October 23, 2008

Ithaca's Silent Silvers

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[img_assist|nid=32890|title=Camera Men|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]It’s not infrequent for Cornellians watching Entourage or The O.C. to sigh longingly and wish that our fair University were located somewhere a bit more star-studded or sun-basked. But these dreamers can take heart in the fact that once, a long, long time ago, Ithaca was the center of the movie universe.
Or if not the center, it was at least on the map. For seven glorious years beginning in 1913, the serendipitously-named Leo and Theo Wharton shot and produced some of the biggest films of the silent movie era in and around Ithaca. Whether staging elaborate chase scenes or giving the local populace a chance to gaze at the decade’s biggest stars, the English brothers briefly made the town a cinematic hub. And though most of the work they made is now destroyed, their memory lives on in the odd stories they left behind.
Film was still a new thing in 1913, and the business we now know as Hollywood had yet to coalesce into anything resembling an organized, geographically centered entity. Big movie studios and independent-minded producers both managed to reach audiences across the country, and it was easy enough for people like the Whartons — adventurous, hard-working and rich — to set up shops of their own.
And so Leo and Theo came to Ithaca in the summer of 1913 and began laying the ground for a production studio in Stewart Park. Attracted by the area’s natural beauty and the enthusiasm of the local authorities for increased tax revenue, they leased a 45-acre property by the lake replete with offices and a miniature steam engine. Within the space of a year they were churning out war stories and thrillers, creating a ripple of excitement in a town that had been known for little more than long winters and a university on the hill.
Money in those days was easiest made from serial films, a form at which the Whartons excelled. Typically comprising upwards of twenty episodes, serials allowed for staggered production and quick profits. The most popular of the Whartons’ serials were the Elaine films (made in 1916) and the Patria series (made in 1917), both of which followed female protagonists as they were variously chased, rescued and wooed. High art they were not: the majority of the productions coming out of Ithaca were quick-thrill pulse-beaters, easy entertainment that was rapidly made and soon forgotten.
But for all their lack of profundity, the movies made Ithaca a more interesting place. Take, for example, the scene shot for the 1914 thriller Kiss of Blood, whose climactic chase scene called for a scene on board a trolley. The Whartons managed to procure a run-down car from the town’s transport service and it set up on a bridge where tracks already passed over Fall Creek Gorge. A crowd of one thousand gathered on the Stewart Avenue bridge below to watch as the trolley car careened down the hill and tottered off its rails, falling magnificently onto the rocks below.
[img_assist|nid=32891|title=Starlets in Ithaca|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Or consider Irene Castle, fashion idol and sexpot star of the Patria serials. After marrying a local businessman and building what would later become the Sigma Chi house and its swimming pool, as well as acquainting the town with her pet monkey Rastus, Castle suffered a series of mishaps during shooting that led to a souring of her relationship with the Whartons. During one shot she was required to drive in front a moving train, keeping a distance of only two feet between her back bumper and the engine. Another time she found herself stranded on a burning boat with no lifejacket. But what finally broke her resolve was a 40-foot dive into Cayuga Lake: the below-freezing waters caused her to pass out on impact and to come down with a case of pneumonia. The Whartons, needless to say, were not the kindest guys in the business.
Nor were they the most business-savvy, failing to turn a profit once during their stay in Ithaca. Despite these difficulties, however, the films themselves were taking off, and their popularity around Ithaca became such that the Whartons had to close their studio grounds by the lake due to overwhelming crowds. With stars walking the streets and homemade movies showing at the Star Theatre on Seneca Street, there was much cause for excitement (rumors that place Charlie Chaplin in Ithaca at this time, though, are unfounded; “The Tramp” likely never set foot in town).
Filming at breakneck speed — they once completed one film in just three days — Leo and Theo managed to produce dozens of films at the Stewart Park studio. The Mysteries of Myra, a spooky thriller from 1916, required the services of one Harry Houdini as technical adviser. The Great White Trail managed to convinced audiences, somewhat unsurprisingly, that Ithaca was Alaska. And in a tale that may seem eerily prescient during these tough economic times, Lottery Man featured a Cornell student who attempts to auction himself off as a husband so that he can pay the bills and stay in school.
Ithaca was not, however, destined to be America’s movie capital. By the late teens, producers and their companies, chasing cheap land and good shooting light, began relocating to Southern California. The Whartons were finally overcome by their debts, and in 1920 the state Supreme Court ordered foreclosure on their lakefront property. The two brothers followed the crowd to L.A. and never worked together again.
So as abruptly as it had started, Ithaca’s time in the spotlight ended. Rumor has it that the local fire chief wasted no time in ordering all the left-behind film reels dumped ignominiously into Cayuga Lake to avoid the risk of fire (filmstrips in those days were high in nitrate content). Pearl White, star of the Elaine movies and infamous around town for her car-driving, pants-wearing and cigarette-smoking flamboyance, summed it up best when she appeared before a local judge and was offered change for her five-dollar speeding fine: “Keep it. I’m getting out of this damn place a helluva lot faster than I came in.”