The Oscars were years away when a young Syracuse native came to icy gorges and waterfalls outside Ithaca in the Finger Lakes as a silent movie star in 1917.
Ithaca-based producers (and brothers) Leopold and Theodore Wharton thought that the area’s rugged winter beauty, highlighted by the frozen 115-foot Lucifer Falls, could stand in for Alaska. A few years later in 1920, this dramatic setting in Tompkins County became the 1,256-acre Robert H. Treman State Park. The first Oscars awards for the burgeoning motion picture industry, now firmly anchored in Los Angeles, finally arrived in 1929.
Ithaca played a critical role in the history of the silent movie industry when the Wharton brothers ran their studio in what is now the city’s Stewart Park from 1914 to 1919, making more than two dozen movies. There were stunts and antics, including when the brothers bought a trolley car from the city to film careening off a bridge, and the time when dozens of skunks from a local farm were rented for a scene, only to escape, spray the actors and crew, and shut down production.
Shooting in their studios and on location in the dramatic gorges around the area, the Whartons brought famous movie stars of that era to Ithaca, making it the unofficial capital of the silent film industry, as reflected in these early newspaper clippings from the Wharton Studio Museum.
“The Wharton brothers and Ithaca were pioneers in this emerging art form. Some very unique history happened here,” said Diana Riesman, executive director and co-founder of the museum.
One of the Whartons’ silent film stars, Irene Castle, lived in Ithaca after marrying local resident Robert E. Treman, the son of Robert H. Treman, a prominent upstate political and financial leader who later donated the land used for The Great White Trail that became the state park now bearing his name.
Many of the Wharton’s film reels were destroyed in 1929 when the highly-flammable nitrate film caught fire in their lawyer’s garage in Ithaca. However, the original Wharton studio building still exists in the park, and is used by the city public works department for maintenance.
In the years since the freewheeling Wharton brothers, the variety of landscapes found in State Parks have shared the spotlight many times in a wide range of films, television programs and other productions, from the well-known and prestigious to the obscure and unsung.
Some are little nuggets of film history. Did you know, for example, that iconic comedian Henny Youngman’s final film appearance came in 1995 at the former state Kings Park Psychiatric Center in what is now part of Nissequogue River State Park in Suffolk County?
In the little-remembered “Eyes Beyond Seeing,” which was the story of a mental patient with religious delusions, the then 89-year-old “King of the One-Liners” played a brief cameo role as another patient who thinks he is … Henny Youngman. He must have cracked himself up. <rimshot>
Niagara Falls State Park has one of the most dramatic backdrops available anywhere, within numerous films using the thundering cataracts, including the 1953 film “Niagara.” This film noir thriller helped establish the sensuous image of 27-year-old actress Marilyn Monroe, who received top billing for the first time in her budding career.
In recent years, other films at the falls have included the comedy “Tammy” in 2014 with Melissa McCarthy, part of which was filmed at the always-torrential “Hurricane Deck” at the Cave of the Winds. The park also was featured in “Henry’s Crime” in 2010 with Keanu Reeves, whose falsely-accused-of-a-crime Buffalo toll taker has a romantic interlude at the falls.
Surf and sun always make for a good movie, with Jones Beach State Park and other shoreline parks in Long Island long popular as shooting sites. In 1949, middle-aged actor and future President Ronald Reagan filmed a romantic comedy at Jones Beach, aptly titled “The Girl From Jones Beach.”
The 2004 romantic film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” filmed in part at Camp Hero State Park on Long Island at Montauk Point, had one of the characters uttering the phrase “Meet me at Montauk,” which can still be found on t-shirts and promotional items for the area.
If skyline is what a filmmaker needs, the Big Apple has that in spades. Numerous films have been shot at State Parks in the city, including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2012 at Bayswater Point State Park), the senior citizen heist comedy “Going in Style” (2017 at East River State Park), and “Still Alice,” a 2014 film in which Julianne Moore plays a woman coping with an Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis that was shot in Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park.
The 2015 short film “The Bench,” is set at a bench in Gantry Plaza State Park, with its spectacular views of the midtown Manhattan, where a suicidal man has a conversation with a passerby that changes his life.
This dramatic cityscape park has been used in many feature, foreign and student films, including the 2016 Ricky Gervais comedy “Special Correspondents,” the 2019 comedy “Holiday Rush” about a DJ dealing with losing his job, and “Here Today,” a 2019 May-September comedy with Billy Crystal.
Some thirty miles north of the city, the former estate of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller – now the Rockefeller State Park Preserve – has been used for many films and television shows, most recently the 2019 gangster epic “The Irishman” by director Martin Scorsese, who shot from the 13 Bridges Trail to film driving scenes on Route 117 below.
The office at the preserve stood in for the police station in the 2001 prankster cop comedy “Super Troopers.” A scene where a police car goes screeching into reverse down a highway was filmed on Route 117 in the park.
In the Capital Region, Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” (2009), a story of how the Woodstock music festival of 1969 came about, was filmed at Cherry Plain State Park in the rugged eastern hills of Rensselaer County. And parts of the 1998 film “The Horse Whisperer” were shot in Saratoga Spa State Park.
And sometimes, an even more primeval look is what’s called for. That’s what producers of the low-budget 1983 caveman comedy film “Luggage of the Gods!” found in the rocky trails and mountains at Harriman State Park. Filming centered around the Claudius Smith Den, a rock shelter dating back to Native American times and used during the Revolutionary War by a notorious gang of Tories.
Finally, something altogether darker might be needed, and State Parks has places for that, too. The grounds of Glimmerglass State Park and the nearby 50-room, 18th century estate at Hyde Hall State Historic Site were the setting for a short horror film “A Nightmare Awakes.” The film tells a story of Mary Shelley, the young author of the book Frankenstein, as she begins to experience vivid hallucinations.
So, State Parks can offer aspiring filmmakers a setting for every story. Such films are part of the state’s efforts to attract such activity through the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development, which has drawn productions that have contributed billions of dollars to the state’s economy.
And should you ever wish to see The Great White Trail, the silent film set at Robert H. Treman State Park, or another classic silent film, check the event page for the Wharton Studio Museum or Taughhannock Falls State Park . The film has been shown during summers at the park in recent years and is still drawing an audience. A silent movie screening is planned there for summer 2020.
Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks.
Learn more about the silent film era in Ithaca in the Finger Lakes at the Wharton Studio Museum.
Cornell University Press is releasing a book in April on the history of Wharton films in Ithaca entitled Silent Serial Sensations by Barbara Tepa Lupack.
The Wharton Studio Museum is part of the newly-created Finger Lakes Film Trail, which also includes the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, and the Case Research Laboratory in Auburn. The sites host film events, lectures, and screenings.