April 7, 2015
I am constitutionally opposed to guided tours. I am slow and stubborn, preferring to linger, wander and find my own path rather than walk down the pre-determined route laid down by an unfamiliar mind. In my particular mania I’d prefer to be ignorant in my own way than knowledgeable as determined by another. So I tend to avoid all tours, by bus, by foot, or by dirigible. I have been married to a ghost tour operator for almost ten years now, and still have managed to hold my illogical ground. Until now, anyway, when along with my wife, I took the TCM Classic Film Tour, a three-hour guided bus ride around Manhattan, operated by On Location Tours in concert with TCM. Yes, this is a review of a TCM branded tour on a TCM site, so feel free to read the rest of this review with a raised eyebrow, though the following thoughts are indeed my own. I went in skeptical, but I was happy to discover it did not pander to popular taste but attempts to present the full scope of NYC film history, from Edison to film noir and up through (no comment) You’ve Got Mail.
On Location Tours had operated a classic film tour earlier in the decade, though eventually interest waned and it was discontinued. In 2013 TCM came on board as a co-presenter, and revived the tour with their input and imprint. As it was being planned, Robert Osborne rode on the bus to make sure the sites were varied and true to the spirit of the channel. Our guide, the affable and informative Jason Silverman, informed me that Osborne was insistent that one of the first clips shown on the tour be one from Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), to prove to tour-goers that this would not be all Ghostbusters and Woody Allen (though they are still well-represented). Ma and Pa Kettle get on a bus at Columbus Circle, while a scene from It Should Happen to You depicts Judy Holliday fantasizing herself onto a billboard at the same location. What dreams would be possible at the TimeWarner Center today – the current location of Holliday’s imaginary billboard? It is now the site of some of the most expensive condos in the world, purchased by anonymous shell corporations the New York Times spent last fall trying to penetrate. Ma and Pa Kettle could not afford to visit NYC today, and Holliday would not be dreaming of a billboard but a pop-up ad on Buzzfeed.
One of the narratives of any tour of NYC is the changing face of the city. The fate of The Emerald Inn bar is one such example. Opened in 1943 or 1944 at 203 Columbus Ave. at 69th Street, it was a remnant from the Upper West Side’s working class past, from the period before the construction of Lincoln Center pushed out 7,000, mostly Hispanic and African-American, families. The Emerald Inn gained part of its fame from being used as a location for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. It is the bar where Jack Lemmon gets ripped on Christmas Eve. Due to massive rent hikes threatened since 2009, the bar finally had to move in 2013, and still operates at 250 W. 72nd St. Where the original bar stood is now a Kate Spade handbag store, as Jason ruefully pointed out during the tour. Then there is Meg Ryan’s “Shop Around the Corner” in You’ve Got Mail, the Lubitsch-themed bookstore that her character owns. That was shot at Maya Schaper’s Antiques and Cheese on West 69th St., open since the mid-90s and closed down in 2008, again due to rising rents. Today that location is an “organic” dry cleaners.
We also passed Sherman Square, situated between Broadway, Amsterdam Ave. and 70th St. Once known as “Needle Park” in the 1970s for the rampant drug activity in the area, it was the setting for Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park (1971), starring Al Pacino. At the north edge of the park is Apple Bank, and two decades before Pacino was shooting up, there was more of a high energy criminality in a car chase from The Naked City (1948) right around that same square. It is impossible to conceive a gritty crime film being filmed there today, unless it’s a Lifetime movie-of-the-week about a rich doctor poisoning his wife.
Though I didn’t treasure the recycled air of the otherwise cozy bus, there were plenty of stoppages to get outside, grab some food and look at the sites, whether it’s grabbing some chocolate babka at Zabar’s, or going to the front steps of Audrey Hepburn’s apartment from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (currently on sale for a cool $8 million). Jason also brought us to the spot next to the Queensboro Bridge where Gordon Willis composed the iconic bench shot for Manhattan. Woody Allen generally makes me queasy, so I was grateful that the tour also supplied the fresh air of My Man Godfrey, with the bridge peeking out of Carole Lombard’s window.
Probably the most pleasant surprise in terms of programming, though, was after the requisite clip from King Kong as we were passing the Empire State Building, Jason presented a scene from Love Affair (1939), the greatest of romances and still far too unknown today (due to its languishing in poor PD editions). The sight of Charles Boyer waiting patiently on the lip of the Empire State Building’s roof, expectant of a delayed reunion, was enough to bring tears to my eyes in a matter of seconds. I was transported out of the packed bus, the clogged streets, and the packed sidewalks of a holiday spring weekend in NYC, and into the spiritual plane of McCarey’s masterpiece. Not bad for a bus tour.