The First Degree: Long-lost Universal Pictures film found after almost 100 years


A long-lost film from 1923 has been discovered after being stashed away in an unmarked box for almost 100 years.

The rarity, which was presumed to be lost forever, is Universal Pictures’ The First Degree, a silent film telling the story of a sheep farmer who keeps a secret from his community.

Thanks to Chicago Film Archives, the film has been digitally transferred, although it is not yet available for general viewing.

Olivia Babler, CFA’s director of film transfer operations, is hopeful that a public screening will take place once Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are fully lifted.

The First Degree, starring Frank Mayo, is directed by Edward Sedgwick, whose most famous film is Buster Keaton film The Cameraman (1928).

All five of the film’s highly flammable reels survived, which Babler said is “pretty amazing” considering it was reportedly “sat perilously close” to a hot water heater in a cupboard

The box containing the film was first discovered in 2006 by filmmaker Stephen Parry and then-CFA archivist Carolyn Faber during a visit to Peoria in Illinois.

However, the stack of boxes remained unexamined after being brought back to the CFA’s office in Chicago until June 2020.

Babler said: “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.”

From the opening credits of ‘The First Degree’ (Chicago Film Archives)
From the opening credits of ‘The First Degree’ (Chicago Film Archives)

The First Degree has now been moved out of the Library of Congress list of “Lost U.S. Silent Feature Films 1912-1929″. It was first released on 5 February, 1923, and received positive reviews.

Also starring in the film is Philo McCullough and Sylvia Breamer.

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