Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies

(A copy of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies by Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein (Chicago Review Press, 2013) was submitted to me for review.)

As a lifelong resident of the Chicago area, and a movie fan for about as long, I had a marvelous time reading the second edition of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies by Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein.

I had bought, and enjoyed, the first edition of the book, but there’s a lot of fascinating new material on hand for the new edition. So many movies have been shot in the Chicago area since the first book came out that there’s lots of interesting tidbits to enjoy.

The book is loaded with not only stories and anecdotes, but interviews with moviemakers with deep Chicago roots, such as writer/director Harold Ramis, producer Michael Shamberg, actress Irma P. Hall and so many others.

Plus, the authors have substantially beefed up the section on the early days of cinema, where for a short time it looked like Chicago might be the nation’s movie making capital. This is what I found particularly interesting.

Just outside Chicago’s borders was lots of undeveloped land, perfect for the shooting of westerns in the early days of the movies. William Selig opened one of the first movie studios in Chicago and hired the screen’s first cowboy star, Bronco Billy Anderson, to make a series of westerns. As the authors explained, “Circus horse riders were hired to play cowboys, and Native Americans were brought in from Michigan as Selig’s Indians. Teepees were erected on the studio lot that doubled as both housing for the Native American actors and sets for the Selig westerns.”

The first royalty payments to an author for a movie took place in 1914 when Selig paid author Rex Beach royalties for “The Spoilers”. That early version, starred William Farnum and the Alaska-set story was filmed in Chicago. Anyone who has ever experienced a Chicago winter can easily suspend belief.

Another studio that called Chicago home was Essanay. Charlie Chaplin’s contract with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios ended, and Chaplin was eager to strike out on his own. Chaplin accepted an offer at Essanay, but eventually chafed under the restrictions Essanay forced on him.

His short time in Chicago was not a happy chapter in Chaplin’s life, though he did begin a lifelong friendship with Ben Turpin when they made “His New Job” (1915) together. Also in the cast was a young Gloria Swanson, a Chicago native anxious to make good in the fledging motion picture industry.

When Chaplin’s contract with Essanay ended in 1916, he signed a new contract with the Mutual Film Corporation, starting a string of some of the most popular comedies ever made. I’m sure the California climate was more agreeable to Chaplin as well.

Probably the most prestigious silent film made in Chicago was D.W. Griffith’s “That Royale Girl” (1925) starring Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields.  The climax features a tornado destroying the hideout of some gangsters. Griffith said the tornado was “the only elemental thing I could use that could carry on and culminate the fury of life in Chicago – the vortex of disordered – humanity.”

I was intrigued to read that the first movie screened at the Vatican was “The Coming of Columbus” in 1912. Pope Pius X watched the movie, filmed in Chicago, using replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria originally built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The three ships were sailed to Jackson Park Yacht Basin, where Columbus’s famous discovery of America was re-created.

I also enjoyed many anecdotes in the book, including the accidental extras in “North by Northwest” (1959) and Maureen O’Sullivan being painfully reminded of her cinematic past.

“North by Northwest” was one of the rare films shot in Chicago in the 1950s. A Midway Airport scene on the tarmac had Leo G. Carroll explaining part of the plot to Cary Grant. But Corcoran and Bernstein give us more.

“Look closely during this scene and you’ll notice two men in the background. Extras? Hardly. During the shoot, Bill Blaney, an airport worker at the time, and one of his colleagues snuck onto the runway to catch a peek at Cary Grant. Upon seeing the two men on the runway, Blaney recalled, Hitchcock was outraged. The master of suspense berated the duo for ruining the shot and ordered them to leave. Nevertheless, Blaney and his pal remained in the final cut, giving North by Northwest a slightly more realistic look, albeit through a volunteer effort.”

I’ve enjoyed “North by Northwest” countless times but don’t recall seeing the gentlemen described here. Looks like I’ll have to watch the film again.

Robert Altman’s film “A Wedding” (1978) was shot on the grounds of the Armour Estate in Lake Bluff, a tony suburb known for its expensive real estate. The cast included Mia Farrow, Lauren Hutton, Paul Dooley, Howard Duff, Dina Merrill, Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin and Lillian Gish. Apparently the shoot was a happy one, with Cinematographer Steven B. Poster likening the experience to summer camp: “The children working in the movie would love to have Carol Burnett do her Tarzan yell. Every day, somewhere on the Armour estate you would hear way off in the background this wonderful person doing her Tarzan yell.

“One day, I was sitting in front of the main house. There was a big circular driveway and this huge limousine drove up. Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother, got out of the car. At that moment, somewhere on the estate, Carol was doing her Tarzan yell, because the kids got her to do it again. For a second, I saw Maureen O’Sullivan’s eyes glaze over. Of course, she had played Jane opposite Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. I think she thought she was back in the Tarzan movies! It was hysterical. Carol found out about it later and was extremely embarrassed. It was one of those golden moments.”  

“Call Northside 777” (1947) is a terrific movie for many reasons, but what fascinates me are the scenes of Chicago circa 1947. It’s like time travel, going back in time where all those intersections and streets one walks on every day are simultaneously the same and yet so different.


What I’m not happily familiar with, except from the movie, are the prison scenes in “Call Northside 777”, which were filmed at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

What I didn’t know is a few years previously 20th Century Fox had made an earlier visit to Stateville to film scenes for a film unknown to me, “Roger Touhy, Gangster” (1944). At a time when almost all movies were filmed in Hollywood, Fox saw fit to send a crew, along with Preston Foster, Anthony Quinn and Henry Morgan to Stateville to film the prison scenes there. Yet another movie to be on the lookout for. .

Movies Up Close 

Reading about the many movies filmed in the Chicago area over the last couple of decades brought back lots of memories. Thanks to going to college in downtown Chicago, and working there since the mid-1980s, I’ve been lucky enough to see a few movies being made, or been lucky enough to work in buildings near where some moves where filmed.  

I saw Tom Hanks walk out of the Wrigley Building and yell at a cop for giving him a ticket in “Nothing in Common” (1986). When director Garry Marshall yelled “Cut and print”, everyone watching applauded.

I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger get out of a limo and prepare to shoot a scene for “Raw Deal” (1986). He was shorter than I expected.

One sunny afternoon, a group of us from the office went out to lunch and were strolling down Wacker Drive and came across a crew getting ready to shoot a scene for “Straight Talk” (1992), an underrated romantic comedy starring James Woods and Dolly Parton. Woods was standing on the corner talking to someone and this group of office girls across the street started yelling his name. He looked up and waved to them. The girls started screaming like they were at a Beatles concert. He shook his head, grinned and went back to talking to the gentleman.

My home town of Dolton, a south suburb, only got bit by the Hollywood bug once, for one scene in “The Package” (1989), a spy thriller starring Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones, which authors Corcoran and Bernstein applaud for Chicago’s ability to stand in for multiple international locations.

As they explain, “The action opens in what was then East Berlin, switches to Washington D.C., and winds up in the Windy City. Yet with the exception of some establishing footage shot in East Germany, the entire film was made in the Chicago area.”

I haven’t seen the film since it came out but remember liking it very much. The scene filmed in Dolton had Hackman going to a house to question someone. If memory serves, the scene in the story was set in Virginia, but Dolton filled the bill just fine. I remember the story in the local paper, and Hackman eating lunch and visiting a local senior’s facility and being quoted, “You’ve got a nice little town here.”  Yes, we did.

My old office, at 208 S. LaSalle St., is located right in the LaSalle Street Canyon, a famous locale for viewers of period gangster movies like “Hoodlum” (1997), “The Road to Perdition” (2002) and “The Untouchables” (1987). With its vintage streetlights and facades that have not changed since the 1920s, only modern signage gives away the fact that it’s 2013 and not 1927. No wonder filmmakers love to shoot there.

There’s the famous shot in “The Untouchables” where Eliot Ness and Co. pull their first raid. They walk across La Salle St., accompanied by that swelling Ennio Morricone theme, stopping traffic and enter a post office which turns out to be bootleg operation. The door they walked through was for many years a Coach retail store in our building, but this 007 fan always thought it was great that Sean Connery filmed an iconic scene in a building I went to work in every day. OK, maybe not in the building, but I’ll settle for a door.

A few years later we moved to an office on Wacker Drive, across the Chicago River and facing the Merchandise Mart.

I don’t care very much for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Still, it was pretty exciting when building management and a representative from Warner Bros. came to our office with a request. Apparently, “The Dark Knight” (2008) was going to be shooting a rooftop meeting scene on the building across the alley from us and the camera crew determined the 12th floor offices in our building were ideal to hang additional lighting for the scene. Would we give them permission to put lights in our offices facing the building across the alley? Of course we said yes.

It turned out fine. The lights were only in our offices two or three nights and all the equipment was off when we arrived for work in the morning. I forget how much they paid us – it was a nominal fee – but it wasn’t a hassle at all.   A few days after the lights were removed, a rep from the movie came by and asked if everything was OK, if anything was damaged and did we have any complaints. We didn’t because everything was handled with the utmost professionalism.

I must confess to some disappointment on watching the scene and not being able to recognize our building in the background. I do think, however, that it’s probably the best lit scene in the movie.

I positively loathed “Wanted” (2008), the Angelina Jolie assassination movie, but again our office building played a little role in it. At the time, there was an empty retail space on the ground floor and the film’s caterers used it to feed the cast and crew while they were filming the big chase scene along Wacker Drive. As I left the office each evening you could see what was being prepared and they had some real nice spreads laid out.

Talking to our building crew after they left, they all got to meet Angelina Jolie and they all said she could not have been nicer or more down to earth, with no airs or pretensions about her at all. That’s always nice to hear.

A few days later I was talking in the elevator to a lawyer tenant who had been working late that evening and had his mind on an upcoming case. He said he almost had a heart attack when he walked out the front door just as various cars came screeching around the corner followed by a street-level helicopter. Our building sits by a curve and all the cameras were around the corner, so he didn’t ruin a shot.

Reading about all the movies filmed here, my vote for favorite Chicago movie still remains “Code of Silence” (1985) starring Chuck Norris, thanks to the incredible array of locations on display. Few movies highlight the breadth of the city so well. Director Andrew Davis is a native Chicagoan and knows its nooks and crannies better than anyone. He also makes the best use of the famous el trains I’ve ever seen, staging a terrific fight scene atop a moving el train as it works its through the Loop and over the Chicago River.

While the book is probably of most interest to those Chicagoans who recognize the places and neighborhoods mentioned in the book, Hollywood on Lake Michigan offers a useful guide to Chicago’s famous film locations. Visitors looking to take a movie tour of Chicago should use the book as a most entertaining guide. Use it as a guide and stay for the anecdotes.


The Lady Eve said...

Great post, Kevin - and the book sounds fascinating. I'm going to have to watch "North by Northwest" again, too, and keep an eye out for those two "volunteer" extras.

Rick29 said...

Terrific book review, Kevin, which naturally makes me want to buy HOLLYWOOD ON LAKE MICHIGAN. You described many cinematic exploits of the Windy City that were new to me. I am glad you mentioned CALL NORTHSIDE 777, one of the my favorite on-location films of the 1950s and one that capture Chicago in all its glory.

Silver Screenings said...

I never knew Chicago was such a hotbed of filmmaking! This book sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review and all the interesting history.

Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating stuff. It's always nice to have an extra reason for watching a favourite movie and spotting locations is a grand excuse.

You should see if TCM would stake you to leading a tour like the one they do in NYC.

ClassicBecky said...

Hi Kevin -- it's been a while, but it's great to be back and reading your wonderful articles. This book sounds divine! I'm not from Chicago, but the snippets you give make it sound like one I'd like to have. I was particularly interested in your remark about Chicago possibly being the movie capitol. I never knew that. Have a Happy New Year!

Patti said...

Interesting, informative article, Kevin. I had no idea so many movies were filmed in Chicago.

I would love to visit Chicago one day. I've only been there by connecting at O'Hare a few times and, once, on I-90 while on a cross-country trip. We planned our travels so we would be driving through the city about 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday.

Hollywood on Lake Michigan sounds like a terrific read. Thanks for your great review.

Happy new year,

DorianTB said...

Kevin, I totally enjoyed your post about HOLLYWOOD ON LAKE MICHIGAN: 100+ YEARS OF CHICAGO AND THE MOVIES! What a treasure trove of Chicago's films! I admit I especially enjoyed your anecdotes about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, my favorite movie of all time! My husband Vinnie and I have longtime friends in Chicago, so I'll spread the word to them as well. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Kevin Deany said...

Well this is embarrassing. I left response comments for everyone, but for some reason they didn't show up. I'll try again.

Eve and Dorian, yep I'll have to pull out the NXNW DVD and look for that Midway Airport scene. Sounds like a hoot. Another boo boo in the movie is at the fake assassination scene at the restaurant outside Mt. Rushmore. There's a little boy extra seen putting his fingers in his ears, no doubt awaiting the blanks to be fired.

Rick, CALL NORTHSIDE 777 is one of my favorites as well. A great Chicago movie.

SS, Chicago is particularly hot right now, what with CHICAGO FIRE and CHICAGO PD filming, among other TV shows. One always runs into trailers while walking through downtown. No star sightings, though I probably wouldn't recognize everyone.

My brother had better luck. Several years ago my brother recognized Jude Law, who was standing on a street corner with him. My brother said hello to him and hoped he enjoyed his stay. Jude Law thanked him kindly and said he was. My brother said he seemed very nice.

Another time, he saw the trailer for Mel Gibson's PAYBACK and recognized Gregg Henry (who really doesn't look like anyone else.) My brother said Henry stopped him to ask for directions. He was also very nice my brother said. (Ironically it was the same block in the River North neighborhood. Maybe I need to hang out there more.)

CW, thanks for the compliment, but I think the authors of the book would do a much better job of being a guide than I would.

Becky and Patti, thanks for the words, and I do hope you get a chance for a real visit some time. It's a great city, warts and all.

Thanks to all for writing and I'm sorry if it appeared I wasn't interested in your comments. Let's hope this one goes through.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the wonderful review, Kevin, and thanks to everyone for the nice comments!

Actually, Caftan Woman, I am a Chicago Tour Guide and do a Cinematic Chicago Tour, which is how I came to write the 2nd Edition of Hollywood On Lake Michigan in the first place. You can read about it in the Foreward of the book in the sample on the Amazon Link on the top of the page.

Kevin Deany said...

Michael, thank you for stopping by and thank you and Arnie for all your hard work on the second edition. A terrific book all around.