The Reel Deal


A decade before the symbolism of the World Trade Center doomed it to destruction, architect-author James Sanders began researching the idea of New York in a century of movies. The idea is of a place sizzling with aspiration, genius, power, and greed, and represents both the big chance for the little guy and the godless empire of materialism. Interweaving architectural, social, and film history, Celluloid Skyline creates a compelling portrait of a city in motion, accreting an ever changing aura of myth. Movies, Sanders argues, contributed to the idea of New York—and America—that has made it the object of admiration, envy, or hatred around the world today. As Sanders points out, “New York is dynamic, restless—ideal for the constantly moving images that make up a film. It is a city of action, a place where things happen: perfect for a medium that deals so much better with what is seen than what is thought or imagined. It is a city of powerful imagery, of sharp verticals and rushing horizontals.”

Sanders, who co-wrote with Ken Burns the PBS documentary New York and the companion book New York: An Illustrated History, postulates that the “movie city” is “a place unto itself.” He makes a compelling case, based on hundreds of films, drawings, and black-and-white photos (270 reproduced here) that the real city influenced its mirror image, and in turn, movie New York affected the real city.

Sanders organizes this highly readable tome by chronology and architectural element. In the first section (1896-1945), he takes us from the “actualities,” the earliest documentary shorts, through the advent of talkies to the rise of the studio system in the 1920s. He arranges the middle chunk of the book by where films are set—skyscraper, tenement, penthouse, dock, etc. Finally, he guides us from the postwar decline of the studio system to the flowering of low-budget indies.

It’s easy to amble from cover to cover, or you can skim and stop as your whim takes you. Have a thing for New York’s past? You’ll be riveted by discussions of films like 1903’s At the Foot of the Flatiron. The still reveals long-skirted ladies laughing as they hold onto their hats on the windy 23rd Street corner. Sanders notes the legend that guys hanging out there for a glimpse of ankle would be shooed by a cop: hence the warning “Twenty-Three-Skiddoo.”

The volume is chock-full of historical and technical detail: the addresses of turn-of-the-century film companies, the evolution of cameras and sound, evolving art directors’ techniques and tools. Some of the movie and architecture lore will be familiar to the initiated, but Sanders has unearthed much that is new, particularly the studies of “movie New York,” the permanent sets constructed on Hollywood’s back lots. He shows how they faithfully reproduced New York but intensified it, gilding it or draping it in nightmare gloom.

Drawing on exhaustive scholarship from wide-ranging sources, Sanders’s unique contribution is showing us through an architect’s lens how various social and cinematic developments merge. In films both famous and obscure, for example, he follows how the new skyscrapers came to stand for aspiration and the future while the glass boxes of the ’50s and ’60s became shorthand for alienation and inhumanity. By 1975, in Three Days of the Condor, he notes, the World Trade Center represented the “soulless world” CIA operative Robert Redford must battle.

In dissecting the symbolism of skyscrapers, the author compares the 1933 King Kong to the 1976 remake. The first worked on both literal and symbolic levels, he suggests. As required by 1916 zoning laws, the Empire State rises from its large mass at the ground in a series of steps to its spire, thereby echoing the island mountain, shown in the 1933 film, from which Kong ruled. So his seeking the highest point on Manhattan island and his climb from level to level look credible. In the remake, on the other hand, Sanders asserts, “The sheer, unbroken shape of the World Trade Center’s tower makes his effort seem almost absurd.”

Blending social history with aesthetic analysis, Sanders investigates how movies like Dead End (1937) portrayed the bustling tenement streets as breeding grounds for crime and how this pervasive view helped inspire the postwar slum-clearance projects. Ironically, Sanders notes, after these huge public housing projects eliminated many “bad” streets, moviemakers who once attacked them ignored the lifeless plazas that replaced them and continued filming on city blocks. Movies insistently portrayed the streets as hives of life and entertainment right through the ’60s and the ’70s, when Jane Jacobs hailed the small-scale street as the savior of the city and Woody Allen, at the infancy of the historic-preservation movement, glorified Manhattan’s old landmarks in Annie Hall and Manhattan.

Clearly a labor of love, Celluloid Skyline helps you see both the city and the movies anew—who hasn’t found a renewed love for the city’s rooftop gargoyles and flourishes whose fantastical possibilities Ghostbusters so charmingly exploited? Sanders achieves this with a prose style that ranges from the punchy to the scholarly to the eloquent. At times he winds himself too feverishly in heroic PBS cadences. But if ever there were a time when a little hyperbole in praise of New York could be forgiven, now is that time.