Ithaca Times-Ithaca movie history Jun 4, 2005 10:05:13 GMT -5
Post by Terry Harbin on Jun 4, 2005 10:05:13 GMT -5
Ithaca served as the backdrop
for many silent films
Ithaca served as the backdrop
for many silent films
The films were silent. Terry Harbin is anything but. An avid film historian and a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge on Ithaca's brief, seven-year reign over the burgeoning film industry, Harbin is more than willing to spill the beans about what really happened here at the start of the century. Over many years Harbin has been chronicling a history that is rapidly disappearing with the deterioration of ancient silent films and the ancient minds who remember their production.
It was an innocent comment, however, in the early 1980s by Harbin's now ex-wife that sparked an interest in what would become a search for the truth "When I first came to Ithaca my first wife asked me if I knew that this was the old Hollywood. She said her grandfather, who once ran the old Gus' Grocery, had been an extra in a film in 1918 and was filmed sleeping on a bench, Harbin recalls. "I started really looking into things in 1987, just before the Ithaca centennial, when I was producing video pieces for the Tompkins County Library dealing with area history."
Since then it has been a major effort to try to collect all the information so I can tell people the whole story." Thus far Harbin has amassed an impressive collection of information and memorabilia on the nearly 100 silent comedies, serials, features, thrillers and mysteries produced in the Ithaca area.
ITHACA, THE HOLLYWOOD OF THE PAST
At the dawn of what would later become the motion picture industry, it was an Ithacan of sorts who became one of the world's first movie stars. A human skeleton borrowed from a Cornell science lab by physics professor George Moler became the subject of one of the very first frame-by-frame films ever made. Filmed at the turn of the century and known as The Dancing Skeleton, the very brief images of the bouncing bones were a breakthrough at the time.
Not long after this pioneering bit of film, Cornell began to show its magnetism for the film industry, drawing a crew from Thomas Edison's studio in New Jersey in 1901 to capture the annual Cornell/Columbia/Penn crew race. As the young men rowed across Cayuga Lake, the film was spliced with shots of the Lehigh Valley observation train crossing the entrance of Renwick Park, now known as Stewart Park, and chugging up the lake shore.
In the fall of 1912 the fate of Ithaca was sealed when Theodore Wharton, former director of photography for Edison's Kalem Pictures, arrived in town to film a Cornell football game for the Chicago Essanay Film Company. Wharton was so impressed with the natural beauty of Ithaca, and in awe of both the human and physical resources that Cornell afforded, that he returned in 1913 to make moving pictures for Essanay.
Operating out of a studio in a local attorney/Cornell professor's home on Ithaca's Thurston Ave. (at that time any place with a wooden floor would make a fine studio), Wharton called in major talent for his pictures like silent film star Francis X. Bushman, who immediately was captivated by the small burg. "Wonderful is the word for it," Bushman told a local journalist in a Journal article published on May 14, 1913, the day he arrived in Ithaca. "I am enthusiastic over the scenery in and about Ithaca. It will form a splendid background for our pictures. The beautiful hills, gorges and lake country are extremely adaptable to our plans."
Years later, as the local silent picture business began to wither and the industry headed west to take root in sunny California, it was evident that Ithaca never lost the natural appeal which brought the filmmakers here in the beginning. "We are enthusiastic over Ithaca and its wonderful scenery. We are perfectly delighted with the cordiality and friendliness of Ithaca people. They have not only done as much as they might be led to do because of interest in a new local organization, but they have seemed to be anxious to put themselves out to make our stay here happy as well as profitable," said Gardner Hunting, the general manager of Cayuga Pictures, in a Journal dated July 7, 1920. Cayuga Pictures would be the last company to make a silent film locally.
But long before this crash, which took Cayuga Pictures with it, it was Wharton and his brother Leopold, a film director in his own right, who established themselves as the major players in town. Together they held a role in the production of well over 90 percent of all Ithaca films and were the darlings of the silent movie industry, establishing stars, producing winning serials and opening up the floodgates for other films companies such as Hol-Tre and Cayuga Pictures. Ithaca served as the backdrop for some of the biggest serials of the time, including The Romance of Elaine starring Pearl White, and The Mysteries of Myra, and epic features such as The Great White Trail.
These films featured big stars like Lionel Barrymore of the famed Barrymore family, world-famous dancer Irene Castle - who married an Ithacan and lived in Cayuga Heights - and even Harry Houdini, who served as a special effects consultant on certain serials. While the sets of Wharton films and other companies were filled with stars, there was plenty of room for local talent and downtown scenery. Many actors, directors and cameramen found their way through the film industry from Cornell and the nearby towns. The common folk that filled the city streets also often found their way into films as extras and bit players.
"Sometimes people were in these silent films and never even realized it until the film came out and was shown locally," Harbin says. "Almost always the company tried to compensate those extras they could grab, whether it was with a dollar or two or even an egg sandwich, but the people usually only knew they were in a film and often did know its name or origin."
Wharton Inc. was established in 1914, when the brothers broke away from making films on contract for companies like Essanay and Pathé films. In May of 1915 they moved into a large studio constructed in Renwick Park. On a 45-acre plot selected for its forest and river scenery the company built a small tower to hold their offices (destroyed by a hurricane in the 1950s), while housing their studios, storage areas and cutting rooms in the pavilions on their land, some of which still survive in Stewart Park.
Their large working space, left open for visits by the curious as much as possible, enabled the Whartons to crank out film in quantities so large that their capacity for filming exceeded the ability of distributors to get the films in the cans and off to the theaters. By the end of 1916 the Whartons became the first producers to become their own distributors, a move that was hailed by the prominent movie magazine of the day, The Moving Picture World, in January of 1916.
"In their steady progress, the Wharton brothers, Theodore and Leopold, widely known as motion picture producers, have arrived at another elevation in their ascent to the uppermost rank of moving picture magnates," the magazine stated, adding that, "A recent examination by prominent New York financiers showed that Wharton, Inc., is a concern consisting entirely of assets and no liabilities."
This wildly optimistic assessment by so-called "financiers" proved to be a major miscalculation, but even Nostradamus couldn't have foreseen the turn of events that would bankrupt the Whartons and lead to foreclosure on the studio in 1919.
It all began when revenues for the company began to sag, which was not overly disheartening as the film market tended to jump up and down, but was unsettling just the same. The Wharton Brothers opted to sink all their hopes and their money (mostly acquired from local sources at that point) into a serial called The Eagle's Eye. Starring silent screen star King Baggot, the 20-part serial was an adaptation of uncovered, "true" espionage schemes used by German spies on our soil as the First World War unfolded.
But before the serial could run its course an influenza epidemic swept the nation, leading to a drastic decline in attendance at all public gatherings, especially moving pictures. While the brothers saw the writing on the wall before the crash and tried to switch from war films to comedies following industry trends, they couldn't pull themselves out in time and soon Wharton Inc. foreclosed, its studio and equipment sold and its films locked up in a vault just outside of town.
To learn more about the Ithaca film industry, a good place to start is at The History Center In Tompkins County. For more information, call the center at 273-8284.