Wharton Studio Museum is hosting its 12th annual “Silent Movie Month” this October in collaboration with Cornell Cinema, Odyssey Bookstore and other local organizations to celebrate Ithaca’s early movie-making history through screenings and exhibits. Unique to this year’s festivities is a special tribute to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, whose career helped advance Asian-American representation on screen.
Diana Riesman, the executive director and co-founder of the Wharton Studio Museum — a local museum with the mission to preserve and celebrate Ithaca’s significant role in early American filmmaking — instituted the annual tradition in 2012.
“We went to the City of Ithaca and asked if they could [officially] proclaim October [as] Silent Movie month in Ithaca,” Riesman said. “It’s kind of evolved every year.”
Cornell Cinema kicked off this year’s month-long festivities by presenting “The Toll of the Sea” on Oct. 1, which features Wong in her first starring role. Ithaca’s Cloud Chamber Orchestra provided live musical accompaniment for the screening.
Wong, known as Hollywood’s first Asian-American film star, starred in over 60 films throughout her career, such as “Impact” and “Daughter of Shanghai.”
Throughout October and early November, Cinemapolis and Cornell Cinema will continue screening Wong’s films including “Daughter of the Dragon,” “Piccadilly,” “Shanghai Express,” and the first-ever version of “Peter Pan,” in which Wong starred as Tigerlily.
“When I started talking with Diana [Riesman] about how to be involved in Silent Movie Month, it felt like a really exciting opportunity to celebrate [Wong’s] career and also to think about the local connections to this sort of international superstar,” said Molly Ryan, Cornell Cinema’s director.
Wong oversaw several periods of tremendous change in the film industry throughout her career, including both the transitions from silent films to movies with sound — known as “talkies” — and the transition from black and white to color, according to Ryan.
These historical moments of technological change in the film industry are celebrated throughout upstate New York. Located in Auburn, the Case Research Laboratory — known as the “birthplace of sound film” — is where Theodore Case invented the process of putting sound on film in the early 1920s. The George Eastman Museum in Rochester also has a renowned Technicolor archive.
“[Showcasing Wong’s films] felt like a really exciting way to draw attention to the local importance of this region… foregrounding this actress who maybe hasn’t been as well known or celebrated as she could have been,” Ryan said.
Last year, Wong was featured on the U.S. quarter as part of the American Women Quarters program, which celebrates the accomplishments of remarkable American women from ethnically, racially and geographically diverse backgrounds. Mattel also released an Anna May Wong Barbie doll for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month last spring.
“We’re creating opportunities for people to get to know her better and to know her work,” Ryan said.
Prior to the Oct. 26 screening of “Piccadilly,” Cornell Cinema will host a lecture given by Prof. Shirley Lim ’90, State University of New York at Stony Brook, history.
“She’s one of the leading scholars of Anna May Wong’s life and work,” Ryan said. “She’s an alum of the Cornell history department… and she’s going to be coming back on Thursday, Oct. 26 to deliver a lecture… that’ll be a free event.”
Laura Larson, the owner of Odyssey Bookstore — also sponsoring the event — spoke to The Sun about the opportunity to pay tribute to Wong.
“There’s a lot of conversation around race and film and problematic portrayals,” Larson said. “It’s really cool to celebrate [Wong] who was able to show up as herself and be successful at a time when that was a very challenging thing to do. I’m excited to be a part of all of that.”
As part of Silent Movie Month, Larson is featuring two books chronicling Wong’s life in the Odyssey Bookstore. The first is a biography titled “Daughter of the Dragon” by Yunte Huang and second is a historical novel titled “The Brightest Star” by Gail Tsukiyama.
Beyond commemorating Wong, Wharton Studio recently updated its permanent exhibit at the Tompkins Center for History and Culture on The Ithaca Commons. Deep Dive, a local music venue, is hosting a film festival called “Silent City Film Festival” from Oct. 4 to Oct. 8. Cinemapolis is also hosting a “Free Matinée” of comedy shorts by and starring women open to all ages on the Oct. 22.
Riesman also spoke of collaborating with Historic Ithaca to provide a guided walking tour of Ithaca’s historic theaters.
“It’s the third time we’ve done that tour,” Riesman said. “It’s a great opportunity to be outside, spend an hour and a half and really learn all about these theaters. … I think it just imbues your appreciation for where you live.”
“It’s a perfect spooky season opportunity to see a movie in a really incredible space,” Ryan said.
Riesman reflected on the most meaningful part of programming for Silent Movie Month each year, noting that she hoped people who had never seen silent films before would watch one.
“In many ways [filmmaking is] so radically different, with how technologically sophisticated things are now. But the essence of moviemaking is the same, right?” Riesman said. “You’re just telling a very good story visually. That’s the heart of every film.”
Correction, Oct. 4, 10:31 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date of “The Toll of the Sea” showing. It took place on Oct. 1, not Oct. 2. The article also misspelled the name of “The Invincible Czars.” The Sun apologizes for these errors.