Here the Motion Picture Began: Celluloid Skyline
By James Sanders
The Macy’s department store in Manhattan stretches along the north side of 34th Street, all the way from Sixth Avenue to Seventh Avenue. About halfway along this gigantic façade, behind the black-clad perfume counter salespeople on their smoking break, there’s a small plaque, which reads:
Here the motion picture began.
On the night of April 23, 1896 on this site,
in Koster & Bial’s Music Hall
Thomas A. Edison
With the "Vitascope"
First projected a moving picture.
The plaque was placed, it tells passers-by, by a vague and amorphous sounding group known as "The Motion Picture Industry," and is dated October 4, 1938.
In 1938, The Motion Picture Industry, whatever it was, was firmly ensconced in California, and the legends of the Hollywood studio system and movie stars were already being made. But the fact that the Industry saw fit to dedicate an engraved brass plate on the side of Macy’s makes clear that Hollywood was still aware of its roots in the East.
For the rest of us, there’s Celluloid Skyline—a book by the architect and author James Sanders (who has also contributed to Architectural Record)—to make that argument. Sanders is co-author of Ric Burns’s recent PBS documentary on New York City, so he knows the town pretty well. Much of what Sanders has to say (and this is no criticism) is beyond argument. Movies began in New York, period. Edison worked in New Jersey. The first "actualities" were shot in the city. The movie studios started there. The technology and the talent both existed on the East Coast, and it took a combination of California’s reliable weather and available space for sound stages (sound stages in New York City were surrounded by too much sound for early, non-directional microphones) to draw production West.
None of that is really arguable, but since it is such an important part of New York’s cinema history, it takes an important place in Celluloid Skyline. It is after the actual production of the talkies moves out of New York that New York’s place in film history becomes interesting. The heads of the big Hollywood studios were New Yorkers originally, and when they moved out to California and started producing pictures that required dialogue, they found their "writers’" talents to be lacking. So they lured the literary lights of New York—Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, John O’Hara, S.J. Perelman, and even Scott Fitzgerald—out West. And what did these New Yorkers know to write about? Well, New York, of course. And New York became the setting used most often for films produced throughout the ’30s. Sanders argues, in addition, that these writers so intensely disliked southern California that the mythic New York they created on screen was even more New York-y than New York—the antithesis of everything they hated about Los Angeles. Where Los Angeles spread, movie New York rose. When Los Angeles slept, movie New York teemed with nightlife.
With the origins of this mythic New York established, Sanders proceeds to go into some detail about the studio system, and how it systematically created semi-permanent backlot sets of New York streets. How it rigorously documented subways and streetlights. How it riffed on the idea of New York to come up with the cities in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Tim Burton’s Batman. And Sanders does a thorough job of running through the New York movies, both the classics and the lesser-knowns, the Manhattan-centric and the outer-borough tales. And he even pauses now and then—as a Manhattan architect is prone to do—for social commentary, like when he comments on the real-life removal of New York’s old distinctive subway entrance kiosks, only a few of which remain.
Sanders knows his film as well as he knows his architecture—his dissection of Hitchcock’s Rear Window actually adds something to the discourse surrounding that movie—but it’s his architectural viewpoint that brings something new to the table. How many film critics would pick up on the contrast between the uniform street wall that can be seen through the alley across from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window, and the decidedly more variegated private space that forms most of the courtyard he looks out on? Maybe a few, but not many who would know consciously what the different housing types represent.
Celluloid Skyline is thorough and engrossing and beautifully designed. It’s no substitute for actually going to the movies, or wandering around the city, but it’s nice to have around, should you happen to be laid up in your apartment with a broken leg after an overly-adventurous photo shoot on a racetrack.