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Were no movies made in Chicago while Richard J. Daley was mayor?
October 15, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Was Chicago lost to film during Richard J. Daley's term? The Wikipedia article on The Blues Brothers says, "Mayor Richard J. Daley had all but prevented films from being produced there up until his death in 1976." A cursory look at the 2,000+ entries in the Internet Movie Database for "filming location: Chicago" does show a large gap in from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Does this mean that in the 1960s Salt Lake City was better documented, due to Carnival of Souls, than Chicago, or am I blanking on a bunch of movies?

— Slithy Tove, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board


Cecil replies:

Let's think about this. Carnival of Souls (1962), a low-budget horror movie that has become a cult classic, was in fact shot in Salt Lake City, much of it at Saltair, a spooky abandoned amusement park. The film is about a woman who's caught between the worlds of the living and the dead — no question, that pretty much captures life in Salt Lake City. Then again, if we turn our attention to Chicago, the movie from roughly the same period that comes immediately to mind is Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969). Much of it was filmed during the riotous Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in 1968. Despite the passage of 40 years I vividly recall the shots of National Guard troops and the famous off-camera line, "Look out, Haskell, it's real!"  I think anyone who was around will agree that flick nailed the Chicago experience at the time.

But let's get down to specifics. Did Richard J. Daley oppose moviemaking in Chicago while he was mayor? Not entirely, but it's fair to say he didn't go around serving film crews coffee and doughnuts. Is the roster of films made in Chicago during his tenure on the thin side? Yup. Was that mainly the mayor's doing? A few rash souls may argue the point, but as we'll see, the answer is no.

For background on Chicago cinema I spoke to historian Arnie Bernstein, author of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies (1998) and co-author with Michael Corcoran of a newly published second edition (2009). Bernstein confirms that Richard J. was suspicious of Hollywood ventures in Chicago, figuring they'd reinforce the city's image as the home of Al Capone and the mob. That fear wasn't unfounded. The TV series The Untouchables starring Robert Stack, inspired by the autobiography of Capone-chasing FBI agent Eliot Ness, aired from 1959 to 1963. Medium Cool made it apparent there was no end of ways filmmakers could embarrass Chicago. Bernstein writes:

To this day, Daley's contempt for Hollywood portrayals of his beloved city is legendary. Hizzoner, as Daley was often referred to, couldn't stand to see Chicago or its police department portrayed in a negative light and for many years made it difficult for out-of-town filmmakers to use Windy City locations. Said one Chicago policeman who occasionally dealt with Hollywood crews, "If it's not Mary Poppins, the mayor doesn't want it."

Daley didn't oppose all movie ventures. He publicly backed a foray into the business by The Second City, which wanted to film Keith Laumer's science fiction novel The Monitors. At a 1967 press conference, Bernstein reports, Daley promised full city cooperation, declaring, "We have a wonderful city to be part of a motion picture project. We have anything anyone wants to shoot. We have a wonderful lakefront."  Unfortunately, despite, or maybe because of, a cast that included everybody from U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen to Xavier Cugat, The Monitors was a fiasco — "a series of good intentions gone woefully bad," Bernstein writes. "Released in 1969, The Monitors took a much-deserved critical bashing. The film quickly disappeared into the footnotes of movie history, and Daley returned to his old stance on filmmakers."

 OK, so Daley pθre wasn't a big fan of Hollywood. You can't blame him for the scarcity of films made in Chicago. Here a look at movie history is helpful. At the dawn of the industry, believe it or not, Chicago was a major film center — partly, one gathers, because the tinkerers who built a lot of early movie equipment were here. At the local industry's height in the teens, Bernstein says, 1 in 5 movies was made in Chicago. The major players were Essanay Studios, 1345 W. Argyle, and Selig Polyscope, whose production lot was at Irving Park and Western. Meanwhile, south side entrepreneurs made "race pictures" aimed at the African-American audience. Most of the movies made in the city were one- or two-reelers — primitive westerns were a staple. Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and other film legends all worked for a time in Chicago.

But Chicago studios soon shifted their production to California in search of better weather and more varied scenery. Local production dried up. IMDb lists 210 movies made in Chicago through 1919. After that, very little — just 44 productions from 1920 to 1954.  During the same period, 1,674 movies were made in Los Angeles and 459 in New York. If anything, business perked up while Daley was mayor. IMDb lists 81 movies made in Chicago from 1955 to 1976, as against 725 in Los Angeles and 631 in New York. (I exclude TV shows and made-for-TV movies.) Some of the Chicago productions were memorable, such as Bullitt (1968) and The Sting (1973), and at least one is a classic — Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), named "Best Film Made in Chicago, Ever," by (ahem) us.

My point is that Chicago didn't fall off the moviemaking map because Daley became mayor; it had fallen off long before. Could Daley have done more to promote Chicago as a film location? No doubt. The Blues Brothers (1980), by common consent the breakthrough movie for Chicago as a film venue, was made with the enthusiastic cooperation of Jane Byrne, who if nothing else understood the promotional and economic value of a Hollywood production. After that the gates opened. IMDb lists 1,241 movies made here from 1977 to date (again, TV and video productions excluded).

To be sure, that's still only a fraction of the output from Los Angeles and New York (10,535 and 6,348 projects, respectively). Local production continues to ebb and flow for economic reasons. Chicago cinema buffs fondly reminisce about their days as extras on movies made here during the 1980s and 90s, when pay scales were sharply lower than in L.A. A lot of that business eventually migrated to Canada, where costs were lower still. Nonetheless, the city remains a popular spot to make films, partly because it makes such a gorgeous backdrop, as strikingly demonstrated in The Dark Knight (2008). It's the little things I like, though — for example, the mention of Chicago street intersections and other references threaded through The Matrix (1999), made by Chicago natives the Wachowski brothers. Maybe the town will never be the cinematic force it was a hundred years ago, but it's fun to be in the game.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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