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Film preview: 'The Exploits of Elaine'

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The Finger Lakes Film Trail is a new consortium project intended to shine a spotlight on the historical and cultural contributions of the Central New York region in the development of the early motion picture industry. A collaboration between local institutions the Eastman Museum, the Wharton Studio Museum in Ithaca, and the Case Research Laboratory in Auburn, the Film Trail will sponsor an ongoing calendar of film events, lectures, exhibits, and screenings for local audiences.

The Eastman Museum is well-known to Rochester residents, with its continuing mission to celebrate the history of photography and cinema, as well as the achievements of entrepreneur, philanthropist, and pioneer of popular photography and motion picture film, George Eastman.

Part of the Cayuga Museum of History, the Case Research Laboratory guides visitors through the history and commercialization of sound film, which began with Theodore ("Ted") Willard Case and his invention of the first commercially successful sound-on-film technology.

Wharton Studio Museum honors filmmakers Ted and Leo Wharton, who established their production studio at Renwick (now Stewart) Park in Ithaca in 1913, making it one of the country's first regional production facilities. Together they produced between 600 to 700 pictures, many of them sensation-filled serial episodes that they filmed at their Ithaca studio, which was in operation through 1919.

The Film Trail's inaugural event, to be held this Thursday at the Dryden Theatre, will be a showing of the first four episodes of "The Exploits of Elaine," the landmark serial produced by the renowned silent filmmaking brothers.

As the first film to gross over $1 million in sales, "The Exploits of Elaine" was an early blockbuster of the serial format. The films follow the story of a young woman named Elaine (played by actress Pearl White, who also did most of her own stunts), as she enlists famous detective Dr. Craig Kennedy (the "American Sherlock Holmes") to help her find the man -- known only by the chilling alias "The Clutching Hand" -- she believes responsible for the murder of her father. The duo use what was then cutting-edge crime detecting technology (including fingerprinting!) on their mission to track down the killer.

Because of its cultural and historical significance, the work became the first serial to be honored with a place on the U.S. National Film Registry in 1994.

Presenting a print lovingly restored by the George Eastman Museum, Thursday's screening will feature live piano accompaniment by Philip C. Carli and an introduction by Dr. Barbara Tepa Lupack, author of the forthcoming book, "Silent Film Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema."

The next event on the Finger Lakes Film Trail's schedule will be a screening of Oscar Micheaux's silent race-film classic, "Within Our Gates," a black response to D.W. Griffith's Ku Klux Klan-glorifying "The Birth of a Nation." Also introduced by Dr. Barbara Tepa Lupack, that screening will be held at the Carriage House Theater, Cayuga Museum of History & Art, in Auburn, on May 19, at 2 p.m.

Planning for further events sponsored by The Finger Lakes Film Trail is already underway, including two film screenings in Ithaca during October's "Silent Movie Month in Ithaca", as well as "Silents Under the Stars," a free movie showing at Taughannock Falls State Park in late August (film titles to be decided).

Tickets for the screening of "The Exploits of Elaine" are $7 for Eastman Museum members, $10 for non-members, and $5 for students with ID. The screening will also be repeated on Monday, April 29, at 1:30 p.m., as part of the Dryden Theatre's "Senior Matinee" series.

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