Cinema Obscura: Philadelphia on Film

I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion...
— Thomas A. Edison, US Patent Application, 1888

Photograph By Jack Dugan 

Photograph By Jack Dugan 

Think Philadelphia in cinema and chances are a vision of Rocky Balboa bounding up the Art Museum steps is the first image that jumps to mind. Filmed nearly 30 years ago, that iconic scene says as much about the city as the title character. Like Sylvester Stallone’s pugilist, Philly is the underdog city, the bottom-of-the-card palooka that gets close but never quite wins the big one. (Just ask the 2004-2005 Eagles.) Sandwiched between New York, the cultural headquarters of the East Coast, and Washington, the political nexus of the universe, Philadelphia is neither as bad as its citizens like to complain it is, nor as good as it could be. The history of Philadelphia in the movies is no different.     

Few moviegoers today realize that the east coast was the birthplace of the film industry.

The first film studio, Thomas Edison’s “Black Maria”, was located on the grounds of his West Orange, New Jersey laboratories. Two different forces combined to move the nascent industry west: the need for reliable sunlight (before the invention of powerful klieg lights, sunshine was critical to filming) and competitors’ desire to break Edison’s Motion Pictures Patents Trust, a legal monopoly prior to 1915.

As Hollywood boomed in the 1920s and after, Philadelphia all but dropped off the cinematic radar. The few references to the city in the golden age of the studio system are limited to such films as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Young Philadelphians (1959), both of which focused on Main Line bluebloods rather than the blue-collared masses. Moreover, these films were shot not on the Main Line but on studio back lots in the sunny climes of southern California. Even the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, 1956’s High Society (starring Philly’s own Grace Kelly), was shot in swanky Newport, Rhode Island. David and Lisa (1962) was unusual for its time in two ways: it dealt sympathetically with mental illness, and was wholly shot in Philadelphia.

Since the 1980’s, despite an inability to stem the loss of businesses and citizens, Philadelphia has enjoyed a renaissance in fine dining, entertainment and culture. Part of this revival is due to cinema, both location shooting and film festivals. The city is home to six annual festivals, the largest being the Philadelphia Film Festival every spring, which showcases independent films from around the globe.

Location shooting in and around the city has also exploded. In 1985, the city wisely created the Greater Philadelphia Film Office headed by Sharon Pinkenson, who has become the face of Philly to Hollywood producers. As filmmakers seek cheaper alternatives to New York, as well as urban centers with cinematic character, Philadelphia has much to offer with its mix of architecture old and new. In the Oprah Winfrey slave drama Beloved (1998), Philadelphia was a stand-in for Cincinnati, where the story takes place. Director Jonathan Demme had planned to film in Cincinnati, but the Midwest city had long since razed its 19th century buildings in favor of a bland, modern look. 

Another Philadelphia landmark popular on celluloid is 30th Street Station. Its dramatic neoclassical design practically demands to be filmed, and Hollywood has obliged.  However, it was the decidedly less impressive restrooms that played a crucial part in two 1980s thrillers. In Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (1981), 30th Street Station is a seedy crossroads where a hooker plies her trade in the restroom, only to be killed by villain John Lithgow. In Witness (1985), the plot is set in motion when a small Amish boy sees a murder from a station men’s room stall. While not exactly a postcard for the city, these scenes show a dark side that any Philadelphian knows from simply reading the daily papers.    

Other city locations seemingly destined for the darker side of storytelling are its old jailhouses. Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount neighborhood is notorious for both its foreboding look and its former inhabitants, including one Al Capone. It served as Brad Pitt’s insane asylum in 12 Monkeys (1995) and as Joaquin Phoenix’s Malaysian prison in Return to Paradise (1998). (The actual Malaysian prison in the story, along with other 19th century penitentiaries, was modeled after Eastern State with its innovative hub-and-spoke design.) Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia has looming 30-foot stone walls accented by round guard towers at the corners. It was featured in the Michelle Pfeiffer TV journalism flick Up Close and Personal (1996), itself a fictionalized version of the rise of Philadelphia’s Jessica Savitch.  

Of course, Philadelphia architecture begins and ends with its signature building: City Hall. Its ornate façade, topped by the statue of founder William Penn, is a cinematographer’s dream. In Blow Out, John Travolta’s vehicle races down Market Street and through City Hall courtyard before crashing into a Wanamaker’s window display.  One of the few light moments in the Vietnam War drama Birdy (1984) shows a rather undignified angle of William Penn that the marketers of Viagra might have considered recreating. In 12 Monkeys, the viewer is jarred by a post-apocalyptic vision of the city as lions and bears roam about an otherwise abandoned City Hall. Philadelphia (1993) was originally planned as another New York production, but when the location scout showed director Demme City Hall’s opulent Courtroom 243 for interior shots, the director decided to set the whole film here. After production, Demme changed the forgettable working title People Like Us to the more elegant Philadelphia

 Other than Rocky, sports films have a spotty history in Philadelphia. In Stealing Home (1988), Mark Harmon and Harold Ramis break into the late, unlamented Veterans Stadium for some dubious late night batting practice. The forgettable 2000 Phillies squad appears at the end of Summer Catch (2001), when minor leaguer Freddie Prinze Jr. gets called up to the majors. (And immediately serves up a home run to Ken Griffey Jr.—at least it’s true to life.) Boat House Row on the Schuylkill River is the setting for the 1999 college romance Kimberly, (thankfully) one of the few films about rowing. 

One contemporary director has done more to build the cinematic prestige of the city than any star or producer. M. Night Shyamalan has filmed each of his five features in and around the city, including his blockbuster 1999 film The Sixth Sense. His films are particularly interesting because they explore similar themes in quite different settings.  Wide Awake (1996), Unbreakable (2000) and The Sixth Sense use urban locales such as Philadelphia streets, churches and schools to explore Shyamalan’s signature theme of innocence in a corrupt world. Though set among pastoral landscapes, Signs (2002, filmed in Bucks County) and The Village (2004, filmed in Chester County) explore the same dark themes as his urban films. Shyamalan has quickly become a Philadelphia institution.  News of his upcoming project is eagerly awaited by cinephiles and once filming begins, celebrity sightings are reported daily in the local gossip pages. 

In recent months, Philadelphia has starred on the silver screen in the Nicolas Cage historical thriller National Treasure and the pedophile drama The Woodsman (with Kevin Bacon, son of city planner Edmund Bacon). Despite all the films being shot here, it remains true that none capture the spirit of the city quite like Rocky. Though it has become a cliché, the image of a blue-collar palooka struggling against the odds for one last shot at glory is pure Philadelphia gold.  Just ask Sylvester Stallone.

By Joe Hauser

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