I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Prettiest Building Around: The Chrysler Building


by Brian Correia
July 27, 2011

There's just something about the Chrysler Building. Though this indispensable part of the New York City skyline was only the tallest building in the world for a mere eleven months (at which point it was surpassed by the Empire State Building), it justifiably remains one of the most famous buildings in Americai and a standout in a city full of them. A simple glance at the still impressive skyscraper's inimitable terraced crown is all it takes to understand why. It is a work of art. Since it opened in 1930, it has inspired people all over the worldii. But there's more to the Chrysler Building than Art Deco. It is the symbol of an America in that old clichéd time, “the roaring twenties;” a reminder of an America that would soon have bigger fish to fry as it descended into The Great Depression.

An American icon and a masterpiece of Art Deco design, the Chrysler Building has been the subject of innumerable canvases and cameras. It has enjoyed a stable cinematic career as the go-to symbol of Manhattan and all for which the island stands. The building has been a part of so many films, in fact, that critic James Sander has described it as worthy of the “Best Supporting Skyscraperiii” Oscar. Note the “supporting.” The Chrysler Building would be an even more prominent cinematic icon if not for its foil, The Empire State Building. King Kong himself was slated to carry Fay Wray to the top of the Chrysler during the climactic scene of his eponymous film until it was surpassed in height. After all, there was no reason for Kong to climb to the top of the prettiest building in New York City.

Despite this snub, the Chrysler Building has gotten along on celluloid just fine. This diverse collection of clips highlights a small, Network-Awesome-worthy fraction of the many movie scenes and documentaries that have been devoted to the skyscraper, ranging from BBC-helmed, John-Malkovich-in-a-scarf-narrated documentaries to choice cuts from B movies. Here we even level the playing field (sort of) and give the Chrysler Building something it has deserved since 1933: its own monster. In fact, in what must have been an effort to ease the trauma of the King Kong debacle, the skyscraper eventually shared the screen with not one but two reptilian beasties: Godzilla in 1998's Broderickerrific failed franchise reboot attempt, and David Carradine in Larry Cohen's Q – The Winged Serpent.

At least as inspirational as the tower's design is the story of the tower's construction (or, as Matthew Barney probably prefers to call it, the tower's erection.) This is the story that Barney puts an abstract spin on in 2002's fifth (but third chronologically) and final installment of his Cremaster Cycle. Barney's surreal account of the Chrysler Building's construction, which involves masonic rituals, demolition derbies, and Vaseline, is not quite historically accurate, but that's not quite the point. Never before, perhaps, has the Chrysler Building played such a prominent role in a film. It might be time to dust off that “Best Skyscraper in a Leading Role” statue.

The real story may not be as colorful as Barney's Cremaster interpretation, but it begs for cinematic treatment all the same. In 1928, Walter P. Chrysler, founder of (you guessed it) Chrysler Corporation, had an idea. It was exactly the kind of idea that powerful automotive moguls had in the halcyon days of 1928: Step 1 – Build a skyscraper. Step 2 – Put his name on it. And not just any skyscraper, of course. The tallest skyscraper in the world! For this job, he commissioned the architect William Van Alen. Van Alen's design, which incorporated the famous crown and hood ornament gargoyles, is considered a masterpiece of the Parisian design style known as Art Deco. The interior of the tower, which we get a generous look at in one of this collection's segments, includes an Edward Trumbull mural on the lobby's ceiling and beautifully designed and decorated elevators. All of the above contributes to the Chrysler Building's undeniable and singular artistic integrity.

When the tower opened in 1930 (not without the help, to tie it back to Cremaster, of Irish laborers and the organized crime Syndicate), it was the tallest building and/or man-made freestanding structure in the world. Before the tower's completion, it had been about the same height as the Bank of Manhattan Building. However, there was a very fierce and very public competition for the title of tallest building in the world. To ensure the Chrysler Building's supreme height, Van Alen had a 125-foot-long spire secretly assembled inside the tower and hoisted to the top. Victory!

Well, victory for eleven months anyway. But the Empire State Building would be the last giant skyscraper to open for a long time, as the country was plunged into the Great Depression. Most of the country (maybe not Donald Trump) has since moved on from the quest to build the tallest tower to arguably better things. If you told Walter P. Chrysler that the tallest building in the world would be eventually be in a place called Dubai (shoutout to Burj Khalifa), or anywhere but America for that matter, he probably would have scoffed. Then again, today's largest automobile manufacturer is Japan. A lot has changed since 1930. Towers like the Chrysler Building are relics of a bygone era; one we look at fondly but hesitantly. One thing's for sure though, they don't make skyscrapers like they used to. Just ask any director that still relies on the triangular windows and long spire of the Chrysler Building to set their New York City scene. Just ask John Malkovich.

ii http://bit.ly/ecqVLQ

iii http://bit.ly/rhy4Rr

Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.