Everything I Know About Philadelphia From Movies and TV

How the City of Brotherly Love is depicted on screen.
Rocky Art Museum
By  · Published on July 25th, 2016

Mannequin was filmed at Woolworths; Boys II Men still keepin’ up the beat.”

Even though I spent a summer in Philadelphia after college, I still mostly picture the city in my mind through scenes from Mannequin and the music video for “Motownphilly.” And it’s not just because of the above lyric from Ween’s “Freedom of ‘76.” Movies and television depictions of places can permeate in our minds even stronger than actual experiences and memories. You can’t run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art without thinking of the iconic moment in Rocky, and later your recall of your own action will barely be separated from that of Sylvester Stallone’s.

The Pennsylvania metropolis has an interesting identity in popular culture, as it’s kind of depicted as a combination of New York City lite and Boston lite. It’s not featured nearly as often nor as prominently as either of those locations despite sharing a lot of the social and economic character of the former and its suburbs, and having a similar historical character to the latter. Outside of period films like 1776 and a franchise concerned with America’s past such as National Treasure, few movies and TV series set in Philly seem to be necessarily set there. Except maybe for thematic purpose.

The reasons for Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia being set there, for instance, aside from one of the possible real-life inspirations being Philly based, have to do with its ironically being known as the city “of brotherly love” and liberty and the place where Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal.” Plus the director said it could represent “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of America. It’s also the kind of city, although one of the most populous in the nation, that people associate with the common. According to public health official Marla J. Gold at the time, “[Philadelphia] said if it can happen here it can happen in your city, and it is happening in your city.”

Other than the museum, there are certain landmarks we all know from seeing Philadelphia in movies and television. There’s Independence Hall, of course, plus Rittenhouse Square, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, City Hall, and not Woolworths but Wanamaker’s department store, used as the primary setting of Mannequin, apocalyptically in Twelve Monkeys, and as the spot where John Travolta crashes into a window display in Blow Out. From an outsider’s perspective, that last, commercial location is apparently a big deal, as it’s also at least mentioned in The Philadelphia Story.

If you need to take a train, you go to 30th Street Station, which we see in Blow Out, Marnie, the opening of Witness, the end of Trading Places, and many of the films of Philly native M. Night Shyamalan (though the memorable train station scene in Unbreakable was actually shot in another building’s lobby). If you go crazy, you get sent to the Eastern State Penitentiary, seen in Twelve Monkeys. And if you want to get into trouble, head to West Philadelphia, which probably isn’t at all as dangerous as Will Smith makes it sound in his theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

But Philly is indeed regularly seen as a city of significant class differences. Not only is it directly addressed in Trading Places, where I first learned the financial industry wasn’t confined to NYC (however, it does climax there, at the World Trade Center) and where a high class broker swaps places with a panhandling bum. One of the fanciest high society movie families of all time is Katherine Hepburn’s in The Philadelphia Story, while Rocky Balboa has always represented the city as one of cinema’s greatest blue collar heroes. And Twelve Monkeys showcases Philly’s homeless population.

It may always be sunny in Philadelphia (doubtful, actually), but on screen the city typically looks cold enough to be mistaken for being situated more northerly than it is. Or maybe that’s just the fault of Trading Places being set at Christmas. And Rocky jogging in so many layers. And the fact that it always gets chilly when ghosts are around (which, spoiler alert, is always) in The Sixth Sense. It also looks pretty small for having the fifth largest population in the US (it is 70th largest in area). You can run across much of it easily, whether you’re a boxing champ or a child following behind him.

One of the more interesting connections between movies set in Philly is its being a semi-regular locale for the undead, whether it’s the zombie outbreaks of the original Dawn of the Dead and World War Z or the ghosts in The Sixth Sense or the eerie ideas found in Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, which is a documentary and so seemingly unfair to consider next to fictional depictions of the city, but it’s one with a more mythical subject matter than, say, High School and Let the Fire Burn. For a place so important to history, though, it’s surprising there are not more films set there involving the paranormal and the afterlife.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Philly from movies and TV, though, it’s that it is portrayed as the underdog city. There’s Rocky, of course, and joining him in the athletics department are Mark Wahlberg as ordinary guy turned NFL pro Vince Papale in Invincible and Terrence Howard as swimming coach Jim Ellis in Pride. Outside of sports you’ve got the united duo of Trading Places, the dancing couple of Silver Linings Playbook, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (a show that was an underdog success itself), and the Starship song “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin.

And we can build this dream together
Standing strong forever
Nothing’s gonna stop us now
And if this world runs out of lovers
We’ll still have each other
Nothing’s gonna stop us
Nothing’s gonna stop us

It’s not an unlikely link for cultural representations of a city that hosted the founding of one of history’s biggest underdogs of all time: the United States of America. Also, it’s near the birthplaces of Tina Fey/Liz Lemon, who for the second week in a row gets to close out a column on how we see cities in the movies and TV with another bit from 30 Rock:

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.