Chicago Film Archives

Visitors and locals love to delight in recounting Chicago locations featured in iconic Hollywood films. From the dramatic vistas of Chicago featured from Lake Shore Drive ("My Best Friend's Wedding," anyone?) to the long-gone Trailways bus terminal (hello, "Adventures in Babysitting"), the Second City has been a popular place to shoot on location since the days of Essanay Studios.

But what of those lesser-known gems? The curious industrial films that feature the city, the odd travelogue, or even an artist's interpretation of Chicago during the holidays all are worthy of folks curious about Windy City history. 

Here are a few gems, complete with my own viewing suggestions for don't miss moments within these fine frames.


Chicago: City to See in '63

Chicago Film Archives

How do you get members of the Photographic Society of America to explore Chicago? Create a 13-minute travelogue that highlights the El, Lincoln Park, Grant Park, Riverview, and dramatic construction scene, of course. Crafted by filmmaker Margaret Conneely in 1962, this curious bauble brings together an overly bombastic zooming score with narration that is always alliterative and vaguely louche. It's a wonderful time capsule and it's one that merits several viewings. 

Must-see moment: At 2:39 where the narrator intones "I know your every move, your every thought, I know every flashing neon light of you," we are treated to a kaleidoscope of long-gone Chicago haunts, including Mr. Kelly's and the Gate of Horn.


You Are There: "The Chicago Fire"

Chicago Film Archives

What if there had been a television crew at the scene of the Chicago Fire of 1871? Better yet, what if Walter Cronkite had been back at the studio giving a frightened nation up-to-the-minute updates? Yes, that would have been something else, indeed. This 1955 curio (under the able direction of Margaret Conneely) offers up coverage of this terrible conflagration told in mid-20th century narrative style. We hear from reporters along the way as the fire whips around and the wind refuses to let up. It's actually quite well done, and in lesser hands it might have been unbearably hokey. It should be noted that at no time does Mrs. O'Leary appear in this film. Suspect, no? 

Must-see moment: At 7:21 Todd Hunter reports on the thousands of cattle fleeing the stockyards to escape the fast-moving fire.


An American City at Christmas

Chicago Film Archives

The illustrator Franklin McMahon was born in Chicago and had a long and illustrious career covering the civil rights movements, U.S. presidents and much more. He earned the title "The Man Who Drew History" and in 1978 he cast his eye towards Chicago during the holidays. Drawing on interviews he conducted with dozens of Chicagoans, he captured the holiday seasons with hundreds of his illustrations to create this rather moving audio and visual postcard of the wonders that people experience around the city during this time.

Must-see moment: At 7:04, when we are treated to illustrations by McMahon of cabs, the CTA, accompanied by weather reports and a woman who begins to talk about what she loves about Chicago. (Tip: listen closely to hear how she describes the architecture of the Wrigley Building.)


These wonderful films all come from the folks at the Chicago Film Archives, which is "a regional film archive dedicated to identifying, collecting, preserving and providing access to films that represent the Midwest."