The wonderful new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of W. C Fields and Louise Brooks in It’s The Old Army Game (1926) is a must-have for any Fields, Brooks, or silent comedy fan. As I’ve reported at length in several prior posts, Fields and Brooks filmed extensively on location in Ocala, Florida, as well as at El Mirasol in Palm Beach. But capping things off, Fields also filmed many scenes in New York, where Buster Keaton filmed The Cameraman and Harold Lloyd filmed Speedy.
It’s The Old Army Game involves a New York real estate swindler played by William Gaxton who uses Fields’ Florida drug store to sell questionable investments to the local townsfolk, but has a change of heart after falling for Louise Brooks. Midway during the film we’re introduced to a couple of New York police detectives planning a trip south to Florida to arrest Gaxton.
The establishing shot for the detectives was filmed in 1926 on the front steps of what was then Precinct 9A in New York, formerly at 150 W. 68th St. The matching photo of Precinct 28 was taken on April 3, 1918, as posted courtesy of Lynne Awe at PoliceNY.com., whose great uncle Edward Policke is somewhere in the photo. The NYPD precincts were redrawn and renumbered twice during the 1920s. According to NYPDAngels.com, Precinct 28 was renumbered Precinct 9A on July 18, 1924, and renumbered again to Precinct 20 on July 3, 1929. At right, a 1923 Bromley Map of New York showing the 28th.
(This matching 1930 Bromley map shows the renumbered 20th.) Pat Storino at NYPDHistory.com confirms the precinct’s identity-changing history, with this image from the NYPD Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. The caption explains the 1927 photo shows the officers of the 9A Precinct, “currently the 20th Precinct, located at 150 West 68th Street, west of Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The photo, which was taken in the summer of 1927, was lent to Brooks Costume Company in 1966 for technical assistance in the Broadway production of ‘Auntie Mame.'” Thus, the original Precinct 28, later becoming Precinct 20, was captured on film in 1926 during the brief time it was numbered 9A.
While a generic gray-glass high rise at the SW corner of Broadway and W. 68th has subsumed Fields’ precinct house, its cousin, the 19th Precinct house across Central Park at 153 E. 67th St., reveals their common architectural DNA. Given that the movie was made in Astoria Queens, where Fields also filmed Running Wild (1927) (see post here), I wondered how they chose this seemingly “remote” station, but even so, it was less than five miles from the studio.
These evocative scenes of all the policemen at the former 9A Precinct whets our appetite for when Fields visits Manhattan later in the film.
To begin, we’re introduced to Fields driving south down 5th Ave. from 57th St., the northern-most of five traffic towers behind him. Most notably, behind Fields to the left is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion (see similar detail at upper right, and as it appears, at right, looking south down 5th in Keaton’s The Saphead (1920)). When Harold Lloyd came to New York in 1927 to film Speedy, his matching view of 57th at the upper left reveals the mansion had already been demolished to make way for Bergdorf Goodman. The color view shows the Palace Hotel towering over the Vanderbilt.
Click to enlarge maps above. As reported in the January 1921 Popular Science magazine, five traffic towers, using the block signal system originally developed by the railroads, were installed on traffic islands along 5th Ave. at 34th, 38th, 42nd, 50th, and 57th Streets. First installed in 1920, the towers were replaced with permanent bronze towers in 1923. By sending electric signals to control men located in each tower, the master signalman at 42nd St. could control the lights along 5th, allowing all 5th Ave. traffic to move at the same time. Despite its initial success, the tower islands blocked traffic lanes, and were removed in 1929.
As I report in my Harold Lloyd book Silent Visions, Harold filmed Speedy extensively along 5th Ave. while driving Babe Ruth to Yankee Stadium. Above, looking north, are the traffic towers at 34th St. left, and 42nd St. right, appearing in Speedy.
Returning to Fields, after driving a bit further south, he turns left from 5th onto E. 55th St. Notice the Vanderbilt mansion, red line, replaced now by Bergdorf Goodman in the modern view. Several buildings along 5th Ave. at back have been remodeled or rebuilt, but the two within the matching boxes appear unchanged.
Matching street signs from 1926 and today. I don’t know if E. 55th was one way at the time, or if the sign was a prop.
As Fields completes his left turn onto E. 55th we see what was then the Hotel Gotham at the left, and the 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church to the right.
Fields looking west, Keaton looking south. It nearly seems mandatory to include 5th Ave. if you’re going to film on location in New York. Two years after Fields, Buster’s sprint to Marceline Day’s apartment in The Cameraman (1928) (she thinks she’s still talking to him on the phone after agreeing to a date when he appears suddenly behind her), was filmed looking south down 5th Ave. at 55th, with the same Hotel Gotham and 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church appearing at back. In prior posts, Bob Egan located both Buster’s Manhattan apartment, and Marceline Day’s apartment, bookending this scene.
With a trick of editing, Fields is no longer on E. 55th, but on E. 62nd, where his car breaks down after being struck by oncoming traffic. Bob Egan found these locations as well. Looking west, the corner building to the left is the Knickerbocker Club, founded in 1871. The headquarters at 2 E. 62nd St. was completed in 1915.
Still looking west, the four balcony brackets behind Fields’ head at 1 E. 62nd are easily visible. The ongoing construction behind Fields is for 810 5th Ave. (built with a 62nd St. entrance), a 13-story apartment tower that replaced a pair of 6 story and 4 story apartments facing 5th Ave.
Looking north, the impressive gated entry to 11 E. 62nd St. appears here.
Looking west, the central buildings are replaced by the modern Rennert Mikvah synagogue at 5 E. 62nd (red awning), while vintage buildings flank each side.
The following year Fields would also film Running Wild (1927) at the Astoria Studios in Queens, appearing several times during that film (see complete post HERE). Yet the studio makes a brief cameo here too, as a fleet of taxis race towards Fields’ car, the back end of the 36th St side of the studio appears in the shot (1929 photo (Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives).
Another view looking west at Fields’ destroyed car, the Knickerbocker Club appearing in the far background.
My great thanks to New York history expert, and NYC pop culture locations blogger Bob Egan of PopSpotsNYC.com, for his assistance with this post. Check out Bob’s new book Pop Culture New York City: The Ultimate Location Finder. As mentioned above, Bob has located both Buster’s Manhattan apartment, and Marceline Day’s apartment, as they appear in The Cameraman. Thanks also to Pat Storino at NYPDHistory.com.
Aside from being popular entertainment, silent movies are also an invaluable historic record, providing rare glimpses of the past that are often overlooked. The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of It’s The Old Army Game is exceptionally deep, providing dozens of views of historic Ocala Florida, Palm Beach Florida, magazines popular during March and April 1926, and as seen here, even New York.
Below, 11 E. 62nd St.