critic wrote. “He is a splendid actor and a convincing one. BESIDES he’s good-looking and doesn’t appear to be unduly conscious of the fact. ALSO when he’s in a fight it’s a FIGHT.” Mayo is indeed an intriguing, relaxed presence on camera, even now, 97 years after the filming.