silent serial sensations

Though it may seem improbable, the Ithaca of over a century ago was home to a small but vibrant silent film industry. Centering on the work of brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton and their studio in Stewart Park (then known as Renwick Park), a diverse cast of imported and local talent helped to pioneer the golden age of the movie serial. Between 1914 and 1919, the two capitalized on Ithaca’s diverse natural scenery, cosmopolitan atmosphere and enthusiastic citizenry. 

Combining strong female leads, convoluted action-adventure plots, and daring stuntwork—usually performed by the principals themselves—Wharton Studio serials such as “The Exploits of Elaine” (1914), “Beatrice Fairfax” (1916) and “Patria” (1917) brought the brothers fame and pioneered lasting artistic conventions. Slightly later, feature-length films such as “The Lottery Man” (1916) and “The Great White Trail” (1917) explored weightier dramatic and sociopolitical themes.

But it was over all too soon. Mounting debts, personal squabbles and a rapidly changing industry—consolidating in Hollywood—forced the Whartons to close up shop in 1919. The two soon went their separate ways: Theodore to California and Leopold to Texas. Neither was able to recreate their earlier success. Printed on flammable nitrate film stock, much of the brothers’ work has been lost. 

Written by Barbara Tepa Lupack and published last month by Cornell University Press, “Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema,” is the first book-length treatment of this exciting historical episode. It’s an important, if sometimes dutifully plodding, contribution. 

Lupack, a former academic dean at SUNY Empire State College in Rochester, is a distinguished literary and film scholar, with interests ranging from adaptations of the Arthurian mythos to early “race” filmmaking. “Sensations” weaves together brief plot summaries and more detailed analyses with—arguably the most fascinating tale of all—the story of Ithaca’s rise and fall as a moviemaking capital. 

Although written with a distinctly academic tone and concerns, Lupack’s book will be of interest to anybody with a serious interest in silent film or local history. Before delving into the early biographies of the Whartons, the author begins with an enlightening discussion of the film serial. She investigates the serial’s roots in earlier popular literature and the genre’s refraction of topical subject matter into a developing nation-wide popular culture. Subsequent chapters trace a chronological path with the emphasis on the years of and immediately surrounding World War I. 

Both Theodore (1875-1931), born in Milwaukee, and Leopold (1870-1927), born in Manchester, England, grew up in Dallas and had diverse early careers in show business —eventually moving from theatre to moving pictures. Theo, taking the lead, worked as a writer, producer, and director for such prominent companies as Edison, Kalem, and Pathé. En route to visit relatives in Ludlowville, he filmed a Cornell-Penn State football game as “Cornell Football Days,” a 1912 short for Essanay Studios. He fell in love with the area and—following a 1913 summer stint running Essanay’s “Special Eastern” spinoff here—he established a local studio the following year with Leo. The Renwick complex, built on a former amusement park site, followed in 1915. 

Over the next few years, Wharton Studio was one of the country’s leading independent producers, putting Ithaca on the cultural map in a way not seen since. Stars like Pearl White (“Elaine”), Irene Castle (“Patria”), Francis X. Bushman, and Lionel Barrymore brought a rare glamour to town, capturing the memories of many Ithacans. 

“Sensations” is greatly enlivened by its local color, with anecdotes drawing from the Ithaca and Cornell press of the time as well as trade publications and personal archives. There’s something absurd and fantastic about this time, which Lupack captures well. 

Besides her own work and that of other academic film historians, Lupack’s book builds on Ithaca’s strong tradition of popular local history and cultural celebration. Particularly notable is the Wharton Studio Museum, founded in 2009 by Diana Riesman and Constance Bruce as the Ithaca Motion Picture Project and currently directed by Riesman. After a decade of exhibitions, screenings, and talks, the WSM hopes to renovate the Whartons’ main studio building, beginning in the fall, as a permanent museum focusing on local film history. 

According to Riesman, “Sensations” is “available to order locally through Buffalo Street Books, or wherever books are sold.”

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