Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is my all-time favorite romantic comedy set in New York City (sorry, Harry and Sally!).
If you haven’t seen The Apartment, please don’t let me spoil it for you, as it’s one of the greats. The film stars Jack Lemmon as C. C. Baxter, an insurance salesman who lends his apartment to the higher-ups at his company to use for their extramarital dalliances. Just as he falls for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the situation starts to spiral out of control.
Though it might seem tame by today’s standards, this premise was wildly controversial in 1960, dealing openly with sex, infidelity, and suicide. And yet it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, ultimately winning both Best Picture and Best Director. I first saw the film in a class taught by the legendary film critic Andrew Sarris, and he described it as one of the few times the Oscars got it right.
Though much of the film was shot in California, a few chilly weeks were spent on location during the winter of 1959. What remains of the New York seen in The Apartment?
After a few aerial shots of New York, we’re introduced to C. C. Baxter’s office building, the fictional Consolidated Life of New York:
The building is actually 2 Broadway, located at the southern tip of Manhattan. The dead giveaway is the Customs Building on the right (which would later appear as the Manhattan Museum of Art in Ghostbusters II). Oh, for the days when you could actually drive all the way around Bowling Green!
The camera tilts up to reveal the rest of the building…and obviously, something doesn’t exactly match up:
At the time of filming, 2 Broadway had just been completed, one of the first modernist skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan. Sadly, the facade was given a very generic blue-tinted make-over a few years ago. Today, it houses the MTA.
We then head inside the building to “Desk #861, Section W, Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division on the 19th floor,” where we find Baxter working diligently:
Art Director Alexandre Trauner created this wonderfully iconic set using forced perspective – the desks get smaller and smaller as you go back, and in fact many were manned by children and dwarves. Sidenote: Directors – please stop asking me to find the real version of this location! I know it’s great, but it doesn’t actually exist! I swear!
While the office set was filmed in Hollywood, we get several shots of the building’s lobby.
Were these at least shot on location?
Er, probably not:
While it’s conceivable that the lobby has since been renovated, this shot reveals a congestion of buildings just outside…
…while in reality, there’s actually just a lot of open space:
Baxter finally reveals why he can’t go home yet – his boss is borrowing his apartment for a quick fling with a secretary. So where was the actual brownstone?
Finding the apartment was so difficult, I almost gave up on writing this article. Scouring Google Maps turned up nothing matching the exterior pictured in the film. And the given address – 51 West 67th Street – was definitely wrong:
The answer came from the website for Celluloid Skyline, a great book by James Sanders on New York’s role in movie history. While some of the exterior shots were done in New York, the freezing weather ultimately proved too much for Wilder, who ordered that the facade be rebuilt on a sound stage. This is one of the production pictures used for the building study…
…revealing the actual location once and for all: C. C. Baxter’s apartment was at 55 West 69th Street:
Of course, things have changed a bit on West 69th Street:
Most of the grand staircases have been removed to make way for more apartment space. Also, the trees have certainly grown:
If Baxter were to enter his apartment today…
…he’d actually be going into someone’s second story window:
Most of the brownstone shots were apparently done on the stage…
Various differences give this away, such as the added horizontal accents and more elaborate staircases, and the lack of rounded bay windows in the neighboring building.
Still, the authenticity is pretty spot on…
…as revealed when Baxter looks up to the window of his apartment:
Though the interiors were all done on a stage as well…
….Wilder and his crew visited several bachelor pads in the area for inspiration…
…and you could really be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was shot on location:
Reluctantly lending out his apartment a second time in one night, Baxter retreats to Central Park…
…finding a spot to wait on the benches running along the West Drive of Central Park:
What I love is that the geography makes sense – walking from West 67th Street, this is exactly where you’d plunk down if you were wandering in misery while your boss shacks up with a floozie in your apartment:
It’s not hard to find the exact location – just look for the lamppost with the tree behind it, which perfectly matches up with the frame. Freezing and wet, Jack Lemmon actually got sick while filming this, which was incorporated into the script.
Ultimately, Baxter’s brownstone earns him a promotion – and tickets to see The Music Man on Broadway. He invites elevator girl Fran Kublik, and the two walk along outside of 2 Broadway.
Fran promises to meet him after having a drink with an unnamed former fling…
…an agreement made at the corner of Broadway and Beaver Street:
And again, the geography stays true as Kublik turns right onto Beaver Street…
…then turns left onto New Street…
…which might just be the first and last time anyone has ever filmed on tiny New Street:
Back in the 1950s, New Street was apparently bustling, with several bright restaurants (though the Rickshaw Chinese Restaurant, her destination, was probably fictional):
Today, all of this is gone, with barricades preventing unauthorized cars from getting into the Financial District.
As it turns out, Kublik’s former fling is Baxter’s evil boss Sheldrake, who professes his love and swears to divorce his wife to be with her. The two go back to Baxter’s apartment, while Baxter waits outside the theater:
The Majestic theater today, at 245 West 44th Street:
Opened in 1927, the landmarked theater has seen the premieres of such classics as The Music Man, Carousel, Camelot, and Phantom of the Opera, the longest running Broadway show in history.
Weeks later at the company Christmas party, Baxter learns that Kublik stood him up for Sheldrake and goes to drink his sorrows away in a bar (unaware that she is in his apartment at this very moment attempting to kill herself, having discovered that Sheldrake lied to seduce her):
While it’s looking a little smaller, this was shot on location…
…at The Emerald Inn, an Irish pub located at 205 Columbus Ave:
Opened in 1943, the Emerald Inn has been a continual Upper West Side fixture through three generations of ownership. Sadly, as many of you have pointed out, it looks like the bar will finally close later this year over a rent increase.
It appears that at some point after 1959, the bar was halved in size – note the position of the door above and below:
Still, if you want to drink forlornly like Jack Lemmon…
…you can’t beat the real thing:
And once again, the geography makes sense: the Emerald Inn is located at Columbus and 69th, just around the corner from Baxter’s apartment. Here’s a map for those who would like to do The Apartment walking tour (er, good luck with that jaunt down to the Battery!):
View Filming Locations of The Apartment in a larger map
The Apartment ends just after midnight on New Year’s Day. As Baxter finally tries to declare his love for Ms. Kublik before a game of gin rummy, she interrupts him with her famous closing line: “Shut up and deal.”
While some might have been hoping for a big, movie-ending smooch, I don’t know if there’s a more honest summation of love to be found in a romantic comedy. Love isn’t about gushy words or passionate kisses, as Ms. Kublik knows full well.
Love is in the moments when you’re playing cards over a bottle of champagne in a small apartment in New York.
PS – Want to feel some real magic? Sit on Jack Lemmon’s bench in the park. Trust me, you’ll feel it.