Newark on the backlot: Gypsy (1962)

When I began blogging about cinematic representations of Newark (which stemmed out of my teaching a class on film and urban history, but feeling a bit ridiculous doing it in Newark without having a real sense of locally-shot work–here’s a longer discussion of this, buried deep in the blog-archive), one conundrum that failed to occur to me was: what if purported Newarks are not really Newark?

Clearly I do not watch enough classic Hollywood cinema, where the entire cosmos exists on a backlot off Melrose Avenue, or I’d have thought of this earlier (though there’s also the later New Jersey Drive, one of the rare films set in Newark but largely shot in the surrounding environs for interesting political reasons). So thanks to Mary Rizzo, intrepid watcher of musicals, for this suggestion:

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Those are the faces a concerned young Natalie Wood makes as the family troupe rolls into Newark in Gypsy, during a brief, rather flimsy, tour montage. And here is the film’s “Newark”:


Yeah, that’s it: they made a painting. A little insulting, but for what it’s worth, San Francisco receives the same treatment.

It’s really too bad, since I’m not aware of any early-60s cinematic depictions of the city. It was good enough for Hitchcock and Kubrick, but apparently director Mervyn LeRoy, whose career ran from the 1920s to the late 60s without much of interest beyond The Bad Seed, just couldn’t miss a happy hour at the Brown Derby or something.

I’d cough up some cheesy Baudrillard joke, but really, is it worth the effort? In any case, here is how Newark was rendered legible to mass culture before 1967: a skyline, a river, a presumed port that could be any port. It’s less insulting than many later representations of the city, to be sure–though New Jerseyites will surely relish the one lone line of dialogue directed toward the city and state: “Newark is in New Jersey, and New Jersey is only one big, deep breath from New York.” Somewhere, the perpetual underdog city of Philadelphia smirks.

Anyway, included here simply to keep archiving any and all cinematic Newarks. Even the incredibly half-assed ones.

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