In Pursuit of the True Philadelphia Story
Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Philadelphia has the longest history of any major city in the United States. Much to the dismay of the city’s cinephiles, the average Joe’s first thought about the crossroads where Philly history meets film history is Nicolas Cage stealing the Declaration of Independence. In fact, film in Philadelphia has been around just about as long as film has existed, making the city a perfect microcosm for examining the film industry as a whole. Stories have been unfolding on screen in The City of Brotherly Love for over a century, but there is still so much untapped potential waiting to be told across its four corners.
Hollywood’s Misappropriation of Philly
The popular belief among filmgoers today is that America’s most lucrative industry is the sole accomplishment of the West Coast. In fact, the true roots of American film lie on the opposite shore right next door in New Jersey. Philadelphia’s film history claim is America’s first “movie mogul” Siegmund Lubin. Unfortunately for Lubin, by the time he was able to sell his successful chain of movie theaters to upgrade to a film studio in North Philadelphia in 1910, the industry had already begun to blow out to the opposite coast.
A few years prior, the “father of film” D.W. Griffith took the fruits of his East Coast predecessors out to Southern California, officially re-establishing the industry in Hollywood. This move out west initiated “The Golden Age” of the film industry and in turn extinguished Philadelphia-based stories just as their fire was ignited. With the exception of The Philadelphia Story (1940), of course. If there’s one word to describe Katharine Hepburn in this film, it’s fiery.
Based on a play about a person, The Philadelphia Story is one of the earliest blueprints for the modern day rom-com. The story follows a mischievous socialite living in a mansion on the mainline in the days leading up to her 2nd wedding. With fast-talking actors and ping-ponging love interests, the film is so chocked full of situational humor and clashing social classes that it leaves audiences deliriously delighted. Yet, in all its hour and 52 minutes of hijinks, the film misses one thing: Philadelphia.
Yet, in all its hour and 52 minutes of hijinks, [The Philadelphia Story] misses one thing: Philadelphia.
While Hollywood’s dominance of the film industry proved to be insurmountable during this era, it was only a matter of time before the steadily churning machine of Golden Age films faded bronze. With audiences growing tired of the formulaic, dialogue-laden talkies of the 40s and 50s, the opportunity for less restricted, experimental storytelling fled the L.A. soundstages. The “New Hollywood” movement of the mid-1960s began a chain reaction of new age films across the country—eventually leading it all the way to the top of those famous art museum steps.
The 1970s Resurgence of the Philly Film Scene
Rocky hit theaters in late 1976, officially bringing film in Philadelphia back to the conversation. Everyone’s favorite fictional boxer is portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, a quintessential underdog both in life and through his performance on screen. With chump change in his bank account and a finished script collecting dust on the East Coast, Stallone took the risk of demanding from the studio that he be the star of his own screenplay. This effectively cut the budget in half, which in turn created an unfounded rumor that the film’s producers were forced to take out a mortgage on their homes.
Becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and winning 3 of its 10 Oscar nominations, the risk clearly paid off. Compared to its old money predecessors, the Rocky franchise is a much more down to earth view of Philly. It may be tempting to describe the storyline as “simple” but it’s the simplicity of the film that gave it the kind of counter-cultural contrast that audiences of the 1970s were craving. The success of the Rocky Franchise in relation to its impact on Philadelphia economically and culturally really can’t be understated, going on to inspire audiences and invigorate the Philly film industry for over four decades (and counting).
Yet deep in the shadow of Rocky Balboa, lives a man named Henry Spencer in a much darker Philadelphia film: Eraserhead (1977). For all the resiliency that Rocky Balboa represents, Eraserhead seems to be a warning about the dangers of succumbing to Philly’s signature grit. Written in part during his years living in the Fairmount/Callowhill area, director David Lynch used his surroundings of the decaying industrial complex in his Philly neighborhood as fuel for this surrealist nightmare.
If the pessimistic views in the film weren’t enough to leave a sour taste in the mouth of Philadelphians, the filming itself was done exclusively in L.A., ultimately bringing no economic growth into the city. However, Lynch was certainly not the last director to seemingly run from Philadelphia. One, perhaps more justified retreat, was that of female director and Philadelphia native Elaine May following the release of her 1976 film Mikey and Nicky.
After years of filmmaking, this was May’s first wholly original script. Inspired largely in part due to her experiences growing up in a mob-connected family, the film follows two childhood best friends fleeing a hitman in Philadelphia. Production of the film well preceded Rocky but Paramount’s production schedule was delayed due to May’s intense commitment to the project. She reportedly filmed 1.4 million feet of footage for a project that Paramount believed required a third of that amount. Following the film’s completion, May ran into problems during the editing process, missing multiple deadlines. Paramount attempted to claim the footage to make final edits, but May hid two reels in her garage in effort to protect her story.
May eventually conceded, allowing Paramount to release a bastardized version of her film. With limited marketing efforts for a movie that was already over budget, Mikey and Nicky was released in theaters just one month after Rocky, ultimately being eclipsed by that year’s Best Picture. Had production gone as planned, the film could have been released much earlier, perhaps garnering some of the fruits of Philadelphia’s labor that Stallone benefited so much from. However, a reconstructed version of May’s work did reap some retroactive success, being inducted into the Criterion Collection in 2019. Even so, the fiasco of Mikey and Nicky effectively stunted May’s career for the following decade, making it her first and final attempt at capturing her own Philadelphia story.
Urban Stereotypes Settle In
By the 1980s, Hollywood had regained its footing, combining marketing strategies informed by defining films of the New Hollywood era with the creation of the film industry’s newest monster: blockbusters. The 80s was certainly an exciting time for film, but with it came more commercially driven productions as well as pressures from money hungry studios to franchise successful stand-alone films. While this certainly worked in favor for Rocky, producing its 3rd and 4th installment in the decade, for the next generation of filmmakers this restructuring of the industry seemed to create movies with a gallimaufry of plotlines born out of a “see-what-sticks” mentality.
This, combined with dwindling tax incentives from the state of Pennsylvania that wouldn’t begin to be remedied until 2004, meant that Philadelphia stories in the 80s were sparse and wide. The handful of films set here differed drastically in tone and theme, from stoic stories in working class neighborhoods like Birdy (1984) to rompish love pursuits in a Center City department store like Mannequin (1987). Though, if closely mined, there were a few trends cropping up in this era that would become more established niches of the city moving into the 1990s and early 2000s.
Perhaps the best place to see some of these stories emerge is in the chaotic, A-Z storyline of Trading Places (1983). This dual protagonist, screwball comedy follows two men whose lifestyles are switched around by corporate big-wig brothers trying to win a racist bet rooted in nature versus nurture. Dan Akyrod plays a snobbish member of the brother’s brokerage firm’s upper echelon who crosses paths with an impoverished con-man played by Eddie Murphy. Through an elaborate series of events, within 24 hours the two men’s lives are totally reversed, forcing them to try and adapt to an entirely different way of living.
While this comedy feature is not typical of the kind of films that would begin to dominate the Philadelphia film scene in the following years, there are undercurrents of serious issues like race, classism, incarceration, drugs, gun violence, sex work, and just about any other stereotype of urban America. Despite the haphazard way these issues were delivered, the film simultaneously contributed to the types of narratives Philly has to offer while also providing insight into societal conceptions of the city leading up to its 1983 release.
Trading Places was a widespread box office success, becoming the fourth highest grossing film that year. Every lighthearted scene laced with dark undertones ultimately contributed to the nation’s perception of Philly on screen—a perception that is still being challenged to this very day. A majority of films released in the following decades would misguide the world into thinking Philly was a city full of vices and lacking in humanity. Thankfully, there would be a few rare gems to show that a little grit never hurt anyone
In 1985 the Greater Philadelphia Film Office was founded in response to New Hollywood's mainstream success of films like Rocky and Trading Places. The economic impact a large-scale film production can bring to a city is incredibly valuable, something the city government officials must have realized in the mid-80s when they offered up a space inside city hall for GPFO to take root. However, while their hearts were in the right place economically, no one seemed prepared for the cultural pigeonhole that local films would force Philadelphia into over the next few decades.
Philadelphia’s Transition from Place to Character
Films released in the years following the establishment of GPFO would cement the conceptions of Philadelphia as a place full of men in prison (Animal Factory, Prison Song, Condition Red), on drugs (Clean and Sober, Jesus’ Son, Explicit Ills), with dangerous vices (The 24th Day, Cover, The Wrestler), and wrapped up in a lot of crime (Renegades, Fallen, Law Abiding Citizen, The Italian Job, A History of Violence, Shooter, Shadowboxer, and, naturally, National Treasure).
While the majority of these films place their men on the Philadelphia landscape for either convenience or historical accuracy, very few of them attempt to capture anything beyond surface-level conceptions of the city. In fact, many of the films erase any trace of Philly’s hallmarks, instead opting to try and pass for New York or some other vague, unidentifiable metropolis. Of course, there are outliers. Of those few films brave enough to name the city they’re in, even fewer dare to go as far as trying to capture its essence. One such outlier is Philadelphia (1993).
From the opening credits, it’s clear that director Jonathan Demme is trying to incorporate Philly as more than just a setting, but as a character. Plenty of other Philly-based films have opened with montages of the city—The Philadelphia Story and Trading Places being among them—but very few attempt to dig any deeper beyond the Liberty Bell and the Philadelphia Art Museum. With Bruce Springsteen’s oscar-winning Streets of Philadelphia playing somberly overtop images of children getting out of school, locals in line at food stands, people staying warm on top of steaming grates, and the bustling crowds around City Hall, it’s hard to imagine a better opening to a film bearing the city’s great name.
However, the film is much more than its opening montage. The story tracks a gay man as he teams up with a local black lawyer with differing views to file a lawsuit against the company that terminated his employment after finding out about his AIDS diagnosis. It’s a complex, emotional plot that was and continues to be widely debated in the role it played as the first mainstream story about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Even so, for all the film’s layered complexity, there’s no doubt of the grounding effect that Philadelphia has on the subject matter.
So why Philly? The movie isn’t going for historical accuracy, in fact, of the multiple real life cases from which the writers drew inspiration, the man whose family sued on his behalf hailed from New York. Apparently the filmmakers considered other cities—Boston, Chicago, Baltimore—but, according to Sharon Pinkenson of the GPFO, what sold them was the courthouse and exteriors of City Hall. Being a film about large-scale justice, there is simply no better place to communicate a deep sense of history and monumental change than the City of Brotherly Love.
Many of the films erase any trace of Philly’s hallmarks, instead opting to try and pass for New York or some other vague, unidentifiable metropolis.
Indestructible City Masculinity
Philadelphia is not the only outlier of the developing Philly film tropes of the 1990s. One other stand out in terms of innovative storytelling on the city’s deeply historical backdrop is the post-apocalyptic 12 Monkeys (1995). As with most time travel stories, the plot becomes a bit muddy before all the loose ends begin tying up. Despite the film splitting its time between Baltimore and Philadelphia, the latter half of the film, as well as its most integral plot points, unfold in Philly future and past.
Bruce Willis plays a character who is the traditional broken hero riddled with toxic masculinity that was quickly becoming the city’s contribution to American filmography. However, the performance Willis actually delivers sets him apart from this narrative pigeonhole by showing a man of constant vulnerability and doubt, trying to piece together fragments of his life that have haunted him since childhood. Outside of Willis, the film offers purview into other supporting Philly characters; ranging from homeless populations living inside the abandoned Met Theater on Broad Street, to punky rabble-rousing animal rights activists.
Of course, this would not be the last time Bruce Willis would have to navigate the streets of Philly. He would return just a few years later for M. Night Shyamalan’s third feature The Sixth Sense (1999). Coming in as the 2nd highest grossing film of that year, the film’s final 20 minutes simultaneously created the need for a “spoiler alert” while also cementing Shyamalan’s presence in the industry. The Sixth Sense was such a jumpstart on the director’s career that it gave him enough pull to film his following project anywhere he wanted. Lo and behold, Shyamalan chose to return to Philadelphia.
Once again starring Bruce Willis in the lead role, Unbreakable (2000) follows a man who is physically indestructible but constantly having the strength of his emotions put to the test. The film also features Samuel L. Jackson in a lead role. Outside of the sporadic appearances of the ultimate opponent Apollo Creed in the Rocky franchise and Denzel Washington’s conflicting performance as a homophobic lawyer in Philadelphia, Jackson contributes some of the first positive representation of black men in large-scale Philly films. Unfortunately, what is initially seen as a progressive portrayal, is eventually underscored in the film’s third act by Shyamalan’s signature plot twist; further perpetuating the stigma that black men, even at their very best, will still be anti-heros.
Nevertheless, Unbreakable was another hometown success, allowing Shyamalan to continue this trend of using his influence to revitalize the film scene in a city that he clearly loves. With the exception of Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) being filmed nextdoor in rural Pennsylvania, every Shyamalan production has been filmed in Philly. As the next two decades of his career unfolded, Shyamalan has not been silent on his loyalty to the city and belief in its filming potential, recently urging state lawmakers to lift the cap on tax credits for film productions. Such a monumental move would undoubtedly make filming in the city a more viable option.
Finding Philly’s Million Women
While Shyamalan’s films have had a major impact on the local economy, they rarely challenge depictions of Philly that do not coincide with his dark, sinister subject matter. It’s even more rare for them to depict anything that conflicts with the tormented male protagonist archetype that has become such an emblem of the city over the last 40 years. While 2016’s Split did offer more female roles, its uncomfortable use of childhood trauma to signal a woman's inherent value was tone-deaf at best, and misogynistic at worst.
The last decade has seen some other slight shifts in the Philadelphia Film ethnosphere, some of which were ushered out of the city’s surrounding suburbs with Silver Linings Playbook (2012). While the film still subscribes to having an emotionally tormented male lead, it matches that lead with a much-needed feminine perspective. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s explosive chemistry delivers a love story layered with more complexity and authenticity than the city had seen on screen since The Philadelphia Story. Silver Linings Playbook received 8 academy award nominations, with Lawrence taking home lead actress.
Opportunities for prominent female roles in big budget Philly productions were, and continue to be, almost nonexistent.
Until Lawrence’s unprecedented win, Opportunities for prominent female roles in big budget Philly productions were, and continue to be, almost nonexistent. There had not been a leading female role since Katherine Hepburn in 1940 and, even so, remember that The Philadelphia Story was filmed entirely on the West Coast. Throughout the following decades, among the multitudes of men in the industry, the area produced a slim few female filmmakers: Elaine May, infamous for her chaotic direction of Mikey and Nicky, and Susan Seidelman, who would only later return to the area to produce her hometown semi-autobiographical doc Confessions of a Suburban Girl (1992).
On-screen there was slightly more female representation, but only ever in supporting roles at best. Trading Places took what would become a profitable risk with Jamie Lee Curtis, known at the time only for her b-horror career, by casting her as a sultry sex worker in their upbeat, raunchy comedy. What starts with a fully autonomous character with opening lines like, “The only thing I've got going for me is this body, this face, and what I got up here. I don't do drugs. And I don't have a pimp … The place is a dump. But it’s cheap. It’s clean. And it’s all mine,” quickly devolves into a caricature of a woman eager to trade her independence for a domestic role serving a mediocre white guy who thinks it’s chill to do blackface.
Moving into the 90s, supporting roles for women would improve somewhat, but only slightly. Madeleine Stowe in what some might consider a lead role in 12 Monkeys, for example. Stowe plays esteemed psychologist Kathryn Railly, delivering a performance that not only keeps up with Bruce Willis, but eventually becomes much of the film’s driving force. However, as the haphazard time travel plot unfolds, the character suffers so many various kidnappings and attacks, that her ultimate romance with the male lead and her captor/savior underscores whatever redeemable qualities that role initially offered.
Of course, prior to both of these the Rocky franchise saw a female character arc that spanned over five films with Talia Shire in the role of Adrian Pennino. Serving as Rocky’s most consistent motivating force throughout the series, it’s undeniably satisfying to see the mousy, quiet girl in the pet shop develop into a supportive, yet firm partner to The Italian Stallion. Yet, with the exception of a few rare moments where Shire is permitted to take the spotlight, the character spends much of the series living in the shadow of the series’ namesake. It further complicates the defense of the female role to know that it was easily written out of the franchise under the belief that, “Adrian’s probably more prevalent by not being in this movie than if she was.”
Even Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and ultimate Oscar grab was dampened by the plethora of the film’s fans claiming Cooper was more deserving of such a win for being the real lead protagonist. Also, if it’s not already glaringly obvious, what little sparse representation of women there are both behind and in front of the cameras for major productions in Philly, all of them have been white. For a city that has a white and black population percentage that’s constantly neck and neck, and the largest gender gap of any major U.S. city, it’s simply unjust that there aren’t more black women calling the shots in the Philly film scene.
Long Live the Philly Indie!
While this has yet to change, the virile, largely white male roles defined by the likes of Philadelphia icons like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis was finally challenged in 2015. In recent years, Michael B. Jordan has joined the ranks with the franchise reboot of Creed alongside Tessa Thompson serving as the new female supporting role and first person to finally explain what "jawn" is on the big screen. Black filmmakers Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington teamed up with Stallone to write the script for this next generation of the Rocky series.
The result is a film that not only offers a more realistic racial demographic of the city, but also incorporates parts of the city that are historically disregarded in major motion pictures, namely North Philadelphia and Frankford. Not only does the film aim to dig beneath the surface of the city, but it also does the same for its lead protagonist, opting to invest the audience in Donnie Johnson’s transformation into Adonis Creed with softer, vulnerable moments. Tessa Thompson’s character also serves to soften the protagonist’s outer edges, while still managing to stand separate and apart from him as much as the male filmmakers behind the project will allow. Overall though, the film was a much needed step in the right direction, a direction which only seems to be continuing with Creed’s subsequent sequels as well other Philadelphia filmed projects like 21 Bridges (2019) and Concrete Cowboy (2020).
Major Philadelphia films have made what might seem like a major shift from those initial early 20th century depictions of the upper crust along the mainline all the way to the 21st century hole-in-the-wall cheesesteak shops in North Philly. However, it’s important to recognize that most of the changes that happen in big-budget films have trickled down from the trial and error of hundreds of independent films that have come before them. To name a few: the first feature directed by a black lesbian with The Watermelon Woman (1996), the quaint sci-fi twist of a West Philly coffeeshop with Cafe (2011), the inspiring albeit cheesy documentary about a North Philly high school rugby team with The Nomads (2019), and the ultimate low budget indie about a South Philly boxer that started it all.
Despite film and photography's mid-Atlantic roots, thanks to the extremely racist D.W. Griffith, California continues to dominate the film industry to this day. "East coast film" just isn't part of the status quo, and likely conjures up images of New York City's experimental film scene well before anyone considers Philadelphia's masculine pigeonhole. As the sister city seemingly forever stuck in NYC's shadow, most assume this is all Philly's film scene has ever had to offer. It's high time this misconception ends.
Philadelphia does have an exciting film scene, it's just been forced to operate in the shadows of the indie market for decades. What sporadic mainstream films that do make it tend to be relegated to the niche of the broken, male, anti-hero. 45 years ago, Rocky was the indie that made the mark that was the catalyst for Philadelphia stories. Now that this mark has begun to fade, it's time for Philly's indie filmmakers to scratch beneath the industry's surface once again and reveal the true beauty our city holds.
For a more expansive list of films related to Philadelphia please visit https://film.org/filming-in-philly/filmography/, check out this letterboxd list, or click here.
Matthew Crump is a creative writer and a recent, first-generation graduate of the University of North Carolina at Asheville with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. While there, Matt focused on journalism, film, and creative writing, producing and directing multiple short films, as well as writing a feature-length screenplay. After graduation, Matt moved to Philadelphia to work in arts education and integrate into the city's exciting landscape for film- eventually leading them to Lil Filmmakers! Matt is honored and excited to work alongside the fellows in The Guideline Project's inaugural class.