- Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema by Barbara Tepa Lupack
By Barbara Tepa Lupack. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. Pp. 384.
In 1921, famed publisher E. W. Scripps founded Science Service, an organization promoting science and technology in everyday life. This development suggests the background for Barbara Tepa Lupack's Silent Serial Sensations: the Machine Age that touted the "wizardry of science" (p. 94); the emerging technological art of film; and the development of the machine-like serial film. Together with the "new woman" who typically headlined these serials, these are the threads from which Lupack weaves her account of the films of Ted and Leo Wharton, brothers who were writers, directors, producers, and founders of the Wharton Studio (p. 83). Their company operated mainly in Ithaca, New York, producing shorts, features, and serials at a moment of change in the movies, as production was shifting from various east-coast locations to the west coast—a point when many histories of the movies begin.
But that westward shift is not the Whartons' story. They were products of the Machine Age, capitalizing on the period's new mobility to make films in many locations: Chicago, New York, Santa Cruz, and San Antonio. Lupack emphasizes their Ithaca operations, where the Whartons built a studio, and where that modern mobility let them bring actors by train from talent-rich New York and truck their companies to the picturesque areas abounding upstate. From that base, the Whartons also transported students at nearby Cornell University and townsfolk to various locations where they shot elaborate films for international distribution by such companies as Pathé. In fact, their 1914 serial, The Exploits of Elaine, starring one of early cinema's most famous women, Pearl White, became the first American film to gross over $1 million.
Lupack's account is especially adept at placing the Whartons in the context [End Page 1231] of the movie industry's rapid evolution. Thus the opening chapter describes both movie-making and movie-going as technological processes, involving much equipment and technical expertise and an appreciation for technological narratives of the sort the Whartons crafted skillfully—about technology, machines, and scientific gadgetry. Filling an important niche in the typical movie experience, they specialized in a machine-like product, the serial or chapter play, rapidly fashioned in twelve or fifteen episodes that emphasized action (constantly involving trains, trolleys, and cars), had a frantic pace, and culminated in formulaic cliffhanger endings. Their mastery of this form, Lupack argues, brought a reputation as "the most innovative serial producers of their day" (p. 149). While few Wharton efforts still exist due to a 1929 fire that consumed most of their nitrate negatives, Lupack has reconstructed their plots and recaptured some of the serials' appeal. Working from trade papers, reviews, a Library of Congress catalog, advertising materials, and the Wharton Collection at Cornell, she provides almost episode-by-episode summaries that convey the appeal of "the scientific mystery serial" films (p. 88). In these films, "tense situations and the marvelous achievements of science" combine with depictions of the period's new "empowered woman" (p. 99, 90). To support her descriptions, she appends surviving scenarios from: The Mysteries of Myra (1916), Beatrice Fairfax (1916), and The Eagle's Eye (1918). However, her main achievement is not reconstruction, but framing the films within this heady period, colored by the advent of World War I and the age's technological enthusiasms.
Another pleasure of Silent Serial Sensations is encountering the celebrated figures who worked with the Whartons. Their studio attracted the likes of Pearl White, Lionel Barrymore, Oliver Hardy, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Irene Castle—dancer, fashion icon, and "the best known woman in America" (p. 165). Drawing on the Whartons' business records, Lupack also sketches their association with another modern celebrity, William Randolph Hearst, whose International Film Service financed and distributed many Wharton films, including Beatrice Fairfax (1916), The Mysteries of Myra (1916), and the notorious Patria (1917), a work that brought threats of censorship for its Hearst-inspired notion of Japanese and Mexican plots...