Though it no longer holds the title of World’s Tallest Building, the Empire State Building (ESB) is still considered one of the world’s most beloved pieces of architecture. And while it has been featured in numerous films, it has also been a “character” in two classic movies taking place in classic New York City–King Kong and An Affair to Remember.
But before we talk about the ESB’s pivotal role in these two films, let’s first take a look at some interesting facts about this New York City landmark:
Designed by architect William F. Lamb, the construction of the ESB started on March 17, 1930 (St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S.).
3400 workers were involved in the project and miraculously, only five people died during its construction.
During its construction, the ESB was in intense competition for title of The World’s Tallest Building. Its competitors–40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building–both held the top spot for less than a year but both properties were surpassed when the ESB was completed.
For a building of its size and stature, construction of the building took a mere 410 days, opening on April 11, 1931, twelve days ahead of schedule.
The official opening of the building was May 1, 1931 when President Herbert Hoover symbolically turned on the building’s light with a push of a button from his White House office.
The full height of the ESB is 1,453 feet. It has 6,500 windows, 73 elevators and 1,860 steps.
The cost of erecting the ESB was a mere $40,948,900 which equals $644,878,000 in today’s money.
Besides its impressive exterior, the ESB is also known for its grand art deco lobby, which among its features, has a depiction of the ESB as the eighth wonder of the world. (This is quite appropriate as King Kong’s original title was indeed, The Eighth Wonder!)
The ESB was named a National Historical Landmark in 1986 and in 2007 was ranked number one as America’s Favorite Architecture.
When the ESB opened in 1931, it was right in the middle of the Depression which left much of its office space empty, helping the building earn the nickname, the “Empty State Building”. But with help however, from a certain over-sized ape, the ESB became the world’s most beloved landmark and in the end, both became forever intertwined.
King Kong – 1933
Who doesn’t know the story of the great ape–feared by villagers, lovesick for the woman who was brought there to seduce him, then killed by those who stole and tried to use him for fortune and fame?
When we first meet Kong, it’s in his native Skull Island where his savagery is let loose upon the island’s villagers.
When he meets Ann Darrow (Faye Wray) however, it is then that we see the potential gentle soul lurking underneath.
Here, the filmmakers were so successful in creating the ape’s touching facial expressions, that you find yourself almost rooting for Kong. And while the scenes of Kong running amok and creating havoc on the island are indeed quite scary, it’s not until Kong is brought to NYC that the terror really begins–the majestic, savage beast let loose in the crowded NYC streets, then scaling the world’s tallest building!
I can only imagine 1934 audiences (especially those who had not seen the ESB in person), being in awe of such sights. For this native New Yorker, that is what made this part of the film scary–the island was fake but NYC and the ESB are real which makes the spectacle of Kong in these particular scenes all that more horrific.
The first truly, “New York movie”, King Kong has also been called the greatest horror film ever made. But when you look at it closely however, it’s also a story about American optimism. There’s optimism in Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong) aspirations to bring the biggest savage on earth back to NYC for a grand exhibition.
There’s optimism in Ann’s aspirations to be an actress. The movie itself was a source of optimism as the film makers succeeded in creating this never before seen special effects film during a time when moviegoers needed to experience this type of escapism. But more importantly, the ESB was a source of optimism as the grand skyscraper represented the glory, hope and future of New York and the rest of the country at a time when it was needed the most.
Love Affair–1939/An Affair to Remember –1957
While the ESB was a source of hope and optimism in King Kong, it played a far more romantic role in Love Affair (LA) and in its remake, An Affair to Remember (AAtR).
While sailing the high seas on a European cruise, Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) famous playboy and sometime artist continuously runs into nightclub singer Terry McKay (Irene Dunne). Soon these encounters turn into conversation, which turns into friendship, which turns into a flirtation which finally turns into romance. (In the better known AAtR, it’s Cary Grant who portrays Nickie Ferrante and Deborah Kerr who portrays Terry.)
At the end of the cruise, Michel and Terry discuss the possibility of marriage. (In AAtR, Nickie pretty much proposes and asks Terry to wait six months for him so that he can devote himself fully to his painting and prove himself worthy of supporting her.)
As the ship veers closer into New York harbor, Terry hands Michel a note with distinct instructions–meet July 1, at five o’clock at the top of the ESB (of course, just as they discuss this, the ESB is right dab smack in the center of the scene!).
In AAtR, just as Nickie and Terry discuss where this reunion should take place, the ESB looms into view. That’s when their decision is made…six months from that day, they will meet at five o’clock on the 102nd floor of the ESB!
In both films, fast forward six months later and just as she arrives at the ESB, Terry is involved in a horrible accident which keeps her from the reunion which leads Michel/Nickie to believe that she no longer loves him. Will fate step in and bring these two back together? Well if the ESB has anything to do with it, YES it will!
Though in both versions we don’t see much of the ESB, it is shown with both romance and longing when it does appear. This is especially true in the Love Affair version where when we first see the building, it’s shrouded in fog, giving it an otherworldly, enchanted look.
In both versions, there’s a wonderful scene where Terry looks wistfully out her balcony and as the camera slowly pans, we see through a window reflection that it’s the ESB that is longingly holding her gaze.
But the scene in both movies that truly establishes the ESB as the most romantic place on earth is when Terry speaks the immortal lines: “It’s the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.”
Yes Terry, it most definitely is…
Unbelievably, at the 1934 Oscars, King Kong was not nominated for a single award.
At the 1939 Oscars, Love Affair was nominated for six Oscars– Outstanding Production, RKO Radio; Best Actress, Irene Dunne; Best Supporting Actress, Maria Ouspenskaya; Best Writing (Original Story), Mildred Cram and Leo McCarey; Best Art Direction, Van Nest Polglase and Al Herman; Best Original Song, Wishing, Music and Lyrics by Buddy de Sylva. Sadly, it won zero awards.
At the 1958 Oscars, An Affair to Remember was nominated for four Oscars–Best Cinematography, Milton Krasner; Best Costume Design, Charles Le Maire; Best Music Original Song, An Affair to Remember, Harry Warren, music, Harold Adamson and Leo McCarey, lyrics; Best Music-Scoring, Hugo Friedhofer. Sadly, it too won zero awards.