“It’s the nearest thing to Heaven we have in New York.” Irene Dunne says to Charles Boyer in the 1939 film Love Affair. And for many years that was true. The Empire State Building’s place in history is secure, even though it is now the 26th tallest building in the world. It did hold the record for world’s tallest, longer than any building, from 1930 – 1972. May 1st marks the 85th anniversary of its opening.
For a comprehensive history of the building, here are a couple of good links:
or check out John Tauranac’s excellent book, The Empire State Building the Making of a Legend.
Built on the site of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (1893 & 1897-1929) at 5th Avenue and 34th Street. The Waldorf closed in May of 1929 and demolition began on October 3, 1929. By March, 1930 the hotel was completely gone and construction of the Empire State Building began.
Designed by William F. Lamb of the firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the original plan was for a 1000 foot, 80 story building. Soon those plans were changed to 85 stories at 1050 feet. Conceived during the skyscraper race of the 1920’s the architects, the financial backers and former Governor of New York, Al Smith (President of the Empire State Building Company) were aware of the competition between the Chrysler and the Manhattan Company Buildings to construct the tallest tower in the world. When the Chrysler Building added its spire and topped out at 1,046 feet, the four feet difference between the Chrysler and Empire State didn’t seem so great. John J. Raskob, the main financial backer of the Empire State, held up a pencil and said the building “needed at hat”. The architects dreamed up the idea of constructing a mooring mast for zeppelins. This added 200 feet to the building and unlike the Chrysler Building’s spire was “useable” space. Docking a zeppelin at a mast 100 feet high is challenging, at 1,250 feet it is impossible. The management of the Empire State Building knew this before the building was completed and the necessary winches and counter weights for mooring were never installed. But it did give the building the extra height and a lot of publicity.
Once construction started, the Empire State Building shot up into the skyline incredibly fast.
In the spring of 1930 the Empire State Building started rising above its neighbors.
From summer to the end of 1930 it rose to become the tallest building in the world.
Ready for occupancy!
The Building entered into the public consciousness so fast that within a year of its completion it was appearing in movies. This article will highlight some of the 1930’s films in which the Empire State Building appeared.
Let’s start with the most famous film to feature the Empire State Building.
King Kong (RKO Radio Pictures) directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack and starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot opened in March, 1933. An enormous hit, the film helped to save the bankrupt RKO. Of course the Empire State Building does not appear until the last 10 minutes of the film, but it makes for a terrific climax. No footage was taken in New York, so all the shots of the building are sets created at the RKO Pathe studio in Culver City, California. The first appearance of the building is this long shot of Kong climbing its western facade. It is a clever composite, part miniature, part painted on glass, combined with rear projection.
The above shot is a set of the 5th Street entrance to the Empire State Building. It shows the original door design of aluminum framed by black granite. Probably when the lobby was modernized in 1963 the metal work of the doors were covered over by black granite to match the frame around them. Which is too bad as the original was more interesting than the 1960’s “improvement”.
Counsellor At Law (Universal, 1933) starring John Barrymore and directed by William Wyler was adapted for the screen by Elmer Rice from his 1931 play of the same name. Barrymore gives a great performance as the Jewish lawyer who works his way up from the slums and becomes so successful he can have offices in the Empire State Building.
After the opening establishing shot, no actual footage of the building was used. None of the sets for the film represent the actual look of the interior of the Empire State. But the set design is very nice and very moderne.
The private office of George Simon (John Barrymore) is spectacular, with great furniture, a modernistic chandelier, and which would fit nowhere in the actual Empire State Building. Even the buildings seen through his window are not located anywhere near 5th Avenue and 34th Street. But this is Hollywood and one should forgive liberties taken with reality if the effect is as good as this.
After Tomorrow (Fox Film Corp., 1932), starring Charles Farrell and Marian Nixon, directed by Frank Borzage was in production from December, 1931 – January, 1932 and opened in March of 1932. This might have been the first feature film to use the Empire State Building as a set piece. Of course, like most Hollywood films of this period, no footage was taken inside the building, but in this case the interiors of the Empire State Building were re-created at the Fox Movietone studio in Beverly Hills, California. Marian Nixon’s character is an employee of the tea room that used to be on the 86th floor, just inside of the observation terrace. The tea room was planned to be the customs office for passengers arriving on transatlantic airships, but was converted into a restaurant for visitors when the zeppelin idea was deemed as not practical. For the first two and half years no liquor was served in the tea room due to prohibition, that changed after repeal.
Marian Nixon’s character takes a break with her fiancé played by Charles Farrell, they enjoy a sandwich in the 102nd floor observatory.
Skyscraper Souls (Cosmopolitan-M.G.M.) does not take place in the Empire State Building. The film uses it as a benchmark comparison for the fictitious Dwight Building. The only time the Empire State is seen is in a few of really fake looking establishing shots.
Leo McCarey’s first version of this story, Love Affair (RKO Radio Pictures, 1939) as you have read above stars Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. The couple meet on board ship and fall in love even though they are both engaged to others. They decided to break off their engagements and if they still feel the same way about each other, meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building.
As was the case with King Kong, the actors in Love Affair were over three thousand miles away from New York. The shot below is a set at RKO with actors running in front of rear projection footage of the intersection of 34th Street and 5th Avenue. In the rear projection footage is the sign for the Longchamps restaurant that opened on the ground floor and basement of the Empire State Building in 1938.
The only interior set of the building was the 102nd floor observatory, where Charles Boyer is waiting for Irene Dunne.
By far the most obscure film in the post has to be Manhattan Tower (Remington Pictures, 1932) directed by Frank R. Strayer, it stars Mary Brian, Irene Rich and James Hall. I have not see all of the movie, but it is not bad, considering that it only had a budget of $50,000 ($869,100 in 2016). The most interesting fact of the film is that Remington Pictures was created by New York real estate tycoon A. E. Lefcourt. Lefcourt had started as a newsboy and boot black and eventually work his way up in the business world, that by the end of the 1920’s he owned a number buildings in midtown Manhattan and a couple in other cities. After losing most of his fortune with the stock market crash and the ensuing depression, he formed Remington Pictures Corporation. Remington was an independent company that was planning to make 12 feature films in its first year of business, to be released on the states rights circuit. The stress of his financial troubles caught up with Lefcourt. After the completion of Manhattan Tower, but before being released, A. E. Lefcourt died suddenly of a heart attack on November 13, 1932. Remington Pictures also died with Lefcourt and Manhattan Tower was the only film made by the company.
Manhattan Tower is a low-budget Grand Hotel (M.G.M., 1932), that takes place in a fictitious skyscraper that looks just like the Empire State Building. The movie uses a lot of stock footage shots and the lobby set is not so loosely based on the Empire State’s lobby, even down to a replica of the metal bas-relief of the building on the end wall.
Later on in the film establishing stock footage shots of the real 86th floor observation terrace cut to a Hollywood set the outdoor observation.
Below is the closing shots of Manhattan Tower. It is footage taken of the Empire State Building from twilight to night and I think it is a fitting end to this post.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)
If you enjoyed this post here are some previous posts about Art Deco buildings –
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