In this silent film, a runaway orphan forms a partnership with a junk dealer on the Lower East Side and helps him make his fortune, while also curing him of his loneliness. The film stars an 11-year-old Jackie Coogan, who shares the screen with the underrated Jewish comic actor Max Davidson and a horse named ‘Dynamite.’ It was was one of the first feature-length films to shoot extensively on the streets of New York. Surprisingly, “The Rag Man” is not very well-known today —even among film historians— despite the fact it starred little Jackie, one of Hollywood’s biggest child actors of the time.
Kelly Cuts Pants
Finding this location was a fairly simple task, since the shot of the streetcar features the characteristic substructure of the Riverside Drive Viaduct. And if we were under the viaduct, that meant we were on 12th Avenue. I then went to Google Street View and began examining the images starting at the south end of the viaduct, and almost immediately found a matching building at no. 2284. I’m actually kinda lucky the building is still around (most likely because it houses the popular Fairway Supermarket), since a lot of the original buildings along 12th Ave have been demolished. So, by using this extant building as a marker, I was able to determine the streetcar was on 125th Street.
Assuming the shot of Kelly laying down his pants was nearby, I quickly gleaned the location, based on the slight hill seen in the background on the left. I knew that there was a street at the end of 12th Ave that went up a hill and connected with Riverside Drive above, so once I pinpointed that street, I was able to deduce that the pants were placed on St. Clair. This spot makes geographical sense because you can see in the previous shot that the streetcar tracks start to curve to the east one block south of 125th Street.
As a side note, identifying scenes that take place under the viaduct has become a reasonably simple task. It started back when I figured out the location of the diner from the 1988 film, Punchline. The scene was shot inside what is now Dinosaur BBQ at 125th Street and 12th Avenue, but as soon as the two characters walk outside, the action switches to 125th and Broadway underneath the IRT. This little bit of movie magic tricked me at first because both spots have viaducts, and I spent several hours studying all the buildings along Broadway to try to find the one the diner was in. It wasn’t until I noticed that the posts and girders on the viaduct didn’t match from one shot to the other that I figured out the diner was back on nearby 12th Avenue.
Because Punchline was one of my early film location projects, I felt particularly special at the time for cracking this tiny mystery, and ever since then, I’ve felt a sort of kinship with anything that takes place under the Riverside Drive Viaduct.
Erected in 1900, the viaduct, which carries Riverside Drive 80 feet above Twelfth Avenue (called Manhattan Avenue at the time), was considered to be a great feat of engineering, but also had its share of critics. An 1897 article in the New York Times voiced its concern, suggesting that the proposed viaduct could cause a “grievous and irreparable” injury to the city:
The public hearing given by the Board of Street Openings and Improvements yesterday developed vigorous and righteous opposition to the plans of the Department of Public Works for the extension of Riverside Drive across the Manhattan Valley. The plan is just the sort of scheme the public would expect from the official who proposed to convert the lower end of Central Park into a desert of asphalt.
What New York has a right to expect is a substantial and dignified structure which shall be worth looking at on its own account, and which shall not disfigure the drive, the great monument that is already built, or any others that may be built hereafter.
Unless and until we can afford to do this work in a fitting way, we cannot afford to do it at all. The notion of throwing across the valley, north of Grant’s tomb, another such unsightly lattice-work as now skirts the northwest corner of Central Park should not be thought of for a moment.
Opinions like these most likely influenced the designers to focus on both form and function when conceiving the Riverside Drive Viaduct, making it more than a utilitarian structure, but something that could be considered artistic.
Criticisms aside, the use of steel in the viaduct’s construction was unique for the time —as similar elevated structures in the past relied more heavily on stone and iron— and upon its completion, it was considered a success in engineering.
And yet, as advanced as the design was in 1900, by the mid-1980’s, all the elements —pigeons, salt, pollutants and corrosives in the air— took their toll on the viaduct and the state ended up spending millions replacing most of the girders, crossbeams, and lattice work.
Today, the Riverside Drive Viaduct comprises of almost entirely new parts, but remains a symbol of America’s late 19th-century “City Beautiful” movement, where urban planners tried to emphasize the beautification and monumental grandeur of large cities. Whenever I bike across this elevated highway, I’m amazed how little traffic there usually is, considering that it’s a much more pleasant and picturesque way to travel on the Upper West Side.
Kelly and Ginsberg Meet
Finding the location of the final shot from this sequence was pretty easy, due to the 59th Street Bridge being in the background. It didn’t take long to conclude that the action took place on Sutton Place a block or two south of 59th Street. Sadly, almost every building on Sutton has been replaced since 1925, with one delightful exception — the one block of Federal style buildings that just so happens to appear in the film.
However, what’s sort of funny/tragic is the time I spent looking for another location associated with this sequence. Prior to this shot by the 59th Street Bridge, there’s a scene where the two characters first meet. After kicking young Kelly out of his carriage, Max Ginsberg unknowingly drops his purse before driving away. Kelly grabs it and chases after him to return the cash.
Since I was aware that an earlier scene from this sequence took place on the other side of town (see “Kelly Cuts Pants” above), I knew the filmmakers weren’t adhering to strict geographical accuracy, and therefore, I was prepared to search for a completely new and separate location. Naturally, I first needed to investigate the Sutton Place area near the 59th Street Bridge which was already identified. The wide shot of Kelly chasing down the carriage had a landscape similar to Sutton —namely, a street with a slight decline that appeared to dead-end at an open body of water— but it could be at any number of other locations.
The one clue I had to go on was the Burns Bros Coal building seen in the background. The signage on the outside read “50 Church Street,” but since the building was clearly not on Church (which was an inland street in an already built-up neighborhood), it could be assumed that it was simply a notice of their flagship location. (Later research would confirm 50 Church was indeed the location of their main offices.) But I was also worried that it could simply be a rented-out ad space, and the building itself had nothing to do with the coal company. (I had already encountered this issue when researching a location for 1950’s “Side Street,” where I assumed a building baring a large sign for “Fisher Canvas Supplies” was the store itself, when in fact, it was a billboard that was completely unassociated with the location.) But since Burns Bros Coal was the only obvious landmark to work from, I had to start there.
Knowing this would be a daunting task, I enlisted the help of Blakeslee with this project. About a day later, he discovered that Burns Bros had a yard on W 135th Street near the Hudson River. This gave me a glimmer of hope, since it was only a few blocks away from the location of “Kelly Cuts Pants” scene. However, after looking at vintage photos from the area, it was becoming clear that the coal yard on W 135th Street couldn’t be the same one from the scene. If it was actually filmed up along the Hudson River near 135th, the West Harlem viaduct would have been visible in several of the shots, but it’s completely absent after Kelly gets into Max’s carriage.
So, we continued researching Burns Bros Coal and looking through hundreds of vintage photos along the East and Hudson Rivers. During this search, I would occasionally come across a thumbnail picture that featured a structure with COAL written on it, which would give me a momentary jolt of excitement. But after expanding the photo to full-view, it would never end up being the one in the film. (It didn’t occur to me at the time how commonplace coal companies were back in the early 20th century, much like the Citibank is today.) Anyway, this went on for a week or so — perusing old photos and trying to find any references to “Burns Bros” online.
Whenever researching a location, you can’t help but stumble upon interesting tidbits about old New York along the way. For example, I discovered that supposedly George Burns (born Nathan Birnbaum) got his stage name from the Burns Bros Coal Company.
As the story goes, while growing up on the Lower East Side, he and his brother would steal pieces of coal off of the Burn Bros trucks as they went through their neighborhood and stuff them in their pockets. When they returned home, neighbors would jokingly call them “the Burns Brothers” — a moniker George would later adopt when getting into show business. This is one of the those rare Hollywood stage-name origin-stories that actually rings true, but it still could’ve just been apocryphal publicity.
As interesting as the George Burns/Burns Bros connection was, it didn’t get me any closer to finding the film location. So, after a couple weeks of no luck, I finally decided to go to the 42nd Street Library and look up “Burns Bros Coal” in the 1924-25 Manhattan phone directory, hoping it would offer some aid to our search.
Earlier, Blakeslee had found an abridged list of Burn Bros locations online, but the phone directory definitely had several more locations, many of which were on a river. But after investigating all the addresses, we concluded none of them were the one from in the film. So once again, we were back to square one.
Right around this time, we were starting to become disillusioned that we’d ever be able to find this location, especially since we knew that most of the buildings that were in a waterfront area in 1925 would probably be long-gone today. But the one last thing that intrigued us about the scene was a somewhat unique-looking structure that was located behind the coal building, which I assumed was a pier that extended into the water.
Blakeslee had another idea. On a hunch, he did some investigating on the former prison that was located on Roosevelt Island (known as Welfare Island at the time). After a little bit of research, he found a photo of the penitentiary, and it looked like it could be a match.
With this new information in hand, we immediately went to the vintage maps to study the area directly across from Roosevelt/Welfare Island, which turned out to be… Sutton Place! And lo and behold, a 1930 map of that area showed something wonderful:
Yes! At the end of 56th Street, along Sutton Place (called Avenue A at the time) was a building labeled, “Burns Bros Coal Co.” This meant that the scene where Max Ginsberg drops his purse took place at the corner of 56th and Sutton, and the bit where Kelly chases him would have been up along Sutton, ending on the corner of 57th Street near the 59th Street Bridge — the very same spot I identified three weeks prior.
To further confirm this location, I searched a bunch of online digital archives for any photos of that area. Sadly, I still couldn’t find a picture of that Burns building, but I did find a 1928 photo on the NYPL website that featured a sign from Sutton Place Garage that was located across the street. With that, I was certain we found the right place. Turns out, this sequence was completely geographically accurate.
So, the lesson learned is that I should’ve trusted my first instinct and made sure to absolutely exclude Sutton as a possibility before moving on. If I had simply gone to a vintage map, I would’ve seen the building marked “Burns” and three weeks of research could have been saved… although, I might have never found out how George Burns got his name from a coal company.
UPDATE: About a year after posting this entry, the NYC Municipal Archives released all their 1940s tax photos online and I have since found some more evidence to support our findings.
However, even with their treasure-trove of incredible archive images, the Municipal website still didn’t have a photograph of that damn coal building.
Driving Through the Wall Street District
This was probably the easiest location to identify from this movie. Even though the title card says, “The Wall Street District,” I immediately recognized Bowling Green in the background and knew they were at the southern end of Broadway.
Kelly Sells Junk
The first shot in this sequence was easy to find, since a close-up of the street signs is clearly shown. But from there, things got a little tough.
Kelly visits the mansion twice, first in this scene where he buys junk, and later again at the end of the film. Each scene is preceded with a quick establishing shot; the first time with that shot of the carriage at 5th Ave and East 63rd St; the second time with a shot of Kelly exiting a subway at 5th Ave. and East 60th St. (See “Exiting the Subway” below). Therefore, a good place to start was the Upper East Side, somewhere near 5th Ave., especially since the buildings that appear in the wide shot look like the kind you’d find on the east side near the park.
The scene obviously wasn’t taking place on 5th Ave. (otherwise, Central Park would’ve been visible), so I began investigating the next avenue over — Madison. With no legible street signs or store fronts, I hoped I could just get lucky and locate a building in that neighborhood that matched one of ones in the film. After traveling up Madison Ave on Google Street View from the high 50’s to the low 70’s, I couldn’t find any matches. Even though a lot of the buildings in this neighborhood are from the early 20th century, I suspected that the two most distinct buildings from the scene —the mansion Kelly visits and the opulent home across the street— were most likely demolished. They were pretty unique looking, and I probably would have remembered seeing them before if they were still around.
Still assuming we were on Madison, the next step was to search the digital archives for any vintage photos of Madison Ave. in that area. However, after about a week of searching, I came up empty. One problem was that even though websites like the NYPL Archives and the NYC Municipal Archives incredibly have tens of thousands of images in their collections, they’re not exhaustive and contain many gaps. So it was still possible that the scene took place in that area, but there just weren’t any available pictures to verify it.
But then I took a look at something that I noticed before, but didn’t originally pay very much attention to. In the background of the wide shot, as Kelly gets back in his carriage, you can see what looks like a short train traveling along an elevated track. Assuming we were still on the Upper East Side, that would mean that that elevated track was most likely the Third Avenue El. And if that was the case, then that would mean my orientation was off. Instead of looking north on Madison, we’d be looking east towards 3rd Avenue. And from that, I could pretty much surmise that the scene took place at an intersection somewhere on Madison Ave., since Park Ave. would’ve had a telltale median strip down the middle and Lexington Ave. would’ve been too close to 3rd.
By this point, I had brought Blakeslee in on the job. I relayed to him my theories, and he seemed to concur that the scene took place somewhere on the Upper East Side and that the train in the background was most likely the El. So he began his own search to try to find a photo of that rather distinct-looking home across the street from the mansion Kelly visits. However, Blakeslee decided to widened the net, starting his search as low as 34th Street, near the JP Morgan Library.
I thought I should continue my search as well, but instead of focusing on the mansion, I would focus on the taller buildings seen in the background. I figured they might be easier to spot in a vintage photo, and there might be chance they’d still be around. I started looking along Park and Lexington, since the buildings I was looking for were probably about two blocks away. (They looked like they were just west of the Third Avenue El.)
A few days later, I still had no luck, and Blakeslee’s search for the mansion was fruitless as well. But before giving up on the search, Blakeslee decided to try and switch his focus on the taller buildings as well. But he had a different resource. He had recently unearthed a website that had 1924 aerial pictures of Manhattan.
The resolution wasn’t amazing, but it did provide an all-inclusive survey of the area, and apparently in one of the pictures, Blakeslee was able to spot a long shadow that he thought could belong to one of the taller buildings seen in the film. He followed up by checking out Google Street View and discovered that the building at 156 E 79th St (near Lexington) matched the one that appears in background of the wide shot in this scene.
He passed on this info to me and we both concluded the home Kelly visits in the film was on the NW corner of Madison Ave and 79th St. To help confirm this, I searched along 79th Street found that there were plenty of smaller buildings from the film that were still-standing today (see the “before/after” images above to compare). But Blakeslee was still anxious to find a vintage photo featuring either the mansion Kelly visits or the one across the street (the same way I was anxious to find a photo of that Burns Bros Coal warehouse from another scene). Once I knew for sure the location of the scene, I could be a little more meticulous in my online search for vintage photos. And shortly thereafter, I was able to find one photo of the intersection that clearly showed both residences — only it was taken from the opposite direction (looking west towards 5th Avenue and Central Park).
Turns out, both of these extraordinary mansions on Madison Avenue got torn down within months of this film shoot. The tall buildings that sit there today were erected in 1925, right around the same time The Rag Man was being released in movie theaters.
Going in the Subway
This is a location I almost immediately recognized, but ended up second-guessing myself. I was pretty sure the subway kiosk Jackie Coogan entered looked like the one at Astor Place, but I also knew that the kiosk that’s there today is only a replica. In 1925, there used to be many kiosks like the one in this scene throughout the city, so I began to think that it’d be a big coincidence that they just happened to film this scene at the one spot in the city that currently has a replica. Doubting myself, I wanted to be one hundred precent certain this scene took place at Astor Place.
After a little digging around, I found several vintage photos of the area, and saw enough similarities in and around the kiosk (including a gigantic eye-catching billboard) to feel fairly confident that Astor Place was where this scene was filmed. And while searching for photos of the original Astor Place kiosk, I stumbled upon several photos of other subway kiosks connected to the IRT’s eastside and westside lines.
These cast-iron entrances/exits for NYC’s original 1904 subway line were modeled after the ones used for Budapest, Hungary’s oldest subway line, which was constructed in 1896. These ornate structures that once lined the streets of Manhattan, were eventually taken down, starting in the 1950’s, because they were said to be blocking sight-lines for both pedestrians and motorists, causing accidents. By the late 60’s, all of these exotic-looking kiosks were replaced with the more ordinary staircases and railings that are familiar with subway riders today.
About 20 years after all the original kiosks were taken down, a kiosk replica was installed for the uptown 6 train at Astor Place on a traffic island just north of E 8th Street (its location probably chosen because of its unobtrusiveness to motor traffic). Installed in March of 1986, this ornate recreation was designed using the initial 1904 IRT planning sheets.
While the original kiosk was featured in The Rag Man, the current replica was featured in the 1996 drama, Sleepers, in a scene that was supposed to be taking place in the summer of 1967. The filmmakers probably used this subway entrance because it had an old-fashioned look to it, but ironically, the subway kiosk would have actually been gone in 1967.
Exiting the Subway
I used basic deductive reasoning in figuring out this location. I knew the mansion Kelly goes to was on the Upper East Side (see “Kelly Sells Junk” above), and since I could see there were large clusters of trees behind the subway stairs, I figured they were filming this quick scene next to Central Park. From there I just checked the map to see what subway stations were near the east side of Central Park, and the only one I found was the 59th Street station for the BMT Broadway Line. A quick check in Google Street View and I was certain I found the right place.
Although several “New York” exteriors for this film were actually shot on a Hollywood backlot, The Rag Man still contains a lot more on-location scenes than most films of the time, and Blakeslee and I found almost all of them. The only scene we couldn’t figure out was an alleyway scene where Kelly talks to a priest, but that doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying to find it.