Sunday, April 29, 2018

An Elmira-Made Movie: Adventures of Dot (1917)

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
Released in 1917, Adventures of Dot was a two-reel silent film made in Elmira. It featured local actors and was produced by the Unique Photo Drama Corporation of New York City. In an era when film was new and incredibly popular, the opportunity to join the ranks of Mary Pickford or Douglas Fairbanks excited many Elmirans. 

A contest was held to choose the leads and the prospective actors who received the most votes from fellow Elmirans were cast. With 55,960 votes, Yvonne Smith won the female lead, Dot. Lafayette Moseson scored the male lead, Murray Dexter. Unique Photo Drama Corporation manager J. Cooke announced the winners on June 2 at the Mozart Theater, where the film would premiere. The winners also received silver loving cups. 

The actors had to get right to work because the film was scheduled to premiere on June 11. At the end of each day of filming, the footage was shipped to New York City where it was processed. 
The Mozart Theater
While the film does not seem to have survived, here is a synopsis of the action:
Murray Dexter is a precocious Star-Gazette reporter with “a nose for news” (some scenes in the film were shot in the actual Star-Gazette offices). He gets to know the residents of the city through his work. One local, Professor Hassel (played by Robert Gatens) is an old scientist who has invented a new kind of explosive. Hassel’s beautiful daughter Dot is the object of Murray’s affection. The Star-Gazette prints a headline declaring that Hassell’s invention might win the war (remember, the US had just entered WWI). 

Meanwhile, the villainous Serge Revenisch reads this headline. Revenisch apparently knew Hassel from when they were both European anarchists. So Revenisch and his co-conspirator Madam N. decide to come to Elmira to steal the explosive. They send a letter to Chief of Police Weaver saying they’ll blow up City Hall if they don’t get $250,000 from the city.

Dot warns Murray of the anarchists’ attempts to steal her father’s formula and he runs off to get help. The anarchists then kidnap Dot. Dot’s young sister witnesses the kidnapping and tells Murray. Meanwhile, another child hops on the back of the car and hangs on until they get to the anarchist hiding spot. The little girl goes for help and leads the police and Murray to Dot. 

They free Dot and arrest the anarchists, but Revenisch and Madam N. are nowhere to be found. It turns out that they have gone out to blow up City Hall. The police stop them just in time, but Revenisch escapes custody and leads our heroes on a car chase. The anarchist’s car drives off a cliff by Rorick’s Glen, killing Revenisch.

Dot and Murray marry and then he joins Company L and is shipped off to World War I. Murray was wounded, but survived, returning home after two years. They lived happily ever after. 

Billing for the film, Elmira Star-Gazette, June 11, 1917
Premiering June 11, the film was shown as part of a double feature with a movie called Treason.

I became curious as to whether Adventures of Dot had been distributed elsewhere. I searched the title in an online newspaper database and found something curious. There was also an Ottawa, Canada version of Adventures of Dot. The newspaper articles about the Ottawa film were nearly identical to the Elmira ones. There was a contest. Local youths were cast. They showed the film in a local theater. All the same except for the people and place. 

Then I searched the company, Unique Photo Drama Co. I found they made a similar film in Reading, Pennsylvania. There was a contest, this time for a film called For Her Country’s Sake. They filmed the same movie across the state in Butler, Pennsylvania that year, too. And Akron, Ohio. There were probably others. 
Ad for For Her Country's Sake, Butler Citizen, July 24, 1918
So what gives? It turns out that these kinds of films were common in the early era of moviemaking. Companies like Unique Photo Drama peddled scripts to local theaters and community organizations across the country (for a listing of just some of these companies, see here). These itinerant filmmakers could make some quick money from the film, the sponsoring theater made money from ticket sales, and local actors were thrilled to see themselves and their friends on the screen. It was a win-win for everyone. 

Elmira Star-Gazette, June 12, 1917
Elmira’s Adventures of Dot never had an audience outside of Elmira. But, that was by design. Locals showed up for the short run of the film at the Mozart and then promptly moved on with their lives.


  1. This sounds a lot like the Hometown Song that This American Life covered:

    1. Ha! It does seem very much like that! There is no record of how transparent the Unique Photo Drama Corp was about letting towns know that there were different versions of the film they bought around the country. Likely, even if they knew, it wouldn't have mattered.