On Location: New York!

King Kong 1933
King Kong 1933

The five boroughs of New York having always been the stuff that movie dreams are made of. The American film industry may have been born across the Hudson River in New Jersey, but quickly moved to Manhattan and by the 1920’s, the city was buzzing with studios producing silent films. Then in 1926, Hollywood sprung up virtually overnight in the California desert and sucked the industry west. In less than two years, film production dropped nearly 60%. When tinsel town made the full conversion to ‘talkies’ in 1932 it vacuumed up the rest of the business, along with hundreds of Broadway-based New York writers, administering a last, mortal blow the city’s film industry.

Dead End Kids set, 1938. All Hollywood
Dead End Kids set, 1938. All Hollywood

Those writers, collecting fat paycheques in the California desert became homesick for the cafes, lights and glamour of Manhattan and set many of their films ‘back home.’ Hollywood’s answer to the missing skyscrapers was sets. At its peak, the studios had more than twenty standing sets recreating entire New York neighbourhoods, most notably Paramount’s five-acre ‘city’ including Fifth Avenue, Beekman Place, the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and Soho.

As a result, many classic “New York” films such as King Kong, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and almost all of Humphrey Bogart’s early films with the Dead End Kids were shot entirely in Hollywood. When Samuel Goldwyn showed up on the set of Dead End, he became enraged that the set designer had littered the rundown buildings with rubbish and ordered it cleaned up, yelling, “There won’t be any dirty slums in a Goldwyn Picture.” Even Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, was shot in California with location shots added for authenticity.

Until the 1970’s, virtually all moviegoers saw was an idealised vision of New York ‘City’.

How to Marry a  Millionaire, 1953
How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953

Of course there were some notable exceptions. Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 dazzler, How to Marry a Millionaire was shot in a Sutton Placeapartment and glimmers with the lustre of old New York money. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) stunned moviegoers with a wretched, filthy city bereft of glamour; and Marlon Brando’s tortured cry, “I coulda been a contenda!” evoked a desperation that still echoes.  In 1961, audiences got a taste of the ritzy East Side with Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, falling in love with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly; and on the other side of town, a glimpse into the city’s racial problems with Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story.

Midnight Cowboy, 1969
Midnight Cowboy, 1969

While these films captured a sense of the city that could not be duplicated on a back lot, they retained many standard Hollywood production values, a gloss that separated the ‘real’ New York from its widescreen counterpart. Then in 1969, John Schlesinger’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy exposed an out of control urban jungle where a sickly indigent cripple, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and displaced Texas gigolo, Joe Buck (John Voight), struggle to survive in a rat-infested tenement. LA born Hoffman spat the ultimate NY line, “Hey! I’m walkin’ heah!” The film had an almost documentary quality, gritty and dark, its characters too lifelike to dismiss. Midnight Cowboy took Best Picture that year and New York shrugged off the Hollywood sheen.

Annie Hall, 1977
Annie Hall, 1977

While Schlesinger never made another New York film, the city brought forth three young filmmakers of its own who wrestled their hometown back from the celluloid imagination and ushered in a revolution; Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. What these three knew was that a New York film has nothing to do with a beauty shot of the Statue of Liberty. It’s when the traffic and the rhythm of the subway beat in the script and the grime and glitter of the streets are the real leading lady. And she had two favourite co-stars, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. Separately and together, these five defined the 70’s New York movie.

Serpico, 1972
Serpico, 1973

The 70’s were tough times for New York. The city was financially bankrupt. With the explosion in heroin and cocaine traffic, violent crime escalated out of control. The South Bronx became a burned out, bombed out war-zone. Feminism, gay rights, disco, the punk scene, Son of Sam, racial tension, the advent of the Yuppie… It was a city under siege; and Allen, Coppola and Scorsese, along with Sidney Lumet, opened their lenses and got it all down on film: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, The Godfather I & II, Manhattan, Network, Cruising, to name a few. In the eighties they were joined by Spike Lee who set his films in black neighbourhoods and raised the real issues faced by minorities in the land of plenty with She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.

She's Gotta Have It, 1986
She's Gotta Have It, 1986

And the more they filmed, the more Hollywood sent production teams back east. In the early 70’s there were only a handful of films shot in New York each year, by the end of the decade, it was more than fifty. That number tripled by the end of the eighties and doubled again by 2000. These days a visitor can’t help stumbling across a film set. I was there last July, strolling through Greenwich Village on a hot summer night. Turned a corner to find mountains of ‘snow’ on the sidewalk and piled up in front of a grocery; a half dozen actors ‘freezing’ in heavy winter coats while the rest of the crew sweated in shorts and jandals. That ain’t Hollywood. It’s all New York.


200 Cigarettes (1999), Risa Bramon Garcia
25th Hour (2002), Spike Lee
Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen
Basquiat (1996) Julian Schnabel
Cotton Club (1984), Francis Ford Coppola
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Susan Seidelman

Desperately Seeking Susan,
Desperately Seeking Susan1985,
Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee
Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Sidney Lumet
Fame (1980), Alan Parker
Godfather I & II (1972 & 1974), Francis Ford Coppola
Goodfellas (1990), Martin Scorsese
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Jean Negulesc
In America (2003), Jim Sheridan
King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese
Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen
Midnight Cowboy (1969), John Schlesinger
Network (1976), Sidney Lumet
On the Waterfront (1954), Elia Kazan

Requiem for a Dream, 2000
Requiem for a Dream, 2000
Requiem for a Dream (2000), Darren Aronofsky
Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Badham
Serpico (1973), Sidney Lumet
Shaft (1971) Gordon Parks
She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Spike Lee
Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese
West Side Story (1961), Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise

Thanks to Randolph Mase for inspiring me to dig this out!


Published by Titirangi Storyteller

Telling tales from around the world

2 thoughts on “On Location: New York!

  1. Great write-up, Veronica! It’s good to hear about the return of moviemaking to New York. I also liked your top 25 list, but I would have added/substituted some, such as King Kong, Miracle on 34th Street, On The Town, An Affair to Remember, The French Connection, and Big. I’m glad I inspired you to post this, and keep it coming…I love reading it!

    Randolph Mase, Fiction Writer

    My Novels:
    Death on Broadway
    Death Beneath the Streets
    Death in Central Park
    Death in The Cloisters (under construction)
    Nathan Hale


    1. Thanks, Randall

      Yeah – that list was tough to come up with and I did it keeping the magazine’s readership in mind… I wrote the piece back in 2004.
      I love movies. I love New York… I love New York movies…



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