A 97-year-old silent film once thought lost forever was recently rediscovered amidst a collection of old film reels donated by a Peoria man to the Chicago Film Archives.
This June, staff at the Chicago Film Archives found a complete copy of the 1923 feature film, "The First Degree" hidden among the mostly agricultural and industrial reels donated by Charles E. Krosse of Peoria in 2006. He died in 2016.
Krosse was a marketing director of films at Caterpillar who amassed a collection of more than 100 films produced or distributed by C.L. Venard Productions of Peoria, which was in business from around 1916 through the early 1980s. He reportedly stored the reels of 16mm and 35mm films in a closet next to a hot water heater, according to CFA volunteer Carolyn Faber, who drove to Peoria to pick up the films.
"Honestly, it's sort of a miracle the film survived at all," said Yasmin Desouki, collections manager for the Chicago Film Archives. "It's incredibly rare for silent films produced during that time to have survived."
Many films of the era were on nitrate, a notoriously flammable format.
"Nitrate films are very touchy," said Desouki, noting many of the films were lost to fire or explosions.
Only about 25% of films from the silent era still survive. Even fewer silent films produced by Universal Studios like "The First Degree" have survived, due to that studio's intentional mass destruction of most of its silent film archive in 1948. Desouki estimates only around 15% of Universal's silent films are still in existence.
She said the print of "The First Degree" the CFA holds is in fantastic condition.
"The First Degree" was directed by Edward Sedgwick, who later directed many of the films of silent-era movie star Buster Keaton. Desouki describes the film as a "rural melodrama."
"It's kind of a niche part of the melodramatic genre," she said. "We don't have too many other surviving examples of that in film history, actually."
The movie starred Frank Mayo as "Sam Purdy," a banker-turned-politician-turned-sheep farmer who fights with his brother "Will" (Philo McCullough) for the love of "Mary" (Sylvia Breamer).
"It's sort of has this Cain and Abel retelling of a sibling rivalry," said Desouki. The film is based off George Pattullo's 1914 short story, "The Summons."
The film is now in the public domain. Desouki said her colleague Olivia Babler digitized the film for preservation. She said while the Chicago Film Archives would generally showcase such a discovery, the COVID-19 pandemic complicates any public exhibition plans. In the meantime, she said the group plans to stream the film somewhere in the near future and upload it to its website.
Desouki hopes the discovery brings more attention to the mission of the Chicago Film Archives that seeks to find, collect, preserve, and show off films highlighting the Midwest.
"We really are hoping that people look at our work more, and just discover what we do, and become more interested in regional film archives," Desouki said.
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