Barbara Lupack’s informative new book examines the work of the overlooked Wharton Brothers, pioneer independent filmmakers who produced popular serials at their own studio in Ithaca. It is likely that most filmgoers with a smattering of knowledge about early films would be able to identify only one serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914), and could name only one performer, Pearl White, whose career was linked to the format. Lupack’s history, however, makes it clear that in the 1910s, as narrative filmmaking was rapidly expanding in both length and subject matter, serials were a flourishing form. They attracted prominent actors such as Lionel Barrymore and Francis X. Bushman and were treated with respect by critics, exhibitors, and audiences.

To be sure, studios marketed their serials with Barnumesque flair—promotions emphasized visual thrills and spectacular stunts—but in form and subject they often had a modern touch and, as Lupack points out, a distinctly feminist orientation. Most serials starred adventurous, independent heroines, enticing versions of the New Woman, a figure who had emerged in the 1910s in newspapers, magazines, advertising, and fashion. In offering spectators liberated heroines who defied Victorian-era gender stereotypes, serials attracted a record number of female patrons. Far, then, from being a disreputable sidebar to the “legitimate” films being developed at the same time by masters like D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, serials upgraded narrative filmmaking at just the historical moment that the new medium sought and needed an aura of respectability. And the sizable female audience for serials functioned as a kind of social affirmation, signaling that moviegoing was a safe and acceptable activity.

The major Wharton Brothers serials dramatize the adventures of bold young women. Beatrice Fairfax features an intrepid female reporter who writes a popular “Advice to the Lovelorn” column (a series written by Fairfax, a pseudonym for writer Marie Manning, was syndicated at the time in Hearst newspapers). Patria is about a high-powered, take-charge adventurer who helps to save America from invasion during World War I. The risk-taking heroine is played by the dancer Irene Castle, promoted as the “Best Known Woman in America.” A patriot with a taste for high fashion, Patria is also a daredevil athlete who knows how to drive a car, fly a plane, and steer a boat. There are, of course, limits to the agency of the Wharton heroines, who frequently, despite their fearlessness, require a male protector, a detective or a scientific expert, to rescue them from peril.

The Wharton Brothers serials cover a surprisingly wide range of subjects. The Mysteries of Myra is a supernatural thriller in which mental telepathy and the young heroine’s budding sexuality are intertwined. Patria is wartime propaganda. The three-part serials featuring the intrepid Elaine (played by Pearl White)—The Exploits of Elaine, The New Exploits of Elaine, The Romance of Elaine—mix elements of detective fiction, horror (a recurrent figure, the Clutching Hand, finds ingenious ways of terrorizing the heroine), and wartime espionage. These, in turn, are combined with elements of the bombastic nineteenth-century melodrama that provided the narrative matrix for virtually all the serials.

Ted and Leo Wharton were skillful artisans who understood the ingredients of serial filmmaking. And as Lupack’s research reveals, they mastered the craft of sustaining suspense with a smart use of rapid editing, multiple camera angles, iris shots, and superimpositions. The brothers also knew how to promote and distribute their wares. Early on, they had the good sense to go into partnership with William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers popularized the serial genre, and the close connection between serialization in Hearst newspapers and serial films was an important part of the success of the Whartons’ offerings. Hearst provided money and promotion, but (no surprise) he proved to be a tyrannical collaborator who insisted on shaping material according to his own reactionary ideological and political agenda. After their connection with Hearst foundered in 1919, the brothers lost their footing. Facing steep and sudden financial reversals, they had to close their Ithaca studio and parted soon thereafter. Leo tried his luck in films in Texas, while Ted ventured to Los Angeles, by then the center of the filmmaking industry in America. Neither was able to recreate the success they had enjoyed from 1913 to 1919. The Whartons died in obscurity at relatively young ages: Leo in Texas in 1927 at fifty-seven, Ted in Los Angeles in 1931 at fifty-six.

Lupack laments that there is little information about the brothers’ sad final years. But on the evidence of her book, there is also little information about the personalities and private lives of the Whartons before and during their brief period of prominence. While the author provides important historical context, tracing the brothers’ rise from vaudeville and the legitimate stage to the nascent film industry, she is never able to bring either brother into clear focus. The Whartons were buccaneers of early cinema who carved out a moviemaking kingdom of their own before the advent of the studio era in Hollywood. They had to have been more colorful, temperamental, and ego-driven than the bland figures Lupack draws. The soft-focus portraits of the Whartons points to the challenge of all early-cinema research: most of the Wharton serials, for instance, exist, if at all, only in fragments and in a deteriorated condition. Nonetheless, Silent Serial Sensations recreates the flavor of the films while failing to evoke a sense of the brothers who created them. As biography, the book flounders; as an illumination of a little-known, early-cinema empire and of Ithaca as an unexpected filmmaking nexus, the book is noteworthy.

Foster Hirsch