Filming Around New York City In The 1940s
During Hollywood’s golden years from the 1930s through the early 1950s there were many films set in New York City, but the vast majority were made on the studio lots in southern California. Almost every studio had their own New York set which would convey “the Big Apple.”
The reasons for doing so were obvious; the costs of actually sending the cast and crew on location to film would be cost prohibitive and complete control could be exercised in the studio for crowd control, noise, lighting and other technical issues.
Occasionally films would use stock footage of New York or a second unit directing team would be sent to capture a New York scene or two to be used as establishing shots showing the audience, yes this is New York. Usually though none of the principal characters in the film were ever actually in New York, but back in Hollywood, playing against what is called a “process shot” a background screen showing New York footage usually while the actors were walking or driving.
So when the cast and crew actually did any filming in New York it was a rare treat, especially looking back today at the much changed metropolis.
Here are ten of the best 1940s films where a part of the movie was actually filmed on location in New York City.
Saboteur (1942) This cross-sountry chase of one man falsely accused of sabotage pursuing the real saboteur winds up in New York. Director Alfred Hitchcock had his second unit shoot footage in the city that shows New York in the midst of World War II. We see Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, the waterfront and other familiar city sights. A masterpiece of storytelling the film moves at a smooth pace as you bite your nails watching. Spoiler alert: Sinister character actor Norman Lloyd battles hero Robert Cummings on Bedloe’s Island at The Statue of Liberty in one of the most iconic conclusions to a film ever shot.
The Lost Weekend (1945) Director Billy Wilder takes advantage of New York, shooting many of the exteriors of The Lost Weekend on location. Ray Milland’s portrayal of troubled, alcoholic writer Don Birnam won him an Academy Award for best actor. The film also won Oscars for best picture, best director and best screenplay. There are so many shots of Milland in the city it becomes a game to recognize where the actual locations are. Third Avenue is prominently put on display. The giant street clock Milland passes in one scene is still there today – located on Third Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets. All the mom and pop stores and restaurants along the way are long gone, replaced mostly by chains. P.J Clarke’s on Third Avenue and 55th Street was used in the shooting but many of the interior scenes of the bar were shot back in Hollywood.
The House on 92nd Street (1945) This World War II Nazi spy thriller was told in a documentary style. Many of the scenes were shot around New York using the principal actors at the actual locations. The House on 92nd Street tells what is purported to be the true story of a spy ring trying to steal the secrets of the atomic bomb. It’s a suspenseful film that hold up very well today. Star Lloyd Nolan gives a convincing performance as the FBI agent in charge of breaking the ring. Interestingly the limestone home used for The House on 92nd Street was filmed at a brownstone located at 53 East 93rd Street.
The Clock (1945) While some may find this love story set in New York City corny, it established Judy Garland as a dramatic star and was the first role in which she did not break out into song. The Clock is a visual New York feast, but virtually none of the film was shot in New York, with the exception of some second unit material of exteriors used to identify New York as the setting and integral part of the movie. Even a replica of Penn Station was built at great expense on a Hollywood sound-stage. The plot when viewed today will strike many as completely unrealistic. Soldier Robert Walker is on a 48 hour leave in the strange metropolis, where he meets and of course falls in love with regular working gal Judy Garland. They get separated while spending the day together and then the race against time to find one another in a city of eight million begins.
From there the most helpful New Yorkers you will ever encounter go out of their way to help the star-crossed lovers reunite and bring the story to a touching conclusion. Character actor James Gleason steals the show as milkman Al Henry. By the way, the title The Clock refers to a popular meeting place in New York that is no longer – the clock inside the Hotel Astor on Broadway and 45th Street.
Kiss of Death (1947) The film that made Richard Widmark a star playing the unbalanced, menacing killer Tommy Udo. Victor Mature stars as Nick Bianco a former con trying to go straight. New York is the setting and director Henry Hathaway films in and around the city to tell the gripping story written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. You may recognize the setting of Nick’s home along 14th street in Astoria, Queens (the actual home has since been demolished) or a gun battle which takes place outside of Luigi’s Restaurant on 125th Street in Harlem. There are so many New York exteriors that were used you are sure to be saying to yourself, “Hey isn’t that….”
Miracle On 34th Street (1947) Macy’s department store on 34th Street is the setting for this all-time classic. Is Edmund Gwenn the real Kris Kringle aka Santa Claus? Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) who works at Macy’s special events department and hired Gwenn to play Santa is not convinced. But her young daughter Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) thinks he is Santa. Gwenn ends up in Bellevue and attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) defends Gwenn in court to prove he is not insane. A dated though delightful movie that is still good family entertainment. There were a few scenes shot in New York to give the film an authentic flair but Miracle was mostly shot in Hollywood.
Naked City (1948) Jules Dassin is one of the most underrated directors of all-time and that is a mystery to me. The director of such classics as Rififi, Night and the City, Thieves Highway and Topkapi, used Gotham unlike any other director, shooting Naked City almost entirely on location. Famed New York newspaper photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) had a best selling photo book in 1946 with the title Naked City and there are similarities in the gritty elements of Weegee’s photography and cameraman William H. Daniels’ cinematography. Dassin tells in a taut documentary style, the investigation of a supposed suicide that turns out to be murder, by police detectives played by Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor. The movie is now a time capsule of the city, preserving what real life was like in post World War II New York. An excellent story coupled with the continual use of New York City as part of the plot make this a must see film.
Portrait Of Jennie (1948) Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones star in this love story that transcends time. Central Park and the Cloisters feature prominently as New York City plays an important role in setting the ethereal mood of this great film. Robert Nathan wrote the novel the movie is based upon and it has become his most enduring work. The mystery of a frustrated painter (Joseph Cotten) and the mysterious Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) he meets in Central Park defies genre pigeon-holing. Is it science fiction? Allegory on true love? Time travel? Ghost story? Mental breakdown? Whatever you make of it Portrait of Jennie is an unforgettable film.
On The Town (1949) The first musical ever shot on location. Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly & Jules Munshin are on a sailors 24 hour tour of New York City where they meet three women, played by Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen and Betty Garrett and everyone falls in love. While mostly shot in Hollywood, quite a number of scenes, especially the entire opening sequence with the song New York, New York was shot on location. Even if you don’t particularly like musicals On The Town is a glorious technicolor treat with great songs and an entertaining story.
Side Street (1949) You might swear that this film starring Farley Granger was directed by Alfred Hitchcock but it was handled by the capable Anthony Mann. Financially struggling mailman Joe Norson, (Granger) is tempted to steal and then gets caught in a tangled criminal web as he tries to rectify his momentary lapse of judgment. It’s a roller coaster ride of film noir. Director Mann makes ample use of New York’s streets and the climax chase scenes shot in aerial views of lower Manhattan resemble classic Berenice Abbott photographs of the city.