Continued from Part One. Click here to read the prior installment.
In Ithaca, New York in May 1914, the newly formed Wharton movie company forged ahead on their very first production, “The Boundary Rider,” starring husband-and-wife acting team Thurlow Bergen and Elsie Esmond. The Whartons’ makeup artists, hair stylists, and costumers prepared actress Elsie Esmond for her filming debut in the downtown Ithaca banking district.
With the heavy spring rains finally abated, Ithaca’s radiant sun was the perfect single-point light source to shoot exterior scenes in downtown Ithaca, taking advantage of the sunlit urban environs.
“The fine bright day for picture taking brought the Wharton Company down to the banking district,” noted the Ithaca Daily News. “The scene this morning had to do with the depositing of valuables in the savings bank.”
A crowd formed to watch the new-fangled spectacle of movie-making. “Several hundred persons enjoyed a treat this morning,” reported the Ithaca Journal, “witnessing the first taking of moving pictures by ‘Wharton, Inc.,’ on North Tioga Street, between State and Seneca streets.”
READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP
“Miss Elsie Esmond made her first appearances in the street scenes,” the paper declared, “playing the part of a woman detective, which is one of the leading parts in the photo-play.”
There, on Tioga Street in Ithaca’s Bank Alley, cinematographer J.A. Dubray, with his wooden Pathé-made camera, captured the light and caught on film the very first hand-cranked moving picture images of actress Elsie Esmond.
“Dubray, the Whartons’ expert camera operator,” observed the local paper, “was stationed in front of the First National Bank Building, directly across the street, and the bright sunlight afforded a splendid atmosphere for the scenes.”
(The historic bank building still stands — with the First National Bank name carved in limestone on the façade — although another bank now occupies the modernized space.)
The local papers covered the excitement of silent filmmaking almost daily. “The Whartons had a great success,” reported the Ithaca Journal, “in the first day of the moving picture taking. Leo Wharton expressed himself today as greatly pleased with the progress of the first picture.”
Leopold even made a cameo appearance as a sheriff on-screen in the bank scenes, leading away a prisoner played by Bergen.
LOCAL ITHACANS PARTICIPATE
Locals acted in roles for “The Boundary Rider,” including F.W. (Dick) Stewart (an Ithaca stockbroker who thought he could make it big in movies), Francis White (no relation to silent movie star Pearl White), Robin H. Townley, Dick Bennard and others. Even Ithaca Police Chief Edward Buck got in the act playing police roles in uniform.
Behind the scenes, Archelaus Chadwick from Interlaken took the reins as chief production designer and held that role with the Whartons for all their filmmaking years in Ithaca.
Local undergraduates got in on the movie action, too. “More scenes for [“The Boundary Rider”] were enacted this afternoon in the gorges,” reported the Journal. “Cornell students … [are] among [those] who are taking minor roles in the movies.”
Ithacans enjoyed a vicarious thrill in reading about the local filmmaking and reveled in the tales of their own neighbors and friends working in the movies. The Ithaca Journal reported on stockbroker Stewart’s filmic debut and cinematic demise:
“F.W. (Dick) Stewart, the broker, walked up East State Street yesterday afternoon, limping,” the Journal reported. “‘What’s the matter, Dick?’ someone asked him.”
“‘Oh,’ said Mr. Stewart nonchalantly, ‘I got killed in the moving pictures yesterday.’”
Actor Bill Bailey and Stewart had played a fight scene at the Whartons’ upper East State Street studio that ended in Stewart’s screen death. The fight was well-staged, but burly Bill Bailey put a real hurt on Stewart. “Both men were pretty well bruised up,” noted the Journal, “but that is a mere trifle in the life of a moving picture actor.”
The Whartons took full advantage of the natural beauty and uniqueness of Ithaca’s scenery. They shot in the Fall Creek and Cascadilla gorges, they took scenes in downtown, and they filmed at Ludlowville Falls.
Shooting in Ludlowville on May 19, 1914, the Whartons created a “smugglers cave” behind Ludlowville’s big waterfall. “The Wharton Company of Ithaca, numbering sixteen, enacted scenes above and below the village falls,” noted the papers.
“The realistic movies were continued under the village falls by the Wharton company during the week and were much enjoyed by many spectators,” reported the Ithaca Journal. “Especially enthusiastic were the school children who rushed to the scene of action as soon as released from studies.”
Theodore and Leopold Wharton’s creative imaginations were part of their cinematic genius. Where others saw a waterfall, the Whartons saw a shimmering curtain of water that could hide a smuggler’s cave. Where others saw Cayuga Lake, the Whartons saw an infinite ocean ready for cinematic sea battles and full-scale prop submarines. Where others saw gorges, the Whartons saw an endless variety of natural backdrops for foreground drama.
“Ithaca certainly is a great place,” enthused Theodore Wharton, “and the citizens of the community cannot do enough for us. Their good-will is a tangible asset in our business. In fact, they look upon our company as their own. If there is a rainy day the business people worry about us. It is certainly a splendid town. In Cornell University there are students from all over the world, and we can get the services of men of almost any nationality in native garb.”
The Whartons’ leading lady, Elsie Esmond, played a dual role in the “Boundary Rider” movie. Her main role was a woman detective, but she had a second role — as a Chinese servant boy — in heavy “yellowface” makeup. Acknowledged as racist today, white actors playing Asian characters (or roles of other ethnicities) was not uncommon at that time, on stage and in the movies.
“Elsie Esmond assumes such a clever disguise in part of the picture,” wrote the trade journal Motion Picture News, “that when at last she reveals herself it is doubtful if most people will not be surprised. She poses as a Chinaman to spy on the smugglers. No one would suspect that she was a woman.”
“She is not recognizable, and her unmasking at the climax gives a tingle of surprise,” another reviewer commented, ignoring the racial implications we see today.
The movie also contained a cleverly made representation of New York City’s Chinatown, designed by Ithaca’s own master scenic artist/set designer Arch Chadwick. He transformed the alley next door to the old Ithaca Journal offices with lights and set dressing into ethnic “Oriental” atmosphere. The Whartons even hired three Chinese students from Cornell to act as waiters in scenes, for more “realism.”
NEGATIVE INTO POSITIVE
When filming was finished on June 3, 1914, cameraman J.A. Dubray promptly hopped a train to New York City that evening to personally transport the reels of exposed negatives for development and editing. “It will probably take from two weeks to one month before the picture will be in readiness for release,” reported the Journal.
The anticipation began — waiting to find out whether the negatives were properly exposed and the scenes properly captured. Remember, no one had seen the exposed film footage (a basic through-the-lens viewfinder did not exist, much less video assist). Only after lab development of the original negative footage and processing of a viewable positive print would the Whartons know if all their efforts were on the mark.
Unable to bear the suspense of awaiting the results in Ithaca, the brothers Wharton caught a train for Manhattan to find out for themselves.
FAILURE OR SUCCESS?
Triumph! The footage was perfect. The negatives were well-exposed, the images sharp, and the scenes could be edited into a complete five-reel narrative. The Whartons happily reported that “the picture is excellent and will prove a success.”
When the brothers completed cutting the film in New York City, they arranged to transport a positive print to Ithaca by train for a private screening at the Star Theater on June 19, 1914. (The Star Theater, built in 1911, was a 1,200-seat grand cinema located at 118 East Seneca Street in downtown Ithaca, and later served as a gymnasium for Ithaca College for many years. The building was demolished in the mid-1970s; the former theater site is now occupied by a seven-story bank headquarters.)
The atmosphere at the preview screening was electric. Actors, crew members, the company’s local investors, extras, and family members were spellbound as the Wharton company’s first Ithaca-made movie reels unspooled. The carbon-arc light of the projectors at the Star Theater beamed the images from the 35mm moving picture frames to the grand theater’s huge silver screen.
“In a private exhibition,” reported the Ithaca Daily News, “the first completely produced photo-play by the Wharton Motion Picture Company… was shown at the Star Theater, after the regular performance last night, before members of the company, including the local persons who took minor parts and a number of invited guests.”
“That the picture is a success was the unanimous verdict of all present,” the papers reported, “including both the professional and the layman’s opinion.”
“The critics last night,” the Daily News continued, “highly praised the work of Mr. and Mrs. Thurlow Bergen, who play the leading parts, and also the work of all members of the regular company. The audience… was particularly interested in the work of the Ithacans, most of whom” were making their film debut.
“The Boundary Rider” made its formal, public Ithaca premiere at the same Star Theater movie palace seven weeks later on Friday, August 7, 1914, to the delight of throngs of Ithacans. “This clever photoplay is the first of the output of the Wharton Company to be shown upon the screen,” said the local papers.
Ithaca viewers experienced a special thrill in seeing their own city up on the massive silver screen, especially those who participated in the production or who watched parts of the filming around town. “It was made in Ithaca,” proclaimed the Ithaca Daily News, “and the natural settings furnished by the gorges and beauty spots of Ithaca and vicinity round out a film production of more than usual interest.”
The trade journal Moving Picture World commented that the Wharton company’s first movie “is a good offering, with much interest and suspense, and we commend it as entertainment.” The shots from Ludlowville were specifically praised: “Those scenes that show the stream and the smugglers’ method of getting the opium over the [border] are particularly fine.”
The film moved into the flow of international commerce as the Pathé company saw to the distribution of the Wharton production to all interested exhibitors worldwide.
At this point in the story, the bad news must come out: this first Wharton Inc. movie, “The Boundary Rider,” and all of the seven movies made by the Whartons in Ithaca in 1914 are presumed lost. No known copies survive today.
The Whartons’ own inventory of nitrate negatives and positive prints burned to ashes in an outbuilding fire on their lawyer Howard Cobb’s Ithaca property in 1929. A huge loss.
Only one single Wharton film with Bergen and Esmond survives: “The Lottery Man” (1916). This raucous comedy feature was shot entirely in Ithaca in the fall of 1915.
Most prints of the Wharton silent movies have suffered the same sad fate as so many other silent films of the period. The majority are lost. Movies were considered somewhat ephemeral, not meant for archiving and protecting. The reels would be projected until unusable – split, scratched, and torn – then discarded. The filmstock itself was composed of chemically unstable nitrate that can decay — to liquid or dust — or spontaneously combust at any time.
However, there is hope. The multinational Pathé company distributed the Whartons’ movies around the U.S. through their subsidiary, the Eclectic Company, and Pathé translated and distributed the movies throughout the world. Some Wharton movies may be waiting to be discovered, perhaps in other countries, perhaps stored under foreign title translations as yet unknown.
Some incredible artifacts have turned up in the decades of past research on the Whartons, and there is the possibility that more good things are yet to come.
“The Lottery Man,” for example, was digitally restored and screened in 2008 at Ithaca’s majestic State Theater — the city’s only remaining movie palace — with live musical accompaniment by renowned silent film pianist Dr. Philip Carli. A capacity crowd packed the 1,609-seat historic Ithaca theater and saw Bergen and Esmond projected onto the silver screen once more.
Perhaps, when the pandemic subsides, it will be time for another grand public screening.
Special thanks to historical consultant Terry Harbin (founder of Ithaca Made Movies) for his decades of invaluable devotion to Ithaca silent movie history and research, for his sharing of the fruits of his work with everyone, and for his valuable editorial assistance and fine-tuning. Thanks to S.K. List, Gail Dennis, and Naminata Diabate for editorial contributions. Photographic restorations by Angel Hernandez.
The author is an Ithacan, attorney, award-winning film producer, and film historian. He is a graduate of Ithaca High School, Cornell University, and Cornell Law School. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
A digital version of this article with footnotes included is available upon request.