One of Warner Brother’s B-pictures you’ve probably never heard of, Central Park is somewhat noteworthy in that it was one of the few productions in the 1930s to shoot on-location footage in NYC. As with most releases during this time, the majority of this film was shot on a Hollywood soundstage, but where other productions would rely on brief stock footage to establish a New York setting, this production shot some exclusive footage in the city that was integral to the story.
Joan Blondell heads up a cast filled with interchangeable contract players from the WB stable, such as Wallace Ford, Harold Huber, and Guy Kibbee. Primarily set in Central Park during the Great Depression, the movie’s main storyline about a robbery is rather pell mell, but this deft pre-Code drama is still quite entertaining, offering veritable images of the world-famous park from nearly 100 years ago.
While Central Park contains a good amount of original footage shot specifically for the film, this (wobbly) opening aerial footage was most likely just stock. In fact, the footage was probably shot a couple years earlier (I’m guessing around 1930), based on the state of the lower rectangular reservoir, which appears to had been drained of its water but only partially filled in.
This rectangular Receiving Reservoir, located between 79th and 86th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, originally opened in 1842, ninety years before this movie was made and almost twenty years before Central Park began being developed. Built on a piece of rocky, elevated terrain in the largely unpopulated area of Yorkville, the 31-acre pool was used as a place to store fresh drinking water from Upstate New York that was piped in through the Croton Aqueduct.
In the late 1850s, as plans were being made to build Central Park in Upper Manhattan, this bulky reservoir became a bit of a stumbling block for the park’s designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The reservoir’s massive size and rudimentary shape didn’t match the naturalistic aesthetic they were going for, but knowing it couldn’t be removed, they had to find some way to incorporate it with the park.
In the end, they simply camouflaged the reservoir by surrounding it with trees and large plantings, making it nearly impossible to see except from Belvedere Castle, perched atop a huge rock outcrop at 79th Street.
Soon after the lower portion of Central Park was completed, a second receiving reservoir was built directly to the north of the original. However, it was designed to look more like a natural lake, making it fit better with the pastoral vision of Vaux and Olmsted.
By the turn of the century, as New York’s population began to explode, it was becoming clear that Central Park’s reservoirs would no longer be able to accomodate the drinking water needs. So in 1906, the local government began building a water tunnel that would connect NYC to a new 90-acre reservoir in nearby Yonkers.
Even before the new water tunnel was completed, Central Park’s lower rectangular reservoir was starting to be considered obsolete. Finally, in 1929, the reservoir was drained and slowly filled in with rubble excavated from other development projects, such as the the Eighth Avenue Subway and Rockefeller Center.
During this period, several different proposals were being considered for what should be put on the site, including an airplane landing field, an opera house, sports arenas, and a World War I memorial. One of the more aristocratic ideas, initiated by Parks Commissioner Charles B. Stover, was to turn the land into a formal carriage promenade that would link the Museum of Natural History on the west side to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the east side.
In the end, none of these plans panned out and the site was converted into the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond which are still there today.
But back at the time this movie was being made, before the drained reservoir was completely filled in, the site was briefly used as a shanty town — a small settlement made up of crude, makeshift dwellings.built by and for the homeless. These deprived encampments were also known as “Hoovervilles,” a term coined during the Great Depression as a political jab on then-President Herbert Hoover, who was seen as being indifferent to the growing economic hardships in the US.
By 1936, after all of the squatters were “evicted” from the area, the Parks Department was able to convert the land to what it is like today. And while the original reservoir is now long-gone, a few remnants of the retaining wall can still be found in the park just north of the Delacorte Theater and nestled against the police station along the 86th Street Transverse.
Another reminder of the old Lower Receiving Reservoir comes in the form of a botanical phenomenon, where the trees surrounding the Great Lawn tend to especially flourish. This is because the old reservoir buried below serves as a sort of man-made aquifer, supplying the tree roots with collected groundwater.
Of course, the oval reservoir to the north is still around today, which was renamed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994 when it was officially decommissioned.
While they could have easily used Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles to double for the Central Park Zoo, production decided to film on location in New York, presumably so they could pan up and show the various skyscrapers along Fifth Avenue and Central Park South (most of which are still around today).
Interestingly, the main thing they photographed in the zoo was a group of basic farm animals, opposed to some of the more exotic animals, like camels, elephants, hippos or tigers. It seems odd that they wouldn’t take full advantage of what Central Park Zoo had on hand, which was one of the first municipalities in the United States to exhibit a collection of animals.
Today, the Central Park Zoo is one of the most-visited features in the park, and yet, it actually wasn’t part of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original plans. But as early as 1859, park workers were unofficially taking care of a small group of donated animals, starting with a bear cub left tied to a tree. As the collection grew, the park commissioner recognized that proper housing would be needed and began searching for a location that wouldn’t compromise the park’s pastoral landscape.
In the early 1860s, as the park officials tried to figure out the best place for a zoo, the collection of animals were being held in a roughly 6-acre area behind the Arsenal. Then, mostly by default, that plot of land became their permanent home.
Once the zoo officially opened, the public responded enthusiastically, and over the next few decades, annual attendances grew from the thousands to the millions.
In the early days, the animals at the zoo were subjected to adverse treatment, often kept in cramped living conditions. Then in 1934 (two years after this movie was made), the zoo was completely reconstructed with the intention of decreasing the size of the menagerie and creating a more humane environment.
The new brick and limestone zoo was designed and constructed in just eight months, reopening on December 2, 1934 with great fanfare. By today’s standards, the new living conditions would still be considered rather cruel and disagreeable, but most of the cages and enclosures from that era are now gone (although, the quadrangle layout with the sea lion pool at the center still exists today).
When it came to that quick shot of a traffic signal that immediately followed the shot of the zoo, I had a good feeling that it was taken somewhere in Los Angeles, CA. This was mainly because New York, as far I could tell, never had those semaphore traffic signals with those curious retractable arms.
Figuring out the specific location of this shot posed a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, my research partner Blakeslee got s good headstart after he noticed some lettering on the side of the building in the background. Amazingly, he was able to decipher it to say, “RIVES,” (which I most certainly would never have been able to see).
Then, after a little digging around, he discovered a building in LA called the Rives-Strong at 112 West Main Street, which matched what was in the film.
As you can tell from the “before/after” image above, the building is still there today and is more or less unchanged. Of course, the old semaphore is no longer on the corner as they were phased out just a couple years after this movie was made and replaced with the familiar four-way, tri-colored light signals.
Figuring out the location of the first shot from this sequence was easy since I could find many extant skyscrapers in the background to match up. Plus, I already knew Central Park’s Sheep Meadow was, for a long time, used as a grazing field for domestic sheep.
However, this open space wasn’t used as a meadow when the park originally opened in 1958. It was actually designated as a parade ground for military drills — much to the chagrin of Olmsted and Vaux. But by 1864, they were able to reclaim the land and transform it to a bucolic meadow where 200 newly-acquired English sheep could roam. Believed by Olmsted and Vaux to enhance the Romantic English quality of the park, these woolly animals remained a fixture of the 15-acre lawn for the next 70 years.
Then, around the same time the nearby zoo was being reconstructed, the sheep were relocated to Prospect Park in Brooklyn (which had its own flock since around 1900).
It was rumored that this move was done to prevent the sheep from being used as food by some of the homeless living in Central Park. However, the impetus for this move most likely came from the newly-appointed Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, who was not a fan of the Victorian aesthetic of the park and wanted to add modern playgrounds and athletic fields to the area.
In the movie, when the sheep are being herded across the road, I was fairly certain that they were being taken to the former Sheepfold near W 67th Street. (The building is now the Tavern on the Green.)
I confirmed this location by identifying the large apartment building in the background, located at 55 Central Park West. Avid Ghostbusters fans might recognize the Art Deco building to be the infamous “Spook Central” where Dana lived (although several upper floors were optically added to it in the film).
In this montage of morning activities, the shot that was easiest to find was the one of the joggers. Based on the water and landscaping, it was clear that they were at the Upper Receiving Reservoir, which as I mentioned earlier, was renamed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in 1994. It was named in her honor after her passing to commemorate her charitable contributions to the city, most notably helping save Grand Central Terminal from demolition and ensuring its landmark status.
Also, the 1.57-mile path around the Reservoir happened to be one of Onassis’ favorite places to frequent in Central Park, where she’d go for a jog or just a leisurely stroll. In fact, one of the last times she was seen in public before her death in May 1994 was around the Reservoir.
One thing you might’ve noticed in the “before/after” image of the reservoir is that in 1932, it was surrounded by a tall, rather unattractive chain-link fence. However, when the Upper Receiving Reservoir was first constructed in the 1860s, it had a modest, 4-foot cast-iron fence similar to what’s there today. While this shorter fence was sufficient in preventing anyone from accidentally falling into the water, it couldn’t prevent people from hopping it and commiting suicide. (which was apparently a common occurrence in the early 20th century).
So in response, in 1926, the Department of Water Supply had a 10-foot chain-link fence installed there, which also had three strands of barbed wire on the top as an added deterrent. While the main purpose was to prevent people from hurling themselves into the reservoir, park officials tried to downplay the grim nature of the new fence. In a March 10, 1926 New York Times article, it was stated that one reason the network of fences was added to the reservoir was to discourage “small boys who like to throw sticks and rubbish into the water to ‘make a splash.'”
By the 1990s, calls were being made for the ugly chain-link fence to be taken down, and in 2003, the Parks Department finally replaced it with a replica of the original 19th century fence. (It’s an interesting reversal compared to all the anti-suicide fences and netting that’s recently been put up on the city’s major bridges.)
When it came to the other shots from this opening morning montage, I found their locations by identifying the buildings seen in the background. Fortunately, most of Central Park West looks as it did in 1932, with only a few changes here and there, so I just looked up and down the street in Google Maps until I stumbled upon a matching building.
While CPW on the west side of the park is relatively unchanged, the same can’t be said for Fifth Avenue on the east. What was once lined with a great number of upscale townhouses and mansions, is now dominated by large, mid-century apartment buildings. But luckily, all of the shots from this montage were taken on the west side, so it was pretty easy to locate them.
Although I must admit, there’s still one location (above) that I haven’t been able to nail down, which is sort of frustrating since there’s a clear view of a corner building in the background.
This sequence involved two different real locations in the park, whereas the bulk of the material was filmed on a Warner Brothers soundstage using a rear projection system.
The first thing I found was the location of the bridge, which I instantly recognized to be Gapstow Bridge, located at the northeast end of the Pond.
I was quite familiar with this iconic, schist bridge from its dozens of appearances in the movies, most notably in 1992’s Home Alone 2: Lost in New York as the home of the “Pigeon Lady.” Gapstow Bridge was also digitally recreated in the 2005 version of King Kong, where Naomi Watts and the large ape do some impromptu ice skating on the frozen pond.
Of course, in Central Park, the quick establishing shot of Dot on Gapstow Bridge was the only part filmed on location in New York, using a body double for Joan Blondell. All the close-ups of the two characters were done on a Hollywood stage with background plates of the park being projected on a rear screen.
However, for some reason, the footage for the background plate wasn’t shot at Gapstow Bridge, it was shot at Bow Bridge, which is located on the Lake some twenty blocks away. So instead of looking at Central Park South, we’re looking at Central Park West, featuring the famous Majestic apartment building on the far left.
I had a little trouble identifying the buildings at first, that is until I realized that the image was flipped. (Why they flipped it, it’s hard to say, but it was most likely just a mistake.)
Next, I worked on identifying the first part of this sequence, where the boys were playing baseball.
With the distinct dual towers of the San Remo apartment building appearing in the background, I had a good clue to start on. I just backtracked from its location on Central Park West, into the park, and stopping when the vantage point of the towers looked about the same as in the movie.
That brought me to the north end of the Mall, where I immediately noticed that the placement of the planted trees looked similar to what was in the film. Then, after I was able to match up a few of the carved piers from the adjacent Bethesda Terrace, I was confident I found the right spot.
Unlike with the bridge scene, the background plates used for this scene were geographically consistent with the establishing shot. When the two main characters are at the hotdog stand on the soundstage, the image behind them was of Bethesda Fountain, which is about 100 yards from where the kids were playing baseball. By the looks of the footage, they probably shot the background plates on Terrace Drive, looking over the balcony and down into the lower terrace.
Picked Up By “Detectives”
Finding this location took a little work, but I figured it out by using the same basic strategy I used before. I started by identifying the skyscrapers seen in the background, which turned out to be the Hampshire and Essex Houses on Central Park South.
They were a little difficult to spot at first since most views from the park are now obscured by overgrown trees (even in the winter). Also, The Hampshire House has gotten some renovations over the years and now has a slightly different window arrangement. But after studying some vintage photos of the 36-story apartment building, I could tell it was a match.
Once I identified the two high-rise buildings and studied their angles, I concluded the only roadway that could offer a similar perspective was Center Drive, and the only place along the Drive where the action could’ve taken place was at 65th Street. Even though the paths look a little different today, the layout is essentially the same — not to mention, there’s really no other section along the Drive that made any sense.
Of course, once again, all the close-up shots of the principal actors were done in Hollywood with backplates of the park projected behind them. And like the wide shot of Gapstow Bridge, the wide shot of Dot approaching the car was achieved using a body double.
The Men’s Room
This location puzzled me at first, and it too me a while before I realized that the arch the taxicab passed over and the stairs leading to a men’s room were both the same place.
The first thing I concentrated on was the shot of the cab driving away since it featured a few identifiable buildings in the background. This included the now-demolished Savoy-Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, although at first, I thought it was the Hampshire House on W 59th Street. This mix-up came from the fact that both buildings have slanted copper roofs with double chimneys.
Built about four years apart from each other, both buildings were representative of the Beaux-Arts architectural style that was popular in America during the early 20th century, with the later-built Hampshire House obviously taking inspiration from its neighbor on Fifth.
My confusion between the two buildings was soon rectified once I identified the extant Sherry-Netherland Hotel, located one block north of the Savoy-Plaza. (It was a structure I was quite familiar with from its appearance in the 1927 silent film, East Side, Wet Side.)
Once I identified the buildings in the shot, I started looking in Google Street View for any section of road in Central Park that could offer a similar view. Focused on finding an overpass that matched the one seen in the film, the only thing I had to go on was the look of its rail. And since most of the arches along Central Park’s Drives have similar looking rails, the search for the right one was a bit tedious.
After investigating every possible arch in the southern half of Central Park and finding no matches, I got a little frustrated and decided to work on some other scenes.
Not knowing it was the same location, I began investigating the shot of the stairs leading to a men’s room. At first, I thought we were looking at the north end of the Mall because I knew there’s a pair of restrooms along the stairway leading to Bethesda Terrace Arcade.
However, as soon as I looked at photos of the Terrace, I could tell it wasn’t correct. So, it was back to the drawing board.
That’s when I decided to go to the NYPL digital archives and do a search for “Central Park stairs.” Naturally, it gave me several pictures of Bethesda Terrace, but it also turned up a curious 1863 stereoscopic photograph of some stairs that looked very promising. The caption said that it was taken at a place called, “Marble Arch,” which at the time, was something I had never heard of.
The reason I never heard of Marble Arch before is because it’s one of only three arches that are no longer around. But as I found more photographs of this lost relic, I could see that the rail perfectly matched the one that appears in the previous shot of the taxi cab.
Now confident both shots took place at Marble Arch, I began studying a bunch of vintage maps and saw that it used to be situated on Center Drive just to the west of the southern entrance to the Mall.
Named after the precious material it was built from, Marble Arch was considered one of the finest pieces of architecture from the original park, and whose lavish design distinguished itself from most of its neighboring bridges. The graceful structure functioned primarily as a safe passageway for pedestrians to cross under the busy Center Drive, but it also had several amenities, a few of which were described in the 1872 edition of The Hotel Guests’ Guide To New York:
A marble bench on both sides affords a welcome rest to the weary pedestrian on a hot summer day, and in a niche opposite the upper end of the arch, beyond the stairway, is a drinking fountain.
19th-century art critic Clarence Cook also wrote about the Marble Arch in his book, A Description of the New York Central Park:
The interior of this archway is peculiarly light and attractive, and far more cheerful than other structures of a similar sort in the Park. Here, on a warm day, the children and their nurses gather with their luncheon-baskets, or the reader with his book and sandwich.
Another interesting feature, which was highlighted in this movie, was a set of double staircases that ran left and right on the north side of Center Drive, one of which led directly to the southern entrance of the Mall.
Like many charming features of Central Park that are now gone, the fate of Marble Arch was in the hands of Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses. In 1938, in his aim to make New York more automobile friendly, Moses had Center Drive realigned with a softer curve, at which time he ordered the arch to be demolished and buried.
Despite its destruction, there may still be significant amounts of the arch that remain underground, as evidenced by a small chunk of marble that worked its way to the surface in the early 2000s.
While Robert Moses’ blunt reconfiguration of the park was tragic in its own right, it posed a two-fold problem for me in trying to figure out the exact location used in the film. With the arch gone and the drive rerouted, I had no real landmark to match up for my “before/after” images.
My research partner Blakeslee did help me out a little by lining up two maps of Center Drive, side-by-side, showing what it looked like before and after Moses changed things up.
From that, I was able to get a rough idea of where the arch and stairway were located, which helped me take modern photos that were reasonably close to the angles used in the film.
While the movie implied that there was a men’s room at Marble Arch, I’ve found no evidence of one being there, so it might’ve been just a fabrication of the filmmakers. And naturally, the inside of the bathroom was just a set built in Hollywood.
In preparation of writing this post, I decided to rewatch Central Park, and noticed an interesting piece of dialogue in the men’s room scene. When the nearly-blind beat cop (played by Guy Kibbee) talks about how he’ll miss Central Park after he retires, a zookeeper tells him that things are much calmer than they used to be, adding that “people have even stopped trying to commit suicide around here.” I’m assuming this was actually a reference to how people used to throw themselves into the Reservoir before the chain-link fence was put up.
Fifth Avenue Girl
This was another tricky scene to figure out because I couldn’t spot any distinguishable buildings in the background. Nevertheless, I was pretty sure that the truck was heading towards Columbus Circle in the last shot, mainly because there’s a whole cluster of buildings in the distance, suggesting a convergence of multiple streets. But I was unable to identify any one of the buildings, so I asked Blakeslee to take a shot at it.
A little later, he was able to help confirm that the truck was indeed near Columbus Circle by identifying the former Packard Building, which was situated just north of the circle at Broadway and W 61st Street. The thing that made the building stand out from the rest was the word CAR in giant block letters on its rooftop.
However, even after we were able to nail down a definite guidepost, we still had a little trouble getting the proper orientation of the scene. Blakeslee thought the camera was looking southwest towards the Packard Building, while I thought that it was looking northwest.
I came to that conclusion after realizing that the Packer Building was on the northwest corner of Broadway and 61st Street. That meant we were looking at the south- and east-facing sides of the building, which could only be viewed from below 61st Street.
Another thing that helped me out was the dual towers of the San Remo at 145-146 Central Park West, which appears for a split second behind the truck (2nd “before/after” image above). Since the two towers are practically on top of each other, that meant we were almost directly south of the building, or in other words, very close to Central Park West.
Now that I knew the truck was somewhere south of 61st Street and somewhere close to Central Park West, I began homing in on an exact location. The clue that helped get me closer to that location was the roadway seen directly behind the truck in the first shot.
On that road, you can see constant traffic going from left to right, making me think it was West Drive just before it merged with Center Drive. That would then place the truck on a roadway just to the south of it.
After consulting a map, I could see there was a paved path called “Central Park Driveway” that paralleled West Drive, ending at Columbus Circle. Believing that the truck was traveling on this Driveway, I dug up some vintage aerial shots of the area to verify that it was in the park in the 1930s.
Not only did those vintage photos show that there was a Driveway there back then, but it really showed no other possible place the truck could’ve been.
As further evidence, I was also able to match up a small hill just to the north of the Driveway, giving me a good sense of where it was, within a few yards.
Even though the dialogue in the film indicated that the motorcycles were at the Arsenal, I could tell by the architecture that this scene didn’t take place there. Although, it was true that in 1932, the Central Park Police Precinct was headquartered at the Arsenal over by the zoo. It stayed there until 1936 when it moved into the old park stables located at the 86th Street Transverse Road.
So, knowing the motorcycles in this scene’s establishing shot were located somewhere else, I began searching records for any other buildings that were inside the park. It actually took me a while to finally nail down the location, which is a bit surprising considering it was shot at the Sheepfold — a place I already identified from an earlier scene.
The main problem was that even though I suspected that the old Sheepfold was the correct location, all the pictures I found of the building —which has since become Tavern on the Green— didn’t seem to match. They were close, but not exactly right.
Helping me out with this scene was Blakeslee, who managed to dig up a set of old photos of the building in the NYC Municipal Archives, most of which were taken in October of 1934 during the opening of Tavern on the Green.
Even though the space had been converted from a sheepfold to a restaurant, the exterior hadn’t been extensively remodeled, and it looked very much as it did in the movie.
Then after matching up some buildings in the background, we were one hundred percent sure of the location and angle used in this scene.
As expected, after the initial wide shot of the “police station,” the rest of the scene was shot at a Hollywood recreation — with one exception. There was one quick cutaway shot of some more parked motorcycles that was obviously taken in NYC.
And yet, for the the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where it took place. I assumed it was also shot at or around the Sheepfold, but every time I tried to match up the buildings in the background (which I assumed were on Central Park West), I came up empty.
Then, just as I began writing up this post, it occured to me that perhaps the image was flipped. And lo and behold, as soon as I flipped a picture of the buildings at 55-65 Central Park West (located across from Tavern on the Green) everything lined up perfectly.
As to the restaurant scene where Rick and Dot indulge in a huge lunch from his motorcycle-washing pay, I knew that it was just a set, but I included it in this post because it implemented one of the few background plates that wasn’t filmed inside Central Park. That being said, it was still filmed very closeby, at the south end of Columbus Circle on the corner of W 59th and Eighth Avenue.
I don’t know if there was really a restaurant at that address, but that corner was certainly where the camera crew shot the background footage.
Switching Fifth Avenue Girls
I avoided investigating this location for the longest time because, for some reason, I assumed it was shot in Los Angeles. I just thought it looked like it took place at some obscure, now-abandoned tunnel in the Hollywood Hills or somewhere.
But once I committed to the concept that it was shot in NYC, I promptly thought of the Transverses, which are sunken roadways that cut across Central Park with several “tunnels” along the way. Starting at the 97th Street Transverse, I looked in Google Street View for any of the natural overpasses that were primarily made up of bedrock.
I eventually worked my way down to 79th Street where I zeroed in on the Bethesda Castle overpass posthaste. The rock formation looked the same, and after getting the Google Street View in the right position, I could pinpoint several cracks and ridges that matched the film.
So in the end, it was a pretty easy location to find.
This nighttime sequence of the crooks being chased through Central Park was basically accomplished using rear projection, composite shots, and even some miniatures. Almost every wide shot was achieved by combining an image of New York skyscrapers with footage of vehicles driving on a Californian road (most likely in the outskirts of Burbank or possibly one of LA’s city parks).
At first, I thought these wide shots were filmed entirely on location, but after watching them in slow motion, I noticed that when the armored truck passed in front of any buildings, the lights from the windows would still show through. (Even the lights on some of the lampposts would show through.) This indicated that production had created an optical print where they laid one image on top of another.
The only thing that was solely filmed on location in NYC was the patrol car getting a radio call on West Drive (first “before/after” image above). Every other shot from this climatic sequence involved a little Hollywood trickery.
However, there is one shot of the armored car leaving the Central Park Casino that has left me guessing its authenticity. While it was most likely shot in LA, I’ve still considered the possibility that it was shot on location in New York since the landscape in the movie looks a lot like the landscape on Terrace Drive where the Casino exit used to be.
But even with the landscape looking similar, I’m leaning towards the notion that it was simply shot on a hill in some rural part of Los Angeles.
Now, why they bothered finding a hill that matched the one in Central Park is hard to say, but it does seem as though the filmmakers were consistently trying to make things look as realistic as possible.
When it came the Casino itself, it was obviously just a set, but a convincing one nonetheless. It was surprisingly elaborate, with custom-made sets of both the interior and exterior. Considering this was just an inexpensive B-picture, they did a pretty decent job of reproducing the real restaurant in Central Park.
Located on a tiny hill just south of Terrace Drive, the Central Park Casino, despite its name, was just a restaurant and didn’t have any gambling. It actually got its name from the Italian term meaning, “small country villa” or “social club.”
Designed by Calvert Vaux and constructed in the early 1860s, the Casino started off as a refreshment salon for visiting women and children, but soon became a standard “road house” eatery open to everyone.
By the time this movie was made, the Casino had become an upscale restaurant/nightclub, after being upgraded in 1929. This change came after then-mayor, Jimmy Walker, allowed his friend and concessionaire, Sidney Solomon, to take over the lease of what was previously a city-run facility.
However, this was at the height of the Great Depression, and the idea of a fancy, high-end restaurant in Central Park didn’t sit well with the public. So, in 1934, newly-appointed parks commissioner Robert Moses, served an eviction order to the Casino’s management with the intention of demolishing the building and replacing it with a playground. Two years later, after a lengthy court battle, the Casino was closed and the building was torn down.
The site is now home to Rumsey Playfield, and is also where the park’s annual SummerStage festival is held.
The Next Morning
The wide, high-angle shot of the sun “rising” was actually of the sun setting, as the camera was looking west across the park. The big giveaway of where we were looking was the twin towers of the Century Apartment Building at 25 CPW between W 62nd and 63rd streets, which had been completed about a year before this movie was made
The very last shot of the movie was easy to identify, thanks to the iconic Plaza Hotel that appeared on the right side of the frame, From that, I could tell that we were looking south at Grand Army Plaza, which is the only location that was technically not in Central Park (if you don’t include any of the background plates).
For some reason, I didn’t seek out the location of the second to last shot of the two main characters strolling down a path until some time later. When I finally got around to it, I had no idea it was only a few hundred feet north of Grand Army Plaza, but I knew the one tall building peeking above the treeline looked familiar.
Finally, I realized that the tall building was the Crown, located at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue and was already prominently featured in that last wide shot of Grand Army Plaza. I guess I should’ve put two and two together a little quicker, but at least I eventually figured it out, and in the end, was able to identify nearly every NYC location used in this movie.
Overall, Central Park is hardly a knockout picture, which probably accounts for it being a relatively unknown entry from the Pre-Code era (I hadn’t even heard of it until only four or five years ago). However, like many Warner Brothers releases from the 1930s and 40s, Central Park is breezy fun that moves along at a speedy click, even if it can come off as being a little over-the-top and melodramatic at times.
And by having the majority of the action taking place within the confines of Central Park, it gives this picture a unique look that helps make it stand-out from other releases of that period.
Even though the main story is a little ridiculous, Central Park is packed with colorful characters who provide a variety of wild subplots, including one involving an escaped lion from the zoo. All in all, the movie’s biggest strengths falls on the talents of its players.
Naturally, Joan Blondell is the glue that holds this picture together, giving us a no-nonsense portrayal of an out-of-work actress. As to her leading man, Wallace Ford is serviceable enough as a kind-hearted, ex-rodeo performer.
When it comes to the supporting roles, Guy Kibbee is the preeminent standout, playing the hapless park cop with sincerity and real pathos. But practically everyone in this ensemble gives distinctive and memorable performances, such as Henry B. Walthall as an escaped patient from the “booby hatch,” Harold Huber as the slimy head gangster, and Henry B. Walthall as Elby, the philosophical zookeeper.
Notwithstanding its consummate cast, the real charm of Central Park is its images of of Gotham’s biggest and lushest playground.
By grabbing footage from different parts of the park, the movie shows the disparate people and varying activities found inside its four corners. But to be fair, some of its depictions can come off as being a bit one-dimensional, such as the homeless community, who are seen as happy-go-lucky nomads, gleefully lounging on park benches.
But thanks to the filmmakers’ proclivity to capture a good amount of real footage of Central Park (more than most modern reviewers thinks there is), this 1932 movie almost serves as a historical document. It gives us the rare opportunity to see the different ways this famous city park has evolved over the last century,