We know studio backlot streets and overdressed Hollywood sets when we see them, but even the canniest among us are still fooled to a certain extent when viewing movies from the ancient studio era, particularly films noir. Yes, we may say to ourselves, “Oh, that is clearly a studio backlot!” or “That chair seems strangely familiar,” but how many of us know precisely when we last saw a particular backlot street or piece of studio furniture? The following are some sightings from my countless classic movie viewings. Let’s begin at Columbia Pictures: In 1939, Columbia released the excellent John Brahm crime drama Let Us Live, starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan. This powerful film, unfortunately inspired by true events, focuses on an innocent man condemned for murder, and it contains the expected courtroom scene where the victim faces sentencing from a clueless judge (left frame). Several months later, the studio released Nick Grinde’s “B” chiller The Man They Could Not Hang in which Boris Karloff plays a condemned protagonist (right frame). As the below frame captures indicate, the judge’s bench in The Man They Could Not Hang is the same bench used for the courtroom scenes in Let Us Live.
Ten years latler, the Judge’s chair in The Man They Could Not Hang was pulled out of Columbia storage for two 1949 releases, Joseph H. Lewis’s Undercover Man (left frame) and Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door (right frame).
The judge’s bench in Knock on Any Door, however, was not the same bench used for Columbia melodramas of the previous decade. It was a streamlined bench that made an earlier appearance in Orson Welles’s costly noir, The Lady From Shanghai (1948; below).
And speaking of the great Welles, the cannibalizing of RKO studio assets from his expensive and mutilated masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) included the stunning Victorian era staircase/stain glass windows set used for the Amberson mansion scenes. In the left frame capture, Tim Holt and Agnes Moorhead ascend this magnificent staircase; and in the right frame capture, young Kim Hunter descends the same staircase for the low-budget Val Lewton horror gem, The Seventh Victim (1943).
Like most major Hollywood studios, RKO Radio Pictures, a major contributor to the film noir genre during the 1940s and 1950s, had a “New York Street” as part of its backlot. The street formed a “T” pattern and can be glimpsed in the pioneering Boris Ingster thriller, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940; left frame below). Seven years later, the street reappears in the opening scene of Anthony Mann’s Desperate (1947; right frame below).
Although known for its superb uses of Manhattan locations, Mann’s 1950 M-G-M noir Side Street uses Metro’s own “New York Street” for the commencement of the climactic car chase (left frame below). This same backlot street, redressed, also appears in Mervyn LeRoy’s East Side, West Side (1949; right frame below). It can similarly be glimpsed briefly in two subsequent Technicolor musicals, Show Boat (1951; bottom left frame) and Give a Girl a Break (1953; bottom right frame).
Given the focus on “green” production methods in today’s entertainment industry, it is worth remembering how effectively the old studios recycled their resources – often without our even realizing it.