Ithaca Journal Featured Story: The Lottery Man Jun 3, 2005 22:52:19 GMT -5
Post by Terry Harbin on Jun 3, 2005 22:52:19 GMT -5
A decade before pairing up with Laurel,
Hardy made movies in Ithaca
By JOE WILENSKY
Hardy made movies in Ithaca
By JOE WILENSKY
A recent celluloid discovery has shed light on a famous comedian's early years and linked him with Ithaca's movie-making past.
Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) has been identified in a small, but pivotal, uncredited role in "The Lottery Man," a 1915 silent film made in Ithaca by the Wharton brothers -- more than a decade before Hardy (1892 - 1957) teamed up with Stan Laurel (1890 - 1965).
Theodore and Leopold Wharton made dozens of silent films and popular serials, like "Beatrice Fairfax," "Patria" and "The Romance of Elaine" in Ithaca between 1913 and 1920. Many sets were built right next to the Whartons' studios in Renwick (now Stewart) Park, and Cayuga Lake and the nearby gorges were used for many sequences.
Silent film stars such as Irene Castle, Lionel Barrymore and Pearl White appeared in Ithaca movies, and local Ithacans and Cornell students often appeared as extras.
For more than a decade, Terry Harbin, a clerk at the Tompkins County Library, has been documenting and collecting information, artifacts and films from this period in Ithaca's history. But it wasn't until earlier this year that the familiar figure of Oliver Hardy --albeit in drag --was discovered in one of the movies he was showing on video at the DeWitt Historical Society.
"The Lottery Man" is a comedy/drama about a man who gets a job writing for the local paper (a shot of the old Ithaca Journal building is included), and comes up with the idea of selling lottery tickets to women, offering himself in marriage as the prize for the winner.
Harbin showed the video of "The Lottery Man" once on public access TV a decade ago, when he first received the copy from The Library of Congress. But it wasn't shown publicly again until last February.
"It was a full house; they had to turn people away," Harbin said.
He was narrating the film, pointing out Ithaca landmarks, when he mentioned that a number of male Cornell students were asked to dress in drag and were used as extras in scenes calling for large crowds of women. He told the audience to watch for them.
"When Oliver Hardy came into the scene as the big, robust cook, and elderly lady in the back of the room said, 'Now that doesn't look like a lady.' " Harbin said. But although it was Hardy's large round face (sans moustache), the identification had not yet been made, and Harbin told her the cook probably was being played by a woman.
Something about the scene stuck in Harbn's mind, however, and he later told his friend, local producer, writer and film buff Elliot J. Novak, about the scene.
Novak saw a poster Harbin had made up with stills from the movie and later watched it.
I said, "That's Oliver Hardy," Novak said. "I've been a film collector for 35 years, I've lectured on films, I know that's 'Babe' Hardy, I know what he did at that time. I've got photos of him -- he was often used as a corpulent woman in a lot of the early comedies.
Hardy, who appears as a portly female cook who is the real winner of the lottery, is unbilled in "The Lottery Man" and the title of the movie doesn't even appear in official Hardy biographies and references.
"Our best guess is that there weren't any pleasingly plump young ladies available on the lot that day," states an article on the find at The Silent Majority Web site,
www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms, the on-line journal of silent film.
Once the discovery was made, Harbin and Novak quickly scoured obscure film reference books to validate the find. They did find proof --books that listed Hardy (who was occasionally known as 'Babe' or "Cupid" Hardy in those early years) as working for the Whartons in Ithaca during 1915.
The discovery was not made, however, in time for Harbin to share it with audiences who saw the film at a couple of showings at the DeWitt Historical Scoiety in February.
But Harbin was still making discoveries. Once he realized it was Hardy in "The Lottery Man," he realized that a list of a few "Babe" Hardy movies made in 1915 were actually titles of separate episodes of a serial filmed by the Whartons in Ithaca at the same time.
Harbin has confirmed that Hardy appeared in at least three episodes of "The New Adventures of J. Rufus Wallingford," and identified Hardy in numerous stills he has from the making of that film. No actual film remains of those episodes, but Harbin found one more episode Hardy may have appeared in, which exists as part of the collection of The National Television & Film Archives in London. Harbin is hoping the film or a video of it can be obtained and shown in Ithaca in the near future.
"My goal is to get them to be seen by everybody, to put Ithaca back on the map as a filmmaking place." Harbin said. An independent film will be made in Ithaca next year, and Harbin hopes that ignites passion for Ithaca's filmmaking past. "I hope there's a lot of movie-making talk here, because all the qualities for making movies here are not gone," he said. "They could still make movies here, just like the Whartons did so many years ago."
The Library of Congress has estimated that more than 85 percent of silent films made have been lost forever, due to the lack of preservation and the combustible nitrate stock early films used, Harbin said.
To actually remaster and restore a film like "The Lottery Man," instead of just making a copy on video, would cost at least $9,000., Harbin said. "It would be a nice film for Ithaca to have as a film."
"I think people in Ithaca are proud of the fact that movies were made here, and they like to read and see about it all, but I think that's about as far as it goes." Harbin said, acknowledging that The Silents Majority on-line journal also trumpets the recent discovery, calling it "A Rare Oliver Hardy Appearance!" on its Hot Tip page.
Local scenes in "The Lottery Man" include The Ithaca Journal building (as well as scenes filmed inside the building), the Cornell football team, the Chi Psi fraternity house, the old Ithaca City Hall, and a set built at the southeast corner of State and Meadow streets. Local police and a judge appear as themselves, and Cornell banners and the name "Ithaca" appear in several scenes.
Still learning more
Novak had more than just a film buff's interest in Ithaca's move-making history. When he was an Ithaca College student in 1973, he wrote the script for, and starred in a documentary called "They Made Movies in Ithaca."
While Harbin has since discovered a lot of historical detail that renders parts of the documentary inaccurate, it was shown annually in Ithaca for many years, its appeal likely heightened by Rod Serling's narration.
Novak was a student of, and later close friends with, Serling before Serling's death in 1975. He co-hosted "The Sunday Show" with Serling on WCIC-TV in Ithaca.
"Terry had unearthed most of the information that we didn't have then," Novak said. "In 1973, there was very little known about what the Whartons did. When I look at the film now, it's so factually incorrect. Thank god Terry is doing this -- he's putting the pieces together that we didn't know about."
"It turns out that [Hardy] was the biggest name of all of them who worked here ... People, film collectors know Pearl White and Lionel Barrymore and Warner Oland," but Hardy is the best known today, Novak said.
Novak had become so interested in the story of the Whartons in Ithaca that he has put together a proposal for a new documentary, "Theo & Leo: The Forgotten Pioneers of Film," that would bring the relatively little-known story of the Wharton Studios into greater public awareness. The discovery of Hardy's early roles here helps make the proposal even more appealing.
The Whartons created the concept of the serial movie, Novak said. "These days, we don't think of serials because we don't do them, but 'Terminator,' and anything that is sequential, is taken from the serial format, where you leave it hanging. They just don't have shorts now, they do it in feature length."
Novak said the Whartons must have had an eye for talent. Even though many of the actors appearing in their serials weren't famous at the time, a good percentage of them went on to much greater fame.
"I'm sure that Oliver Hardy just ended up taking a gig here, but [the Whartons] had to have picked him, they were one of the earliest people to recognize his talents, to use him." Novak said.
"It's very interesting, being a film collector and a film historian, finding out this much about these guys." Novak said of the Whartons. "I had no idea they had accomplished this much."
The Whartons "made their mark, they stayed here, and they're not going to be forgotten." Harbin said.
The same can be said for Oliver Hardy.