Outwardly, at least, nothing seemed to change. New York looked the same the day before; it would look the same the day after. But on May 11, 1896, something did change, something as profound as it was imperceptible. At two o'clock on that Monday afternoon, a man named William Heise initiated a whole new city–through the simple act of recording the existing one.
Heise began by setting up his new device–the latest marvel from America's wizard, Thomas Edison–in a window at the south end of Herald Square. Looking out at the bright spring scene, he could see the energetic heart of a great city, bursting with life. Well-dressed pedestrians mingled with the surging traffic along 34th Street. The elevated train roared periodically along tracks above Sixth Avenue, to the right. Straight ahead, the elegant Herald Building tried its best to inject a note of architectural grace into the square, but could hardly compete with the jumble of signs and marquees in what was still the heart of Manhattan's entertainment district (17).
From the street below, this man in the window could easily have been mistaken for a still photographer, trying to freeze all this lively motion onto a plate of silvered glass. But Heise was not a photographer; he was a cameraman–and by the time he was done, just a minute or two later, he had for the first time captured New York, in all its restlessness, onto a flexible strip of celluloid, for a moving picture to be projected the following week under the title Herald Square. So on this sunny May afternoon, Heise was also creating a new New York, one that would exist henceforth on film, in the darkened hush of a theater.
This new thing, moving pictures, was just being born–right here, around the corner, down the street. Herald Square itself was the center of a whirlwind of invention that was bringing a whole new medium into the world. Just three weeks before, Americans had seen their first projected motion pictures–their very first "movies"–on the evening of April 23, 1896, in a theater just a few steps from where Heise was now standing, Koster and Bial's Music Hall on 34th Street (the site of today's Macy's). Over the course of the remaining year, vaudeville houses up and down Broadway would present a bewildering variety of competing systems: the Lathams' "Eidoloscope" in May, the Lumifire brothers' "Cinématographe" in June, American Mutoscope's "Biograph" in October. The movies were arriving in a wondrous convergence of time and place, across a few short months and a few Manhattan blocks.
Nor was New York just a center of exhibition; the first commercial American films were actually being produced here, in small workshops on these same streets. Edison had taken over the top floor of a walk-up on West 28th Street, while his main rival, American Mutoscope and Biograph, located itself on the sixth floor of 841 Broadway, near 13th Street. In its first decade, most film production in America would concentrate in the heart of Manhattan, within a few blocks of Union and Madison Squares.
It made sense, of course. New York was new to movies but was hardly a stranger to show business. The city had long ago assumed its role as the undisputed center of American theater and in the meantime had become the central hub for the sprawling vaudeville "circuits" crisscrossing the country; it could offer the nascent film industry a huge pool of entertainment talent and a well-developed network for national distribution. No less important was late-nineteenth-century New York's reputation as a tinkerer's town, the kind of place where the complex and innovative hardware of making motion pictures could be developed within the city's industrial loft buildings, amidst a general spirit of ingenuity and invention.
Heise himself worked out of Edison's primitive 28th Street shop, which began to explain why he was filming nearby Herald Square that spring afternoon and why, later that day, he would visit Central Park, just a mile or two away, for some additional footage of Bethesda Fountain. Images of New York were entering the movies at their birth, in no small part, because film was being born in New York.
But there were other reasons, equally basic. Early film stock was so "slow," or insensitive to light (no more than ASA 10 by today's standards), that only by shooting in direct sunlight could a good exposure be assured. And many of the early movie cameras were so bulky and cumbersome–Biograph's weighed a quarter-ton–that filmmakers yearned for subjects that were easy to reach by horse-drawn wagon. New York's sights were thus ideal: close at hand and accessible by paved streets and, in most cases, located outdoors.
Still, the most important reasons were not, in the end, practical ones. It could hardly escape the filmmakers' notice that at their very doorstep was the greatest show on earth. By the turn of the twentieth century New York contained the world's tallest buildings and busiest harbor, the biggest ships and the longest bridges, the densest slums and some of the grandest mansions. It had a statue fifteen stories tall and a park more than 840 acres in size. It had trains that ran a hundred feet above the street and leapt across rivers. And it had people–millions and millions of them, celebrated and obscure, filling every inch of the place.
For a decade, the first cameramen carried their cameras all around this remarkable setting–from street corners to rooftops to boats in the river–making a special kind of documentarylike film that they called "actualities." Usually only a few minutes long, actualities were merely views of actual events, people, or places. They had no plots. They had no stories. They had no characters. Filmmakers still didn't know how to tell a story; they hadn't yet discovered editing, the bringing together of two pieces of film to contract time. So these actualities could last only as long as the real event they showed: the cameraman just pointed his camera at something interesting and started cranking. They were simply glimpses, in what today might be called "real time," of the city and its life.
Their deadpan titles suggested just that. Skating on Lake, Central Park, or Excavation for Subway, these films were called. East Side Urchins Bathing in a Fountain, or Panoramic View of Brooklyn Bridge, or New York City in a Blizzard. One was named At the Foot of the Flatiron, and that is exactly what it shows: a stretch of sidewalk in front of the Flatiron Building, on a very windy day (18). During the course of the film, only two minutes and nineteen seconds long, pedestrians–ordinary, turn-of-the-century New Yorkers–simply walk down the street and past the camera, unaware for the most part that they are being photographed. The men grapple with their coats. The women clutch their long skirts. A well-dressed black man stares into the lens with curiosity and suspicion–until his hat flies off. (He disappears offscreen to retrieve it; the camera never moves from its position.) A streetcar can be noticed on the far right, crossing 23rd Street. Then two young women pass by, struggling gleefully against the strong wind. One of them turns and breaks into a wide, joyful smile. The film ends.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of these primitive films. They haunt us with the knowledge that what they show is not a stage but an actual place; that the people in them are not actors, but real New Yorkers; that they offer no invented storyline, but ordinary, everyday life. They are, in the end, not about the city: they are the city–one or two minutes of it, transposed precisely, second by second, from then to now. Their touching attention to the smallest, most ephemeral details of urban life–a windy day, a passing streetcar, a woman's smile–capture, more than anything, how the city felt, what it was actually like to live there. Seeing them, we live there, too.
From Heise's first film to about 1906, Edison and Biograph made hundreds of New York—set actualities, and assembled together they form a stunning urban collage. Cameramen such as Edison's Edwin S. Porter and Biograph's G. W. "Billy" Bitzer were placed in charge of the filmmaking process (another thing that did not yet exist was the notion of a director), and they explored the city encyclopedically. They made films of street kids delivering newspapers, shoppers crowding bargain stores, immigrants first touching American soil at Ellis Island. There were parades of horses, of automobiles, of street sweepers. There were sleek yachts defending the America's Cup off New York Harbor and the squalid "Ghetto" fish markets of the Lower East Side. There was Commander Peary departing for the North Pole and Admiral Dewey arriving from Manila, President Butler being installed at Columbia University and the last rites for Hiram Cronk, oldest veteran of the War of 1812.
The cameramen, in fact, shot just about everything. As fascinated by poverty as by wealth, they traveled as often to the poorest tenement streets as to the grand avenues of the rich. They moved comfortably from the bucolic scenery of the city's parks and rural outskirts to its dense, utterly industrialized core. They were naturally drawn to the bizarre and extraordinary (Edison once made a film at Coney Island called Electrocuting an Elephant), but no more so than to the sights of daily life. They were especially absorbed by the city's underlying municipal workings, from the heroic exploits of policemen and fireboat crews to the mundane yet indispensable operations of its health and sanitation departments. One of Porter's films was titled, quite accurately, Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, New York City.
Of course, the cameramen often left the city to shoot actualities elsewhere, from the battles of the Spanish-American War to the speeches of Teddy Roosevelt. Yet they always returned to New York, filming it again and again to create, in the end, a strikingly complete portrait of the city. This was still due, in part, to sheer convenience. But a more important reason could be found in the audience at the vaudeville halls where these films were shown. New York, on film, proved wildly popular. People all across the country enjoyed seeing both its marvels, suggesting a city of the future, and its scenes of everyday street life, which might seem equally futuristic–or at least alien–to audiences in small towns throughout America. Such continued popularity encouraged companies to keep making New York—set actualities even after the form itself began losing favor in the wake of the first story films.
Together, the actualities were the first group of American films to explore a consistent subject. That subject was New York–not any particular people who lived in New York, nor the stories that could be found there, but simply New York itself, its texture and character and urban presence.
With startling clarity, in fact, these films established a number of basic themes, basic ways of looking, that foreshadowed the way films would present New York in the coming century. Lacking stories or characters, for instance, the actualities naturally turned much of their attention to the physical city–but not, interestingly, to its architecture. Which is to say they rarely showed buildings as individual landmarks: they invariably looked instead at the city's places. Buildings were a part of these places, of course–but just a part, just one element of the larger urban composition that included streets and sidewalks, traffic, and people. In one early compilation of city scenes, the classical facade of the New York Public Library helps to define the great bowl of space that is Fifth Avenue; but it is the space, not the building, whose activity is the film's focus (19). The film instinctively turned to the library's urban role–as a grand street definer–rather than its architectural role as freestanding landmark.
The same held true of even the city's most daring buildings–its skyscrapers. Actualities almost never isolated a single tower as their subject but looked instead at the city's skyline, at the grouping of many towers. These skyline scenes were among the most popular of early films, a truly miraculous sight to audiences living outside New York or Chicago. The turn-of-the-century skyline these films presented is, to the modern eye, exciting and vibrant but curiously unfamiliar, filled not with slender spires but blocky, flat-topped buildings of relatively squat and unromantic proportion (20). The architecture of New York's skyscrapers was still evolving: the graceful towers that would mark the city's maturity had not yet risen, and the eye searches in vain for the cresting peaks of the Singer or Woolworth towers (much less the Chrysler or Empire State) that would give a sense of completion and polish to this spirited, raw upsurge of stone and steel.
Still, this early skyline seemed amazingly alive, especially after it was set into motion by the introduction around 1900 of a new piece of equipment: a swiveling tripod head that allowed the camera to make "panoramic"–or "panning"–motions in films whose titles were quick to advertise their new mobility: Panorama from the Tower of the Brooklyn Bridge (1899), Panorama from Times Building, New York (1905). Another way to animate the skyline was to view it from a moving platform, such as a boat circling lower Manhattan (Sky Scrapers of New York City, From the North River, 1903). Already brought to life by fluttering flags and white plumes of vapor, the skyline was further enlivened by the shifting, waterborne perspective of these views, the towers slowly rotating behind a rapidly shifting foreground of piers and ships. The fixed solidity of the city was being transformed in these films into a dynamic, ever-changing composition, the solid matter of the city giving way to movement and energy.
This transformation of the city–from matter to motion–could be felt throughout this period, perhaps due to the very nature of moving pictures. It was certainly made obvious in the filmmakers' close attention to the multiple forms of transportation the city offered–and often pioneered–around the turn of the century: in films of trolley trips across the Brooklyn Bridge, in a view that followed the precarious curve of elevated tracks from a moving train high above 104th Street, or in one remarkable film in which a camera carried the audience along the entire journey from 14th Street to Grand Central, through the dark tunnels and freshly built stations of the just-completed IRT subway. Less obviously, motion could mean change over time as well as space. The early filmmakers were absorbed with the processes of construction: their cameras descended repeatedly into the city's big excavation sites to watch workers cutting down to the bedrock for the footings of a new skyscraper or Pennsylvania Station. They even looked to the underside of progress, in an unusual film that recorded the demolition of the old Star Theatre through an innovative time-lapse process, compressing its weeks-long razing into less than two minutes. The venerable structure's walls and arches seem to disintegrate as if by some strange biological process rather than at the hands of ordinary workmen; by film's end a smooth, empty lot sits where just moments before a big, permanent-looking building stood. A sense of the city's progress through time also informed the many civic ceremonies captured in the actualities, the inaugural moments of bowler-hatted worthies first crossing the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, or, a year later, descending into the new City Hall Station to dedicate
New York's first subway. Even Edwin Porter's strange fondness for dumping wharves and incinerating plants revealed an understanding of the city as a vast web of systems and processes, always in motion around us, even when hidden from view.
But the greatest such transformation came near the end of the period, in an Edison film by Porter called Coney Island at Night. The great amusement resort had been a popular subject from the start, of course, its diverse attractions (diving horses, hippodrome races, elephants "shooting the chutes") portrayed in dozens of actualities that, like nearly all early films, had been shot by daylight. But now the sensitivity of the Eastman Company's film stock had improved and Porter was eager to show off its possibilities. Over a June weekend in 1905, he returned to Coney Island to shoot the dazzling night display that gave the resort its worldwide reputation as the "Electric Eden." He came away with something unlike any New York actuality ever made.
As the film starts, there is nothing, only blackness. Then lights start to emerge–gently at first, soon in a rush–until an entire city of lights arises out of the night air. The name "Dreamland" floats on the dark screen. A sign for Steeplechase tilts crazily from one side to another. Luna Park's arches and domes call to mind an electric Florence, a crashing overflow of light focused on a glowing tower at the center. The magical intent of Coney Island is here perfectly fulfilled: to create an immanent, ethereal world of light and sensation, precursor to Times Square's giant displays. But more so than at Times Square, Coney Island's nighttime landscape complements the plaster architecture of day: not rectangular signboards propped above modest, boxy, commercial buildings, but a delicate tracery of bulbs, draped like glittering necklaces over the romantic structures of a shimmering fairyland.
Through the same blunt, unmediated technique that had recorded the ordinary life of the city, Porter had created a dreamy urban vision in which matter had been utterly dissolved into energy and movement. He had pushed filmic New York toward a sense of magical possibility, as different as imaginable from the mundane, grounded-in-reality approach with which the actualities began. In the near term, ironically, his vision led nowhere. It would be a quarter-century before its implications could be pursued, in a place thousands of miles away that did not yet even exist. For now, New York films would return to earth–had, indeed, already begun to return to earth, through the simple, human themes of the first story films, using the narrative technique of parallel action invented in 1902 by none other than Edwin S. Porter himself. With the rise of these new story films, the urban prologue of the actualities would soon be over, like the audience's brief view of the scenery before the actors enter at the start of a play. We had seen New York. Now it was time to meet the New Yorkers.
New York Stories
From the start, simple films of stage acts and vaudeville routines had complemented the showing of actualities. Searching for a convenient place to make these films, the early companies, located mostly in high-rise loft buildings, looked at first upstairs, to their roofs, where ample sunlight could assure a proper exposure. A primitive, if striking, rooftop stage was erected by Biograph above its 13th Street building; in late 1896, American commercial film production started in this unlikely venue, a rotating platform high above Broadway.
But the obvious limits of space and scenery soon pushed filmmakers to explore other options. One of the first, not surprisingly, was to take a leaf from the actualities and shoot films on the streets themselves. Here they would find the same advantages of convenience and daylight and the rich urban landscape that the actualities had enjoyed, along with a not-undesirable ambiguity about the "reality" of the events they portrayed. An early story film like What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City (1901) sought deliberately to confuse reality and invention. Its title has the familiar deadpan quality of an actuality, as does its opening view of a man and woman walking down a busy Manhattan sidewalk (23). It is revealed as a staged affair only when the woman lingers atop a sidewalk vent, which–to the delight of her male companion–lifts her skirt and exposes her stockinged legs. Even then, the real city setting continued to offer an invaluable sense of verisimilitude, through the gaping looks of passersby, clearly not actors but ordinary New Yorkers who happened into camera range and were caught staring at this provocative sidewalk moment.
Let loose on the streets, the cameramen discovered possibilities that could never be entertained on a stage set, no matter how big. New York's sprawling urban landscape proved ideal for a new kind of inherently filmic activity–the chase–and soon, story films were being written specifically to initiate sequences that rambled across the city, with cops chasing crooks all over town, for example, in a 1905 film titled The Life of an American Policeman. The year before, a Biograph film called Personal had been quickly copied in an Edison film whose own title, How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York
"Herald" Personal Columns, summarized the plot device that situates the aristocratic Alphonse on the forecourt of Grant's Tomb, only to thrust at him one eligible female, then another, and another, until he is deluged by a horde of single New York women chasing him across the broad, newly planted landscape of Riverside Drive.
By the middle of the decade, the story film was clearly the ascendant product of an industry that had firmly established itself as a major new form of urban entertainment. Neither primitive, open-air rooftop stages nor the streets could fulfill the ongoing production needs of these longer, more complex kinds of movies. By 1901, Edison had already created an enclosed, glass-roofed stage on the top floor of 41 East 21st Street. But in 1903 Biograph leaped ahead of its rival by occupying an entire row house at 11 East 14th Street, filling its five stories with the embryonic elements of a full production facility. Banks of long, greenish Cooper-Hewitt lamps lined the walls and ceiling of what was once the house's ballroom and was now the world's first artificially lighted film stage; the basement below and bedrooms above, meanwhile, had been given over to the component parts of the newly emerging industry: wardrobe, editing, set construction, shipping. Here Biograph's filmmakers, including a young director named D. W. Griffith, could expand the length and ambition of the new narrative films.
While spacious compared to before, conditions were still distinctly cramped. In response, Biograph hit upon a formula for making New York story films that would echo down to today, when productions shot in the city still worry about insufficient stage space. Biograph's new generation of New York films would combine the best use of interior stages with outdoor location work. Shot indoors would be scenes that focused on character and advanced the story line; shot outside, on the real streets of the city, would be larger scenes of action and spectacle. With their smaller scale, the staged interiors could explore individual motivation, while the expansive, authentic exteriors could at once suggest larger social forces at work and serve to "open up" the film from its interior limitations. It was an emerging New York style of filmmaking, whose mix of stage and location elegantly combined intimacy and grandeur, the personal and the social. The technique would define New York films for the coming two decades, then vanish, only to reemerge, in the 1960s and 1970s, when filmmaking returned to the city and to the problem of limited stage space that had haunted Biograph.
The continued popularity of New York actualities, even as their era was coming to a close, must have suggested to Biograph that story films based on similar city themes would do equally well; these could take plausible advantage of exciting location shots but would now add a dramatic context and identifiable characters. So back the cameras went to the city's construction sites, to the steel framework of an office tower (The Skyscrapers, 1906) or the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnel being carved under the Hudson River (The Tunnel Workers, 1906), this time to make films enlarged by melodramatic plots about the men who worked in them (25). Back the cameras went to the Lower East Side's streets, to Italian districts (The Black Hand, 1906) and Jewish ones (Romance of a Jewess, 1908), no longer just glimpsing the inhabitants from afar but now entering into the conflicts of their lives, from the menace of organized crime to the threat of intermarriage. Despite Biograph's best efforts, it would be a long time before the crudely painted interior sets could match the sculptural density and richness of the location backgrounds, and it was indeed the extensive use of locations that gave these films much of their audience appeal. The promotional material for Romance of a Jewess, one of Griffith's early films, did not fail to note that "several scenes are decidedly interesting in the fact that they were actually taken in the thickly settled Hebrew quarters of New York City."
Although outclassing its rivals, Biograph's house on 14th Street was clearly insufficient for the production needs of films that were growing toward feature length. Filmmaking was beginning to require a lot of room–more room, in fact, than could be had economically in Manhattan. Around 1905, all three film companies turned their attention to the edge of the city, to the open lands of the outer boroughs. Here they could afford to purchase large tracts of land, big enough to hold not one but several buildings, each of specialized purpose. Here, in other words, they could build the first studios.
Vitagraph opened its studio on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue in 1905; Edison moved a year later to the Bronx and was joined there by a new Biograph plant a year after that (26). They could all still take advantage of Manhattan's proximity, just a streetcar ride away; but they had come to the important recognition that studio production is at heart a suburban enterprise. Legitimate theater efficiently combines production and presentation in the same building and thus thrives in the heart of town, where audiences gather. But the functional needs of a movie studio and a movie theater are completely different, and, because movies are products that can be easily shipped, have no call to take place in the same location. While dozens of smaller film companies still remained in Manhattan, the need for larger settings would push these, too, outward; many soon moved just across the Hudson, making the sleepy town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, into a major production center from about 1910 to 1919.
But if no longer ideal for film production, New York remained a prime subject, and the new, longer movies meant new possibilities for the movie city. Across its full, ten-reel length, a feature like Traffic in Souls (1913) could offer a panoramic vision of the city to suggest the extent of a then-current social problem: white slavery. Location shooting would give its sensationalized account a sense of immediacy and veracity; the ability to cross-cut among several stories from different parts of the city would allow it to dramatize the diverse nature of the problem: how both female foreign immigrants (arriving at Battery Park) and domestic country girls (arriving at Pennsylvania Station) were lured to the same evil ends (27). And its feature length would allow a sustained view of the city, far beyond the quick glimpses of earlier films. In it, we see the new Pennsylvania Station, rising in its classicism aloof from the ramshackle district around it, pointing the way to a grander city yet to be achieved. We see the newly built blocks of the Upper West Side, thick with the aesthetic cacophony of hundreds of ornamental schemes, on streets nearly devoid of trees. (If they seem an architectural meal almost too rich to bear, it is in part because these blocks are all so new, their mortar joints almost painfully sharp, their stonework so bright and uniform. While their ornament and composition attempt to recall European cities, in very American fashion they have been put up all at once, with no chance yet for them to mellow or soften into a state of urban grace.) And we see the city's outskirts, scattered tenements and row houses arising with open lots still vacant between them. Ornate street facades stand in striking contrast to the bare side walls that will disappear when the block's missing teeth are filled.
In the years before America's entry into World War I, vast changes to the industry were under way. Led by Edison, the older film companies banded together to form a restrictive trust, based on their technology patents, that was intent on squeezing out smaller, unaffiliated companies. But the younger independents, it turned out, could not be chased out of the business–only out of New York. With names like Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, Carl Laemmle, and Louis B. Mayer, this new breed were different from Edison and Porter's generation: mostly Jewish instead of Gentile, mostly showmen and theater owners rather than gadget-oriented inventors. Many had come to moving pictures from New York's garment and fur industries, where predicting next year's trends–and being willing to gamble a big investment to be ready when they arrived–was an essential skill, one that would serve them well in their new line of business. Tired of the legal and sometimes physical harassment of Edison's "patent trust," they boarded trains and headed west, extending their migration well past Fort Lee–all the way, in fact, to the opposite end of the country, to a series of quiet Los Angeles suburbs called Glendale, Edendale, Culver City, and, especially, one called Hollywood.
Here, land to build new studios, and labor to run them, was amazingly cheap; here could be found a wide variety of scenic landscapes, from mountaintop to coastline; here sunlight was endless for shooting outdoors or in glass-roofed stages; and here the Mexican border was close at hand, should the trust ever force them to flee again. The West Coast's film industry grew explosively in the space of a single decade; no more than a tiny rival to New York in 1911, it accounted for four-fifths of all American production by 1920. Yet even before the despised trust was declared illegal in 1915, many of these companies established New York offices, and America's film industry became the two-coast enterprise it would remain for much of the century to come: administrative and financial control remaining firmly in New York while production centered in Southern California.
Meanwhile New York's own film industry enjoyed a wave of growth in the early 1920s, driving a building boom that resulted in four big studios in three years. William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studios on East 127th Street and two new Fox studios on Tenth Avenue in the West Fifties brought major production facilities back to Manhattan; even these, though, were dwarfed by the studio that Famous Players-Lasky, later called Paramount, was erecting in Astoria, Queens: a massive facility known as "The Big House." Opened in 1920, it offered what the New York Times called "the fittings of a palace." Eventually sprawling over fourteen acres and several blocks, the complex contained laboratory buildings and scene docks, a fifty-seat screening room and a publicity department equipped to turn out ten thousand stills a day. Every star had a personal suite of dressing rooms; long black limousines pulled up under a covered entrance more reminiscent of a grand railway station than a film lot. For a few years, the New York industry seemed poised for a comeback: the arrival of electric arc-lamp shooting suddenly made California's glass-roofed stages obsolete, and enclosed stages like those of New York's "sunless temples" were clearly the wave of the future. But lower land and labor costs and the simplicity of set construction and maintenance afforded under California's benign climate continued to confer a decided advantage. As a Goldwyn executive boasted, "We can build big sets in our big lots and leave them standing as long as we please."
Perhaps the Goldwyn man was right, but New York's filmmakers did continue to have one set at their disposal bigger than everything else combined: the city itself. The ability to take advantage of spectacular locations remained an important reason why New York's film industry continued to flourish through the 1920s, though on a scale smaller than Hollywood's.
Location shooting itself had grown far easier. Movie cameras had achieved a mature level of reliability with the rugged, lightweight, hand-cranked Bell & Howell models that were now the industry standard. Film stock had improved to the point where only a few reflectors were needed to ensure a clear and consistent outdoor exposure: no lights–and thus no electrical power–were necessary. And sound equipment, of course, did not yet exist. Shooting on the streets of New York in the silent era was simple and light and relatively cheap.
In the teens and twenties, New Yorkers became blasé about seeing films being made around town; in better weather, several location companies from both New York and Hollywood might be working at once. Indeed, in these years the whole city seemed to lay itself bare to feature filmmaking: tales and photographs of early New York location work carry a try-anything flavor which today seems scarcely believable (28). In one case the city was virtually commandeered by a film company with a financial link to a starstruck municipal official–or so the screenwriter Frank Leon Smith recalled of the making of Into the Net, a 1924 detective film based on a story written by New York’s sitting police commissioner, Richard E. Enright:
When I asked [the film’s producer] what good the Enright tie-up was to us, with some irritation he said: “Well, what do you want?” In desperation I exclaimed: “The Brooklyn Bridge!” To my amazement he asked, “When, and for how long?”
It was as easy as that! The cops roped off the Brooklyn Bridge for us and George Seitz, the director, staged some good fights at mid-day in the middle of the bridge. Chase scenes up and down Manhattan streets became common and ritualized. First Enright’s official car and his personal aide ran interference; second, the car with the villains; third, the car with the heroic element; fourth, the camera car, with the director. Traffic cops had no advance notice. When they saw Enright’s car, they leapt aside, blew their whistles, and along we sped.
An earlier, no less colorful tale had the director Raoul Walsh making the rounds of New York’s dockside saloons and bars to gather gang members and prostitutes to serve as extras for Regeneration, his 1915 film set on the tough streets of the Bowery and Lower East Side. Walsh later recalled to the film historian Kevin Brownlow his impressions of the crowd that assembled before the shoot: “Some of the women were obviously hookers, many of the men looked as though they should have been on Death Row for every crime in the book.” Brownlow also recounts a charming story associated with the making of Traffic in Souls: indignant New Yorkers at the Battery were about to break up the evident abduction of two immigrant girls just off the boat, until someone at the edge of the crowd cried, “Let ’em alone; it’s all right!” Another voice chimed in, “Let ’em alone, it’s the movies!” The good-natured crowd allowed the scuffle to continue, later watching as the would-be “abductors” and “victims” climbed into a waiting car, and, laughing together in the backseat, were whisked up Broadway.
Despite their new scale and ambition–feature-length, with complex story lines and well-developed characters–the location-shot movies of the 1920s continued to draw much of their appeal from the same source of visual excitement that had propelled the earliest actualities: the sheer spectacle of New York’s buildings, streets, and monuments. With a new freedom of movement that allowed the camera to be strapped to the front of cars, hidden in trucks to record the city’s street life without being detected, or placed on construction lifts and carried to the tops of skyscrapers, these films seemed to capture every aspect of the city’s growth in this busy, frenetic era.
It was a time when the fast-moving city moved faster than ever before. A new flood of automobiles, trucks, and electric streetcars was rapidly banishing horse-drawn traffic from the streets and with it the last traces of a slower, gentler pace. What better guide to this accelerating moment than Harold Lloyd, the silent film’s most agile poet? In Speedy (1928), Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift, whose succession of jobs keeps both him and the film in constant motion. As taxi driver for “The Only One Garage,” he carries several fast and frenzied fares–including a hilarious race uptown to ensure that his idol, Babe Ruth (playing himself), makes it to Yankee Stadium in time for a game. Speedy can’t help but tell the Babe–effusively and at length–just how big a fan he is, constantly turning his head back around to do so. Ruth is polite at first, but soon distracted and then terrified by the view through the windshield, the one that Speedy in his enthusiasm can’t be bothered with: his cab wildly careening toward every car and truck it meets on the way uptown. The audience shares the lively action through a point-of-view shot made by a camera mounted to the front of the cab and aimed dead ahead as it whips through New York’s traffic-filled streets.
The same technique sets into motion the film’s climax, an epic journey that takes Speedy from Times Square to the Battery to preserve New York’s last horse-drawn streetcar (whose franchise happens to belong to his girlfriend’s grandfather). As we plunge headlong into the traffic, cars just ahead of us flying this way and that, we don’t just see a city in motion but actually become part of that motion. We are hardly slowed even when the streetcar crashes head-on into a column of the El–an actual accident that occurred during shooting and was then written into the script. (Speedy keeps going by improvising a temporary wheel from a manhole cover.) Although Speedy wins his battle at film’s end, and the grandfather receives a handsome settlement from a competing company, the old horse loses the war–it is to be replaced anyway. In the future, the city will only move faster than ever.
Films also caught the moment when the city filled with a different kind of newcomer: not the foreign immigrants of earlier decades, but Americans, come from the nation’s heartland to make a name for themselves, crossing the Hudson ferry to take their place among the city’s teeming millions. This was the New York of The Crowd, King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece; like Speedy, it combined scenes shot in Los Angeles with real New York footage, including a rapid montage of city scenes, suggestive of the old actualities but now expressively organized by a master director to capture the excitement and sense of possibility that has drawn Vidor’s everyman, Johnny Sims (James Murray), to the city. Seeking to place Sims within the hurly-burly of New York, Vidor hid his camera (and his cameraman, Henry Sharp) in a rubber-tired pushcart stacked high with boxes; the lens, poking through a small hole, was able to photograph Sims walking among the crowds without their knowledge. Though only a few of these shots were used in the final film, they effectively suggest the gradual reduction of Sims’s dreams as he confronts the inevitable urban reality of a million other dreams, all vying for greatness. At the same time they catch the special feeling of the city in this era when crowds of domestic newcomers, seeking success at all costs, re-Americanized and reenergized the place.
And last, films caught the exact moment when the city found its own distinctive look, achieved through the maturity of its greatest creation, the skyscraper, and recorded exactly as it happened in The Shock Punch (1925). Here the silent camera’s freedom of movement was turned vertically to take us right up the side of an office tower under construction. Richard Dix plays Ronny Savage, who, fresh from the Ivy League, wants to prove his manhood by taking a job on the high steel, despite a certain lack of experience. (“What are you?” the hiring boss asks, “riveter–bucker-up–derrick man–or helper?” “Yes,” Ronny replies.) Because the lightweight camera could follow the action just about anywhere, much of the film lingered in the airy upper precincts of an actual steel skeleton (30). So this film too recalled its predecessors, from the early construction actualities to 1906’s The Skyscrapers–but its longer, more sustained look allowed it to reveal something subtle about the new shape of the city.
At the top of the tower The Shock Punch revels in the beauty of the steel frame, a spare, three-dimensional matrix of black lines against the sky. Following the course of construction, the film shows us that open frame being wrapped in a masonry skin. But this is not just any skin. For its location, The Shock Punch used the 1926 Barclay-Vesey Building, one of the earliest towers in the new “modernistic” style and a landmark in New York’s architectural coming-of-age. In earlier films (such as Little Old New York, 1923) the skyscraping city had clearly been in search of a style. Towers like the 1914 Municipal Building had brilliantly adapted the classical architecture of low-rise buildings, stretching it over the tall frameworks of modern construction. In the largest sense, then, New York was still borrowing its architectural voice from other places and times. With the Barclay-Vesey Building and its later Art Deco partners, the city finally found its own style, a distinctive look that owed little to any other time or place. Because it was shot on location, a film like The Shock Punch could capture the very moment and place of this change–even as it was still happening.
By the late 1920s, New York’s movie industry had perfected its own way of filming the city, a highly descriptive approach based on the ability to shoot extensively on location. Roaming the city with impunity, the silent camera offered a direct, documentary-like portrait of New York, closely attentive to its developing character, from the largest shifts in population and geography to finer-grained changes in its physical appearance. However molded to the expressive needs of story and direction, the city shown in the movies remained a representation of New York’s reality rather than a transformation of it; there remained a kind of one-to-one equivalence between the real city and its filmic counterpart.
A film like Paramount’s New York (1927), made near the end of this period and noted for its extensive use of locations, makes it easy to imagine how films might have continued over the coming decades to be shot in New York, faithfully tracking the changing look and feel of its streets, its buildings, and its people–all by virtue of being filmed on those streets, amidst those buildings, and among those people (31). It would be a fascinating portrayal, but it would remain exactly that–a portrayal, a celluloid mirror held up to the real city’s growth and change.
Instead, something else was about to happen. Within a few years, the 1920s depiction of New York would be replaced not by another portrayal but by something else entirely: a city of the imagination, an invented city suddenly bursting into life as a consequence of two revolutions in film history, and one in history itself. The first and, for movie New York, most important of these was signaled by nothing more than the scratchy sound of classical music, synchronized to the moving picture of an orchestra playing. Upon that sound, a mythic city waited to be born.