Friday, December 21, 2012

Sentimental Journey: New York Penn Station in Film

As regular Bijou Blog visitors know, for the past six years the Bijou team in collaboration with Festival Films and other fellow travellers in the classic film industry have been seeking a formula for bringing Matinee at the Bijou back to PBS.

We announced last summer that we had at long last found the key and were putting the pieces together for the sequel series. Alas, the process has proven to be slow and tedious and our progress has remained in the development stage.

The encouraging news is that as the year winds down (and after a necessary hiatus in blog posts) behind-the-scenes activity here is flourishing and we're as busy as Grand Central Station. We expect to announce the plans for the series' return at some point in January. Stay tuned ...  

Meanwhile, speaking of Grand Central Station, Bijou film maven and pop culture enthusiast Victoria Balloon got to wondering about classic films that prominently feature New York Penn Station and shares with us  some interesting cinema history.   

Even as they entertained Americans, lifting them out of the Depression or uniting them in the face of war, classic films did something unintentional – they preserved landmarks of 20th century American cities on film.

Once an iconic destination and symbol of the restless pace of America, the soaring glass and steel of New York Penn Station exists now only in film.

In the mid 20th century, there were two common ways to get to New York City: by boat (either a trans-Atlantic cruise or a ferry from New Jersey that gave the traveler a moving view of the Statue of Liberty) or by train. If you came by train, unless you came in from upstate New York or Connecticut, chances are your destination was New York Penn Station.

In the 19th and 20th century America’s railways were networks of privately-owned lines. In 1925 the Pennsylvania Rail Road (PRR) was one of the largest, covering over 10,000 miles. Up until 1910, the New York terminus of the PRR line was at Exchange Place, New Jersey, and travelers took a ferry into Manhattan. But with the invention of electric motors it became possible to bring trains through a tunnel under the East River, and in 1910 the PRR opened their New York Pennsylvania Station.

All told there were nine “Pennsylvania” stations:, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indiana, Newark (Hobart), and New York City. With some expansions and remodeling over the years, most of these Penn Stations are still in use as train and bus terminals. The Newark Penn Station, with its deco-styled hanging lamps and insignia of the Pennsylvania Rail Road in the waiting area, still looks much as it did when it was expanded in 1935 as part of a New Deal project.

The original New York Penn Station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the same firm that designed the original Madison Square Garden and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It covered seven acres, with marble interiors based on the Roman Baths of Caracalla. The high vaulted glass and steel of the tracks and passenger terminal evoked images of London’s Crystal Palace.

Travel to and from Penn Station was so common that there are scores of movies featuring quick shots of Penn Station’s Seventh Avenue entrance, main waiting room, or the stairs that lead down to the tracks.

The four films highlighted here are notable for their more extended scenes of the station and its role in the plot, but as always, Hollywood is filled with illusions—two were filmed on location, but two were actually filmed on sound stages.

When Claudette Colbert decides the only thing she can do to help husband Joel McCrea in his business venture is a quick divorce, she naturally takes the train from Penn Station to Palm Beach, FL. Writer-Director Preston Sturges makes Palm Beach Story (1942) a screwball romp through high-society. Also starring Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee, this film is a Bijou favorite. The shots of the Seventh Avenue entrance are real, but those familiar with Penn Station’s clock can tell at a glance that this Paramount film was done on a soundstage. The gates to the tracks are very well done, but the metal paneling never existed in the station.

During World War II Penn Station saw its heaviest usage as soldiers were moved up the east coast and shipped off to Europe. It was only natural that soldier-on-furlough Robert Walker should meet Judy Garland at Penn Station in The Clock (1945). The shots of the main waiting room and arcade are beautiful—but fake. Filming in Penn Station during the war would have been impossible, so the station sets were recreated as lavishly as only MGM could make them.

However, when Robert Walker returns to Penn Station in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), it’s for the nefarious purpose of describing the perfect murder to Farley Granger. This time, Penn Station is the real deal. Despite Hitchcock’s sequential creativity (a taxi drops Granger off in one of the station's carriageways, but he’s shown going down the steps from the arcade into the main waiting room—implying he came not from the carriageway, but from the Seventh Avenue entrance) the result is excellent footage of all Penn Station’s iconic spaces.

Tom Ewell never would have succumbed to Marilyn Monroe and The Seven Year Itch (1955) if he hadn’t sent his wife and son away to Maine for the summer. Their journey to New England begins in Penn Station, with some of the best color footage of the concourse from the decade before its demise. It had to have been hot under that glass ceiling in the summertime—and it’s worth noting that the new Penn Station isn’t air conditioned, either.

After World War II, with changing demographics and the increase in car and air travel, the railroads fell on hard times. In 1961 New York City planned to demolish the station, and many New Yorkers never would have heard of the project were it not for an essay in the New York Times. Despite protests and pleas, the demolition of Penn Station went forward in 1963, and now Madison Square Garden sits atop the old site with the current Penn Station underneath.

However, it may be that the demolition of Penn saved Grand Central Station by making Americans realize the importance of saving historical architecture. A 1998 restoration in the ceiling of Grand Central revealed, under layers of nicotine and tobacco smoke, an astronomical ceiling mural in gold against a background of blue-green.

Still, the loss of New York Penn rankles many. There has been talk of rebuilding the current Penn Station by replacing Madison Square Garden with towers and turning the Farley Post Office (across Eighth Avenue) into a new train station, but the project is bogged down in red tape and a sagging economy. For now, NY Penn is an underground warren of corridors and half-floors laid out like an airline terminal. Only on film does the ceiling still soar and the light pour in.

Here you can enjoy an inspired homage to Penn Station as reflected in film by artist and curator enthusiast David Galbraith who took the time to assemble a montage of footage from several classic films shot at Penn Station before it was demolished or at studio recreations.

1 comment:

DorianTB said...

Hey Bijou Bob, as a native New Yorker who's been living in NE PA for over a decade, I always enjoy getting opportunities to see my favorite NYC landmarks in my favorite movies as well as in real life. Your wonderfully detailed blog post was great nostalgic fun. Thanks to you, I'll enjoy my occasional jaunts in NYC that much more! Thanks for a fun and fascinating read, and have a great holiday season!