80 years ago this week, the Chrysler Building was completed, becoming at that time the tallest building in the world. It surpassed the Bank of Manhattan Trust building (aka 40 Wall Street), which had only just been finished the month prior. And within another year, it too was passed over in favor of the Empire State Building. Yet, even as more and more buildings around the globe reached to greater heights, the Chrysler Building has remained one of the most recognizable landmarks in any city thanks to its distinct Art Deco architecture, designed by William Van Allen. In honor of its birthday, and because it's one of my favorite skyscrapers in the world, let alone in NYC, I'd like to celebrate its appearance in films over the past eight decades (click on the links to watch clips).
The building was cast prominently in movies immediately. Originally, King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper envisioned the giant ape climbing up the New York Life Building, but he changed the location once construction of the Chrysler was complete. And if the movie had been shot two years earlier, one of the most iconic images in film history would look a little different. But of course the Empire State Building's greater height demoted the Chrysler to a mere extra. Or, maybe not that low. Five years ago, the New York Times quoted New York film scholar James Sanders, who referred to the building as worthy of an award for "Best Supporting Skyscraper." And like a great character actor it steals every scene or shot it's in.
Fifty years after losing its big break in King Kong, the Chrysler got its own monster movie showcase with the silly B movie Q: The Winged Serpent, in which a giant incarnation of the Aztec dragon-like god Quetzalcoatl makes its home atop the skyscraper. And not only was the exterior employed for the film, but the inside of the building's pyramidal dome was used for authentic interior shots. In this commentary-included clip of cops shooting at the flying creature from the top of the building (like a reverse of King Kong), it's revealed that some actors are indeed sitting outside the dome in baskets, courtesy of workers doing repairs on the building at the time of the filming.
Unfortunately, like other familiar landmarks, the Chrysler Building has had many a death scene in the movies. Basically, any disaster flick depicting destruction in NYC has to do something to it. In the meteor shower sequence from Armageddon, we first see the Chrysler's famous eagle-head gargoyles fall to the street, then the top section of the building comes down, spire-first, like a hypodermic needle stabbing the city (and crushing extras). In the same year Deep Impact had a tsunami engulf Manhattan, though the Chrysler didn't seem too badly destroyed. It also seems mostly intact in the way distant future of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence when it's partially submerged in frozen-over flood waters. Sometimes it's not even nature or monsters doing the damage, as seen in the 1998 Godzilla remake, in which missiles meant for the beast end up blowing up the Chrysler instead.
Many films do highlight the building without wrecking it. The first shot in the memorable opening to Manhattan centers the Chrysler, though not sharply in focus, and even makes it seem taller than the Empire State Building (the film's title also features a representation of the building as its first "A"). Woody Allen later showcased it even better in the architecture tour montage of Hannah and Her Sisters. Somewhat similar in nature to that sequence, in Two Weeks Notice Hugh Grant points the building out as his favorite in the city while giving Sandra Bullock a helicopter tour. They even discuss the building's historical height competition with the Bank of Manhattan tower. Sidney Lumet gave his fantastical Emerald City version of Manhattan five Chrysler Buildings in The Wiz, visible when Dorothy and the Scarecrow cross over the yellow-bricked Brooklyn Bridge.
Other notable appearances include Spider-Man, with the superhero curled up on one of the gargoyles while mourning the death of Uncle Ben, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which opens with a shot of the lower half of Manhattan from the perspective of one of the gargoyles during the credits (before going into the famous tracking shot), and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, with the Surfer passing through the building without harm to himself or the structure while being chased by the Human Torch. Kramer vs. Kramer features the Chrysler Building through a window when little Justin Henry asks Dustin Hoffman what the "pointy one" is called. In lesser forms, I'm pretty sure that skyscraper Transformer toy in Big is supposed to be modeled somewhat after the Chrysler, and the building at least gets a respectable shout out during the song "Hard Knock Life" in Annie (the fact that you can visualize the Chrysler's sheen is key to part of the lyrics).
The building's biggest role -- even greater than its part in Q -- came with Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3, which utilizes the Chrysler as a sort of character as well as the primary setting. This film installment of the epic art project actually involves the construction of the building and features many interior scenes shot in the Chrysler's lobby, Cloud Club bar and the dome, as well as of course a climax atop its peak (if you're in NYC and have lots of time, by the way, this and the rest of the Cremaster Cycle are playing at the IFC Center this week).
Finally, let me leave you with a full film below. It's a documentary short made by the BBC for its series Building Sights USA and stars John Malkovich touring the Chrysler Building, inside and out, and dramatically -- and I mean dramatically -- talking about the structure and its history. Also included is some fun archival footage of costumed dancers celebrating the opening of the building back in 1930 and architects wearing hats of their respective achievements. I'm only upset that Malkovich wasn't able to get his hands on a Chrysler helmet to wear in the film. Check it out: