In this clip from the 1949 Metro Goldwyn Mayer film Mighty Manhattan – New York’s Wonder City you get to see some of the iconic sights of New York City in full technicolor. If you can handle the quintessentially mid-century voiceover by James A. Patrick, apparently known then as “The Voice of the Globe,” the cultural generalizations, and the patriotism, you can then revel in New York as it was nearly 70 years ago.
Opening with the Statue of Liberty, the sparser skyline shows the Empire State Building dominating. With the country’s obsession with the automobile, it’s not surprising that means of “vehicular transport” come second after the Statue of Liberty: The Brooklyn Bridge and neighboring Manhattan Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge, and the George Washington Bridge are highlighted (the Triborough Bridge is ignored though it was built already) and Riverside Drive.
You can see Chelsea Piers when great steam ships still docked there. There’s an almost unrecognizable view of Wall Street (save for the constancy of Trinity Church in the background) with the elevated train still running through it. Architecture wise, you’ll see the Equitable Building, Federal Hall, Flatiron Building, the New York Public Library, the Woolworth Building, and City Hall, among others.
Neighborhoods visited include the Bowery (also with the elevated train) where the narrator says “unfortunate outcasts of society spend their final days” and that the neighborhood has “degenerated into one of Manhattan’s worst districts.” Chinatown is a “popular tourist attraction” and a “popular meeting places for the Chinese who live in greater New York…a mecca for their reunions and assemblies” (with no word about the Chinese who actually lived there).
As a piece of propaganda, there are several moments focusing on the humanitarian role of the city’s hospitals. The video also passes through Herald Square (the “former” Rialto of New York City) and Times Square with wonderfully vintage signage. “The greatest and most building project underway in Manhattan” is the United Nations, proclaims Patrick, with footage of the plot of land filled with a parking lot.
After a panoramic view of Central Park from above (before the super tall skyscrapers on 57th Street, of course), rests on the Lincoln Center area–San Juan Hill before the neighborhood was demolished and redeveloped). Even in 1949, there seemed to be a feeling that the horse drawn carriages of Central Park might disappear (an issue still being debated today). It’s fun to see the pedestrian thoroughfares of Central Park filled with cars, as they drive by historic apartment buildings like the San Remo.
Also in Central Park is a visit to Cleopatra’s Needle, the obelisk from Egypt, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Central Park Zoo. After a stop at Temple Emanu-el, the video goes south down Fifth Avenue showing the double decker buses that once dotted the streets, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. As pointed out by Untapped Cities reader Laurie Shapiro, there’s a rarely seen view of the rooftop gardens of Rockefeller Center, where there were once (and perhaps still are) koi fish swimming in the ponds. You used to be able to take tours of the gardens back in the 1940s, but not anymore.
Check out more from our Vintage Photography column and see this black and white video inside the NYC subway in 1905.