Classic cinema can often serve as a time capsule, and when films feature footage of a favorite place, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of it in days gone by. Central Park is one of those locations, and lucky for us, it’s been used as a setting throughout the history of cinematography. One of the first films to feature the Park was Vitagraph’s 1908 Romeo and Juliet (the play’s first film adaptation). Since then, countless movies have either shot on location in the Park or recreated the Park on set.
Because the nights are long and it’s cold outside, here are a few mid-20th-century films, all shot in black and white, to watch on a cozy night in—each of which features Central Park.
A 1940s romantic fantasy
William Dieterle’s classic 1948 Portrait of Jennie might just be the perfect movie to watch during a dramatic winter storm. The dreamy, romantic fantasy stars Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, with a strong supporting cast that includes Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. The drama follows a down-and-out painter (Cotten) who draws some much-needed inspiration from the incredibly mysterious Jennie (Jones). Numerous scenes were shot in the Park, highlighting spots including the Dairy, Bethesda Terrace, a frozen-over Pond, and Sheep Meadow.
A sweet Judy Garland wartime romance
Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 romance The Clock offers the perfect opportunity to spend some time with the incredible Judy Garland in one of her lesser-known roles. Filmed during World War II, the studio bosses decided making a movie on location in New York City wasn’t feasible. Nevertheless, Minnelli did an excellent job making it look like it was shot here, using some well-executed rear projection and an incredible Penn Station set. The story is a whirlwind romance starring Garland (in her first non-singing role) as Alice Mayberry, and Robert Walker as Joe Allen, a soldier on 48-hour leave. After she stumbles over him in Penn Station, Joe joins Alice on her walk home, and she turns into a tour guide, pointing out sites and taking him to the Central Park Zoo.
A George Cukor / Judy Holliday double-feature
After her Academy Award–winning performance in George Cukor’s Born Yesterday, Judy Holliday rejoined the director for two films set and shot in New York City—The Marrying Kind (1952) and It Should Happen to You (1954)—and Central Park serves as the backdrop for the meet-cutes in both. If you’re going to pick one over the other, the romantic comedy It Should Happen to You is the must-watch. Holliday is the fame-obsessed Gladys Glover, and Central Park plays a key role at the beginning, when she meets aspiring documentary filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon’s first major film appearance). They stroll through the Park, and then, as Gladys exits at Merchants’ Gate, she sees the opportunity that kicks off the events to come: an empty billboard for rent over Columbus Circle.
The Marrying Kind was written by the husband-and-wife team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. This comedy / drama follows Florrie (Holliday) and Chet Keefer (Aldo Ray), who, in the middle of their divorce hearing, are encouraged to try to remember the good times—including when they first met in Central Park. The film might be a little hard to come by streaming-wise at the moment, but it’s available on DVD and periodically on TV.
A melodramatic Jane Wyman vehicle
Miracle In The Rain offers up a great opportunity to see the 1950s-era view of Conservatory Water, as well as the Dakota and its Central Park West neighbors in scenes shot by the Lake and on Bow Bridge. Starring Jane Wyman and Van Johnson, the film is another wartime whirlwind romance—but this time with an uber-dramatic twist and very 1950s finale.
A bonus classic
There are so many films with fleeting Central Park moments, like Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar-winning The Apartment. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, it follows the story of an upstart businessman who climbs the corporate ladder by lending his apartment to his married superiors for their clandestine liaisons. Some benches along the Park’s West Drive make a cameo when Lemmon’s exhausted character makes way for someone else’s last-minute late-night rendezvous.
Central Park has long been the heart of a city with countless tales to tell. From these cinematic time capsules to the more recent films shot in the Park, it makes us truly excited for the stories to come. Get to work, filmmakers!
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