In the studio era, "movie New York"
was created mostly in Hollywood: an invented city given shape by
studio art departments, where dozens of art directors working
closely with producers, directors, and cinematographers conceived,
designed and supervised the construction of hundreds of interior
and exterior sets.
No studio was more celebrated for its New York
settings than RKO on Gower Street, where gifted art directors such
as Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark, Al Herman, Perry Ferguson and
others created a mythic urban landscape that ranged from the "Big
White Sets" of Astaire-Rogers films such as Swing Time
(1937) and Shall We Dance (1938), to the dark urban environments
of countless film noirs in the late 1940s.
During the process of designing a film, art
directors often turned to in-house production illustrators to prepare
sketches and renderings of their proposed settings. The resulting
drawings, presented to unit producers and others involved in the
production process, served to clarify design ideas, to study concerns
and questions about staging, lighting, and budget, and, on occasion,
to "sell" producers on an ambitious design concept. After
the picture was completed, these drawings were added to the departments
archive, a permanent collection organized not by film title but
by type of setting ("penthouse," "theater interior,"
station," etc.), allowing art directors
working on new sets to study the previous efforts of the department.
This tradition tended to reinforce a certain continuity from one
picture to another one of the reasons "movie New York"
seemed to enjoy an independent existence outside any particular
film in which it appeared.
When RKO Studios closed down in 1958, its drawing
archive might well have been discarded as were those of several
other studios. But the art director John Mansbridge, who had started
his career at RKO as a young man in the 1930s, managed to save the
drawings and donate them to UCLAs Theater Arts Library, where
they have been preserved as the Mansbridge Collection.
Seen today, these evocative black-and-white
images including views of skyscrapers, rooftops, ocean liners,
apartment houses, train stations, penthouses, and the "New
York Street" in Hollywood embody all the heightened
sense of romance, mystery, adventure, and intrigue that generations
of audiences have found in the mythic city of movie New York
For further information about the art and craft
of production design, visit the official site of the Art