Saturday, June 1, 2013

Color Film of New York City 1939

Take a Quick Look at the Past of NYC

Anyone interested in history or New York City might find this video interesting. Shot by a French tourist in 1939, it is a brilliant color film that somehow never deteriorated. The conditions for its preservation must have been just about ideal until it was discovered recently.

As the description states:
New York City, Summer 1939. Rarely seen recently surfaced amateur movie, filmed by a French tourist, Jean Vivier, in 16mm Kodachrome. Great conservation state and incredible quality!

Score added (Demo Only) in 2013 by ROMANO-ARCHIVES (DJ Kirill Sergeew - 2 Minutes 38 Seconds To Kiss).
A color film from 1939 of any type is extremely rare. Kodak had only just introduced color film. Kodak amateur movie cameras had been available since 1935. According to the company’s website, “KODACHROME Film was introduced and became the first commercially successful amateur color film. It was initially offered in 16 mm format for motion pictures; 35 mm slides and 8 mm home movies followed in 1936.”

Although Kodak had introduced sound on film in 1937, the clip from the French tourist doesn’t have sound; a score was later added.

At the time this film was taken, Technicolor was being used on two classic and popular movies from 1939: “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" had been one of the first technicolor films a couple of years earlier. The overwhelming majority of films were still in black and white, and remained in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio.

People very familiar with New York City will notice that, while there are obvious differences, the truly striking thing about the scenes captured by this film is how little, not how much, has changed. Washington Square Park, Chinatown, Rockefeller Center, Harlem, Fifth Avenue, the view south toward Wall Street, a view across the Hudson to Jersey City - it's all so similar to current views that it is uncanny. Since the city reintroduced the old-style tourist buses back during the Giuliani Administration, even the street scenes have a familiar look (though the classic cars are cool). People aren't dressed all that differently, though they do seem to be a bit more formal or elegant or however you want to put it. The people shown up in Harlem don't appear particularly different than anyone else, people wanted to assimilate then, not disperse.

The differences that leapt out at me might not be the same things you would notice. Notice how much smoke was in the air. Look at all those billowing smokestacks and the haze overlying the city at the end. And that was on a beautiful, sunny, windy day! People probably didn't notice the smoke then, but it looks completely different now. The elevated trains are long gone from Manhattan (in fact, within a decade of this film), but they remain to this day in Queens and the other Boros. Even in Manhattan, the remnants of the West Side railway remain, though no trains have run there for thirty years and they only recently were turned into a park. Traffic still ran right through Washington Square Park, next to the fountain and the scampering children.

The ocean liners at the piers on the Hudson is another striking difference - you still see some there, but not all lined up like that. The people look thinner and fitter even though, due to the air and water, they would not have been healthier. While the signs on the shops ("Margaritas 5 Cents") are different in substance, in form they, too, look quite familiar to the modern eye. New York has developed a retro air about it that hearkens back to this very period.

The French tourist hit all the big tourist destinations, the same ones you would visit today - though I'm not sure which building he was on toward the end, from which he filmed the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. It was up by Central Park, but I'm curious which one it was. And notice the absence of barriers on the top of the building to prevent fools from throwing themselves off, times sure have changed.

This looks like early summer, perhaps late May or June. Note how windy it is, despite the fact the children are playing in the fountain. Within a few months, World War II would start for this French tourist, though New York City wouldn't get involved for another two years after that.

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