Tonight I watched a PBS “The American Experience” presentation on the rise and fall of Pennsylvania Station, which I will preview for Thursday’s column and which will broadcast to the public next Tuesday. To gin readers up for that, enter the ol’ Wayback Machine. On March 14 of last year, my column discussed David Galbraith’s amazing video collage of clips of scenes from Hollywood films made at Penn Station before its infamous demise in 1963. The video is here. My column on it, courtesy of The Providence Journal, follows:
Video homage to Pennsylvania Station
The Providence Journal
March 14, 2013
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and the 100th anniversary of the opening of Grand Central Terminal. The crime of tearing down Penn Station – now widely acknowledged to be “an act of monumental vandalism,” as an editorial in The New York Times put it – may have helped preserve the life of Grand Central.
The new Penn Station, built underground and capped by the equally uninspired Madison Square Garden, should be ripped down and a new Penn Station built as a literal copy (with updated technology) of the old Penn Station by the great firm of McKim, Mead & White.
After the depressing new Pennsylvania Station opened in 1968, the architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote that “one entered the city like a god; now one scuttles in like a rat.” Unless one commutes in from the ‘burbs to Grand Central, where one still enters like a god.
So perhaps it was kismet that a few days ago, exercising my new iPod Touch, I found a video on YouTube called Penn Station, But Deliver Us From Grand Central.
The video, produced in 2008 by David Galbraith, lasts six minutes and 18 seconds, comprising 61 clips of scenes shot at Penn Station and sliced from old Hollywood movies made before its demise in 1963, then knit together with a style that evokes film noir. I found it so engaging that I posted it on my Journal blog, Architecture Here and There.
But having dispatched it to the Web masses, I could not stop looking at it myself. With each viewing its genius seemed to grow. It mesmerized me as effectively as any crowd scene.
But wait! There’s more! You also get Hollywood stars doing their thing – looking happy, puzzled, alert, pensive, worried, bored, hurried and, occasionally, mesmerized by the crowd.
On Monday, I asked my [then] colleague Froma Harrop to help me identify the movie stars. On Tuesday, before beginning to write this, I jotted a brief description of all 61 snippets, from the opening shot of the grand concourse, followed by the entry of Gregory Peck with Ingrid Bergman, who glances nervously over her shoulder in Spellbound (1945), and concluding with a shot of . . . but I will not give it away.
The film clips are spliced with such dexterity that one constantly detects a plot line emerging. Two different people in two different films run in the same direction along the identical stretch of concourse. A shot ends with a man glancing to his left, and in the next shot a woman from a different movie returns his glance. A scene of two station detectives suddenly turning around is followed by a shot of a man with that hunted look. This sort of thing continues almost to the end of the video, with no dialogue at all until . . . well, I won’t give it away.
Running like a leitmotif are clips of a man with a cigarette waiting for . . . something. He is in eight scenes in the video’s first half. Most will not recognize him. He is Jamie Smith as boxer Davey Gordon in Stanley Kubrick’s second film, Killer’s Kiss (1955).
Claudette Colbert, Judy Garland, Cary Grant and other stars show up along with Bergman and Peck. At first I thought Colbert was Lucille Ball. Froma corrected me. The man running down the stairs in a fedora, his overcoat collar turned up, looked like David McCallum from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Probably not. We could not identify the woman with the luggage, or the sexy gal in a feathered hat ogled by a line of men as she jiggles on by. For some reason I thought she might be Ida Lupino. Nope.
Toward the end of this carnival of cameos, dialogue emerges when Bergman urges Peck to “act as if we’re taking this train.” They plot to sneak off, grab a cab to Grand Central for the train to New Rochelle. This gives Galbraith an excuse to splice in some shots near the end from Grant’s escape from New York via Grand Central in North by Northwest (1959).
The video concludes – I cannot resist telling – with four penguins discovered hiding behind a newspaper (“We’ve been ratted out, boys!”) and a zebra missing his train.
In these six blessed minutes of video the late Pennsylvania Station grants power to each scene. It is clear that one train station by which to enter Gotham like a god is not enough. Great as it is, Grand Central, which was born when Penn Station was 3, could use some brotherly assistance, yet again, to uphold the greatness of New York City. Rebuild Penn Station.
David Brussat is on The Journal’s editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org). This column, with more illustrations, is also on his blog Architecture Here and There at providencejournal.com.