Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Welcome home to New York, Raymond. Why thank you. I'm here for a couple of weeks on a variety of things: the cast/crew screening of "City Island", interviews for my new documentary on the history of Cabaret, getting a workshop production together of a musical we wrote based on my film "Two Family House"...
But let's forget these mundane matters and focus on the issue at hand: a fascinating and mysterious bit of film that turned up on youtube, showing various glimpses of New York street life--and views of the skyline--from the 1930's. What makes it particularly interesting is that these are clearly home movies--amateur views caught by a tourist (or perhaps a native who was simply a camera buff). Thus there is something verite--something very of the moment--in these off-the-cuff views of daily New York life, circa late 1930's. (The video is misleadingly titled "New York 1930"; from the look of the clothes and cars it is at least the late 1930's or even possibly the early 40's).
The film clips begin with some skyline views of the city. From the position of the Chrysler Building in the opening shot (with the East River in view behind it) I surmise we are on top of 30 Rock (yes the TV show had a presence in our culture even then--albeit as a semi-new skyscraper with killer views from the top floor). We are thus looking southeast from the terrace and the opening pan treats us to a brief glimpse of the downtown (south) view. At 36 seconds, we cut to a fine northern view of Central Park. When the camera pans downward, we catch a glimpse of the art deco railings that still adorn the roof deck of 30 Rock.
At 1:10 we are treated to views of Park Avenue, shot from a window on I would say, oh, the tenth floor. My guess is that the tourist operating the camera was staying at the Waldorf Astoria and that these views--shot from their hotel room window no doubt--are looking west toward 50th street. (Though perhaps they're further uptown at the Beekman or the Ritz? If I had world and time enough I'd go and figure this out...but I'll leave that, hopefully, for another blogger.) The pan that occurs at 1:33 shows us the vanished Savoy Plaza (inspiration of "Stompin' At The Savoy")--it's the first tower you see before the pan moves eastward on to the Pierre Hotel and the Sherry Netherland, both still standing. The Savoy became the hideous General Motors building in the early sixties.
And then our shooter takes a trip downtown. At the two minute mark we see an elevated train (oh those vexing El trains, all now gone from Manhatten proper..what a different feel they gave the city's streets and canyons!) The sign for Houston Coal at 2:25 (and the view of the super wide street that looks like Houston Street) suggests that we are at...Houston Street and that the El trains are at downtown Manhattan locations. There are some tough looking customers wandering around too--those were the days when you didn't see the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and "Mr. Big" wandering around the streets of Soho. By 3:45, our shooter has wandered southeast to Chinatown--which looks absolutely unchanged from its present appearence to my eye. Dig all the Chinese lettering on the store fronts and signs--except for the one bold sign that proclaims "LIQUOR STORE".
What I love about this footage is inherent in its limitations; the jittery camera work, the frustrating framings and the lack of coherence in where we are and why (and don't forget the mute sound--thankfully the youtuber who posted this didn't stick some period song behind it) give it a feeling of truth that is missing from the more formal "stock footage" taken at the time (often shot by professionals for film banks) that you often run across. Unanswered questions: who was the cameraman? What kind of camera? What else did he/she/they do on this trip to New York? How often did they show off this reel of film which, one assumes, was made to proclaim to others back home the veracity of their trip to the big city? We'll never know. Or we might--if the person who posted this fascinating piece of archeology ever responds to my e-mail.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 3:03 PM