Lights, Camera, Action … Ithaca

by James P. Hughes

Ahh, poor Pauline indeed! In 1914, the silent film series The Perils of Pauline, starring actress Pearl White, captured the nation’s fancy with its twenty episodes of suspense, danger and intrigue. Each breathtaking installment found its virtuous heroine in a precarious, life-threatening situation – only to see her miraculously rescued or somehow cleverly escape disaster at a climactic moment.

In the very early 20th century, such “cliffhanger” adventure serials dominated silent film, guaranteeing the return of fans to the silver screen again and again. In those largely pre-Hollywood days, The Perils of Pauline and other early serials were filmed in New York City and New Jersey. Yet through quirky circumstances, the famed Pearl White filmed several scenes of Perils in the striking surroundings of Ithaca, New York. The small city on Cayuga Lake, with Cornell University high on a hill above, would later become a hotbed for early motion pictures. Pearl would often return to Ithaca, starring in various films and serials.

Ithaca’s connection to the “silent era” of film began by chance in 1912, when Ted Wharton, on assignment for Chicago’s Essanay Studios, arrived in Ithaca to film a spirited football game between Cornell and Penn State, a movie subsequently titled Football Days at Cornell. While there, Wharton took the opportunity to visit relatives in nearby Ludlowville.

Something noteworthy transpired on that visit – Wharton was stunned with the scenery and potential of the region as a cinematic backdrop for future films. Its deep and craggy gorges, dozens of plunging waterfalls, majestic hillsides, crystalline lake and the comfortable college town of Ithaca all played into his plans of what could be.

By 1913, Wharton had returned to Ithaca with his brother Leo. Notable and respected filmmakers, the Whartons set up operations in a rented studio space downtown. The enterprise grew, and by May of 1915 the brothers had moved Wharton Studio, Inc. to a leased building on renovated acreage in Renwick Park (now Stewart Park) on the shores of Cayuga Lake.

From their early “flicks” in 1913 until 1919, a steady stream of movies flowed from Wharton Studio, classic silents created and filmed in Ithaca and its environs. The early scenes from The Perils of Pauline led to other popular serials of the day, including Exploits of Elaine (1914), Beatrice Fairfax (1916), Mysteries of Myra (1916) and Patria (1917). Feature films from Wharton Studio included The Great White Trail, an epic of the Arctic (1917) and A Romance of the Air, a tale of America’s first combat aviators (1918). Using striking natural surroundings and elaborate studio sets, the Whartons directed and produced hundreds of reels that were repeatedly viewed across the country and around the world.

Movie luminaries – performers previously seen only on the silver screen – arrived in Ithaca’s backyard, lived in its hotels, ate in its restaurants, walked its streets and acted in Wharton films. Prominent among them were Norma Talmadge, Lionel Barrymore, Francis X. Bushman, Irene Castle, Warner Oland, Grace Darling and even a very young Oliver Hardy. Perhaps unfamiliar to many today, their names remain very much alive to movie buffs everywhere.

Each of them left a mark. At the time, Irene Castle, demure but provocative, was hailed as “America’s best known and best dressed woman.” Her flowing gowns and stylish bob haircut defined elegance. Young Lionel Barrymore, a prominent member of the famed Barrymore theatrical family, was still in the early stages of his long and storied career. Francis X. Bushman, in his heyday advertised as “the Handsomest Man in the World,” continued to act and direct for decades.

Among the most flamboyant and memorable of the characters wandering about town was Pearl White. Regional historian Arch Merrill wrote some years later:

Pearl White was as colorful off stage as she was on. She smoked cigarettes and wore slacks on the streets when ladies just didn’t do that sort of thing. She drove her canary yellow Stutz Bearcat around town at breakneck speed. Fondly remembered as “a real trouper,” Pearl executed much of her own stunt work and feats of daring.

Those long-ago days in Ithaca were filled with thrills and emotion as the filming carried on – violent explosions, flaming buildings, dramatic warfare on Cayuga Lake. When the script for A Prince of India (1914) called for a trolley to plunge off the Stewart Avenue bridge, a crowd numbering more than 1000 gathered to view the chaos. From one spectacular scene to the next, cameras rolled to record and the public breathlessly followed each melodramatic moment. The Ithaca Journal was full of news about each film and the comings and goings of its stars. Some of Ithaca’s finest homes and buildings became temporary sets. The Wharton brothers hired locals for essential studio work, from cameramen to set builders. Residents and college students were called on to play bit parts or join mob scenes. The Whartons embraced Ithaca and the city embraced them back.

Though these were exciting times in Ithaca, as we know, times change. When the Wharton Studio lease expired in 1920, and coupled with other financial considerations, Ted and Leo moved on. Once vibrant images of the era gradually faded. A full century later, gone are the folks who witnessed those indelible days.

A relative few of the early Wharton films have survived. The advent of the Roaring Twenties changed many things. Methods of film production improved, serials evolved toward feature films, “talkies” emerged and Hollywood, with its warm, amenable climate, bloomed as a movie capital. The remarkable natural scenery of the region remained, but the sun had set on Ithaca’s boisterous days of filmmaking.

That halcyon era may be just a misty memory, but in Ithaca it is an age certainly not forgotten. The Wharton Studio Museum, a local nonprofit, preserves and celebrates the bygone days when filmmaking was an emerging art form and industry. WSM’s permanent exhibit at the

Tompkins Center for History and Culture seeks to “broaden awareness and appreciation of Ithaca’s role in early American film history.” WSM annually produces Silent Movie Under the Stars, Silent Movie Month and other screenings, exhibits and events.

In partnership with the Friends of Stewart Park and the City of Ithaca, plans are underway to convert the only surviving Wharton building into Wharton Studio Park Center with exhibit space and a café. With it, the legacy and spirit Pearl White and her contemporaries left behind in Ithaca and along Cayuga’s shoreline will live on.

The “Wharton Studio Museum” (WSM) is an organization and founding partner in the Tompkins Center for History and Culture (TCHC). At present the WSM is in the form of a “permanent exhibit” at the TCHC (in other words, a museum within a museum). The Tompkins Center for History and Culture itself is a brick and mortar building located at 110 North Tioga Street, Ithaca, in the Ithaca Commons, so the WSM (exhibit) can be visited there. However, plans are underway to make a permanent Wharton Studio Park Center (i.e., museum) with increased exhibit space and a café in the only surviving Wharton building in Stewart Park.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *