When Arnie Bernstein was a student at Niles West High School, every afternoon he had to choose which of two great men he would study: Euclid, the Greek philosopher who's considered the father of geometry, or Groucho Marx.
Bernstein chose Groucho. Every chance he got, he skipped his afternoon math classes so he could stay home and watch movies on TV, and he loved none as much as the Marx Brothers'.
"I was convinced this was much more useful to me than geometry class," he says. "I knew in my heart I was doing the right thing."
Bernstein never put his geometry lessons to use, but Groucho Marx continues to inspire him. He wrote his new book, Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies, with an autographed picture of Groucho hanging above his desk.
The book is an encyclopedia of Chicago film history, from the early part of the century, when the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was one of the leading silent-film studios in the country, through the industry's rediscovery of the city in the 80s and 90s. There are interviews with local film creatures like Dennis Franz, John Mahoney, Tim Kazurinsky, and Philip Kaufman (he went to the University of Chicago before going on to direct The Right Stuff and Henry & June). But the heart of the book is its guide to places you've seen in movies set in Chicago. Want to know just where Tom Cruise drove his dad's Porsche into the lake in Risky Business? Belmont Harbor. Or where the street party in Monkey Hustle was held? On the 6300 block of South Ellis. You'll also find lists of the pool halls used in The Color of Money, the fire stations in Backdraft, and the houses where the Marx Brothers lived at the start of their vaudeville careers. At once scholarly and trivial, in the best sense of that word, it's a book that belongs both on the shelves of Columbia College film professors and on the bathroom floors of single guys who rent one movie a week from Blockbuster.
Bernstein, who works in public relations at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, was inspired when he discovered a guide to film locations in New York City. His book begins when one out of every five movies in the world was made in Chicago and Essanay was as big a name as Paramount or Universal is now. Essanay, which had its studios in what is now Saint Augustine College, on Argyle Street, discovered Ben Turpin and Gloria Swanson and was, for one unhappy year, the creative home of Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin made His New Job here in 1915, but quickly became fed up with studio boss George Spoor's stinginess. Spoor so resented paying Chaplin $1,250 a week that he didn't show up to meet the star when his train arrived in Chicago. By the time Chaplin's contract expired, he had already moved to California, which pretty much ruined Essanay and helped to bring about the end of big-time Chicago moviemaking for the next 65 years.
There were a few exceptions, auteurs whose names are familiar mainly to low-budget film buffs and horror-movie geeks. Bernstein makes a huge contribution to film history by including a biography of Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose 60s cheapo drive-in slasher flicks would later inspire horror directors with bigger budgets and more talent. Lewis, an advertising man with a refreshing lack of artistic integrity, started out making "nudie cuties" like Living Venus, about a Playboy-type magazine called Pagan. But Lewis's hackwork reached its full flowering with the gross-outs Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Wizard of Gore, the last filmed on location in the Edgewood Middle School auditorium in Highland Park. If Lewis hadn't got audiences used to the sight of fake blood in Technicolor, the careers of John Carpenter and George Romero might never have happened.
Chicago's comeback as a movie capital sprang from two events of the late 1970s, Bernstein says. The first was the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who "couldn't stand to see Chicago or its police department portrayed in a negative light and for years made it difficult for out-of-town filmmakers to use Windy City locations," he writes. "Said one Chicago policeman who occasionally dealt with Hollywood crews, 'If it's not Mary Poppins, the mayor doesn't want it.'"
The second event, of course, was The Blues Brothers. You can create your own Blues Brothers tour with Hollywood on Lake Michigan, which gives the locations of, among other places, the Palace Loan Company, where the brothers shopped for musical instruments, and Pilgrim Baptist Church, where James Brown rocked the pulpit.
The genius of The Blues Brothers is that it worked Chicago's then-underexposed landmarks into the story. Wrigley Field, for example, was the fake address Elwood and Jake gave the Nazis. Now directors use the stadium as gratuitously as directors of spring-break comedies use boob shots.
"It was essential that any character in a movie in the 80s had to go to Wrigley Field," Bernstein says. "Demi Moore and Rob Lowe in 'About Last Night...'. The standard skyline shots. They love the el. The cop bar. These things aren't necessary--they're good visual cues to let you know you're in Chicago."
Two of the movies that Bernstein thinks show off Chicago best were made in the city's fallow years. One is Call Northside 777, a 1948 James Stewart movie, based on a true story, about a newspaper reporter whose investigation frees a man wrongly convicted of killing a police officer. When Bernstein first saw the film in high school, "it didn't dawn on me that they made pictures in Chicago," he says. "It was just so cool to see downtown without the Hancock, the Sears Tower, the Prudential."
Another film that "used Chicago in a way no one else did" is Mickey One, a 1965 Arthur Penn movie starring Warren Beatty as a stand-up comic on the run from the mob. It was shot on "the old west side when it was skid row, with all these guys with craggy faces. It's Fellini-esque."
Bernstein realized he wasn't a filmmaker after shooting a few bad Super-8 movies as a student at Southern Illinois University. But he does have some proposals for Chicago directors. Now a south-sider, he thinks "the yuppie north side is used way too much." He'd like someone to shoot a movie in his neighborhood, Beverly. And he'd like to see some film biographies of black moviemakers of the silent era, such as Oscar Micheaux, a Pullman porter-turned-farmer-turned-novelist-turned-director who opened a studio in the South Loop in 1918.
"That would be a fascinating movie," Bernstein says. "Here are people who were fighting racism, classism--and using new technologies, like people use the Web today. They didn't have much money, but they had the heart and the desire."
Bernstein will read, answer questions, and discuss local film history this Saturday at 3 at Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster (773-871-3610). It's free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.