Posted by Susan Doll on December 13, 2010
Last week, news agencies reported that the Bank of America is resuming foreclosures this week, but Chicagoland movie lovers have their own reasons to be disgusted with the banking giant because they are shutting down the beloved Bank of America Cinema. A 38-year-old revival film series, the Cinema will show its last movie, Babes in Toyland with Laurel and Hardy, on December 18. This past Saturday, I attended for the last time to see Mickey One, Arthur Penn’s unique 1965 crime drama shot in Chicago.
The series is called the Bank of America Cinema, because it is housed in a bank building now owned by the BOA. Over the years, the series’ name changed based on the bank that owned the building. I began attending the series when I moved into the Portage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side several years ago. At the time, it was called the Tallman Bank Cinema; later, it became the LaSalle Bank Cinema. Tallman and LaSalle were local bank chains, so when the nationally based Bank of America took over the building a couple of years ago, it was the beginning of the end, though no one realized it at the time.
The 300-seat theater was not a venue that you just stumbled across, because it was located in the back of the bank building. Patrons entered from a separate door in the back, then rode an elevator or walked a flight of stairs to reach the theater where the programmer, Michael Phillips, or one of other employees, Julian Antos or Rebecca Hall, took your $5.00 admission. At the small concession stand, you could still buy a bucket of popcorn for a dollar. The small lobby, where I often met my fellow cinephiles from the Chicago Film Discussion Group, featured a few classic movie posters. It was a small operation with the intimate atmosphere of a neighborhood gathering place, where movie lovers of all ages, races, and walks of life enjoyed the evening’s program. The program started with a short, cartoon, or newsreel, which was often thematically linked to the main movie.
Of course, the oddest aspect to the series is that it was located in a bank. How did a film series become part of a bank? Originally called The Memory Club, the series was started in 1972 by a radio deejay named Chuck Schaden, whose radio program, Those Were the Days, was sponsored by Northwest Federal Savings and Loan. Schaden, whose program consisted of re-broadcasts of old radio shows, began showing classic movies in the bank’s basement cafeteria for classic-movie fans and people in the neighborhood. Audiences were made up the bank’s customers, employees, and potential customers, so the series made a good public relations venture. When the bank expanded into a new building, it added the 300-seat theater for the movie series, though other neighborhood organizations and arts groups also used it. The idea that a savings and loan would do this for their community brings back memories of the benevolent Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association from It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey and his family bank truly serviced and supported their community. After Northwest Federal bit the dust, subsequent banks kept the series going, picking up the tab for movie rentals and other costs, which were minimal. Over the years, the series received little advertising, there was no website for the Cinema, and local newspapers ignored the series in general. And, yet I rarely saw the theater less than half full, even when the air conditioning broke down over the summer.
Movie lovers, cinephiles, and senior citizens who saw the films during their original release became the core audience for the classic and not-so-classic movies that were screened every Saturday night. All the films were projected from prints rented from educational institutions, repertory exchanges, or private collectors. The series was programmed six months at a time, and fans waited anxiously for the printed schedules with its clever blurbs filled with juicy tidbits of trivia on each film. About Union Pacific, shown in July 2008, the schedule noted that the premiere of this movie took place in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Golden Spike Days celebration, and FDR himself was involved in the festivities, albeit remotely from Washington. When over 250,000 excited fans showed up, the National Guard was called in to maintain order. For Top Hat, shown in February 2005, the schedule reminded viewers that Lucille Ball appears in an uncredited bit as flower clerk. And, I learned from the blurb for I Was a Male War Bride, shown in June 2007, that it was based on an autobiography titled I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 217 of the Congress.
Sometimes, the programmers chose the films around a theme, which was always fun. In the first half of 2007, the series was titled “All Over the Map” and featured Hollywood movies that took place in the far reaches of the globe, even if the productions never left the studio lot. The movies included Border Incident, Morocco, The Big Steal, Our Man in Havana, Panic in the Streets, and American Guerrilla in the Philippines. In 2009, “Hollywood A to Z” featured 26 movies shown in alphabetical order, beginning with The Awful Truth and concluding with Zoo in Budapest. One of my favorite series was titled “Mustache Cinema” and included titles that spotlighted facial hair throughout the film, or at least in a key scene. I bet you are wracking your brain for specific examples, so here are a few so you get the idea: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Nils Asther), Love Crazy (William Powell), Virginia City (Errol Flynn), Monkey Business (starring the Marx Bros., with the heavily mustached Groucho), and Little Women (with Katharine Hepburn’s Jo donning a mustache for a play). The first series of 2010 focused on movies not available on DVD or VHS—a real treat for classic movie lovers. I saw such gems as The Big Broadcast of 1932, which was a charming tribute to old-time radio starring Bing Crosby and a line-up of long-forgotten entertainers, and The Visit, a European drama directed by Bernhard Wicki starring Ingrid Bergman as a famous actress seeking revenge on her small hometown.
The shorts, serials, and cartoons that preceded the films added to the evening’s fun. Over the years, I watched episodes from several serials, including The Masked Marvel, Flash Gordon, and The Spider’s Web. I was exposed to all manner and variety of shorts, including those that might be expected in such a venue, such as Haunted Spooks with Harold Lloyd, but I also saw many unexpected gems and surprises, like History Brought to Life narrated by Cecil B. DeMille. The latter turned the spotlight on studio research departments, which offered assistance in constructing sets, designing costumes, and constructing props. During the Golden Age, these unsung studio employees, who were often highly educated, did meticulous research on historical eras to ensure authenticity, though the filmmakers were never bound by accuracy. One of my favorite pre-feature shorts was a 1951 cartoon by Tex Avery called Symphony in Slang that preceded the feature film Expresso Bongo. In this clever cartoon, a hep cat arrives in heaven and is asked to explain his life story to St. Peter and Noah Webster. The hipster speaks in modern slang and clichés, which are unfamiliar to his two-man audience. The cartoon unfolds from the vexed pair’s perspective as they imagine literal interpretations of the hep cat’s colorful slanguage, such as “it was raining cats and dogs” or “going through a bunch of red tape.” More time-bound than most classic feature films, these one-reelers, documentary shorts, cartoons, and serials are like windows into the fads, fixations, and fashions of another time and place, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them.
Over the past two years, the Bank of America Cinema has provided me with several topics to write about for this blog, including Lydia Bailey, The First Legion, My Name Is Julia Ross, and Call Northside 777. Shot on location in Chicago, the latter brought out a packed house on a hot summer night in 2008. Chicagoans love to see their hometown on film, and the audience was abuzz with conversations about Michael Mann’s Public Enemy, which was shooting on the North Side at the time, as well as other movies shot in the Windy City. This past Saturday, Mickey One—also set in Chicago—attracted a sizable crowd, who were eager to see their city on the big screen and also aware that this was the penultimate film in the last series for the Bank of America Cinema. Mickey One, which was directed by Arthur Penn in 1965, is likely the most modern film I’ve seen this year. With its nonlinear narrative, neurotic protagonist with a shaky grip on reality (Warren Beatty), non-match-cutting, location shooting, and unexpected ending that questions the nature of existence, it has been compared to the films of the French New Wave, particularly Shoot the Piano Player. While watching it, I also recognized some Fellini-esque characters and moments, in addition to that pessimistic, existential vibe found in American indie crime capers of the late 1950s, including Kubrick’s The Killing and Murder by Contract. And, yet, Mickey One stands on its own in the way Penn married the conventions of the crime drama to European trends, resulting in an avant-garde sensibility that was way ahead of its time.
The pristine print of Mickey One showed off the film’s expressionistic, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet to its best advantage. The blacks in the gritty nightclubs are rich and smooth, like velvet, while details such as dust in the air and cigarette smoke noticeably stand out to contribute to a tangible, three-dimensional atmosphere that only film can create. Digital projection—or cinematography for that matter—flattens, sharpens, and lacks a sense of presence. Contemporary cinematography and digital projection have resulted in some amazing images and effects, but the look and effect differs from that of film, especially in genres that depend on atmosphere and ennui. Watching Mickey One projected on film from a flawless print influenced the way audience members perceived its existential melancholy and moody imagery. Though the prints exhibited at the Bank of America Cinema were not always this pristine, seeing classics projected on film onto a big screen was one of the many benefits of the series.
After the film, I talked with many of my cinephile friends eager to share our opinions on Mickey One. Running into people who love movies as much as I do is another immeasurable pleasure of being a regular at the Bank of America Cinema. Audiences habitually applaud at the end of a screening, or even during the move when the star appears on screen. After Deanna Durbin sang a touching rendition of “Silent Night” in Lady on a Train, which was shown in October, the audience warmly applauded. A student of mine, a young man from the Middle East who attended that evening as part of his midterm project, didn’t know who Deanna Durbin was and didn’t understand why the audience applauded. After the film, an older gentleman sitting behind him took the time to explain Durbin’s career and star image. Appreciating the films and sharing information and perspectives has been a big part of the Bank of America Cinema experience.
Once the series ends in December, no one knows what will happen to the building. The Bank of America sold the building , and their p.r. people are tight-lipped about the new owner and the building’s future. After they pulled the plug in late summer, programmer Michael Phillips released the information to Chicago’s film community. When the press began calling the BOA for confirmation, their p.r. department back-pedaled, claiming that a permanent decision about the series had not been made. A call-in campaign to save the series was launched, but it was too late. The bank had already made its decision; any pronouncements to the contrary were merely efforts to white-wash their actions. I can’t help but compare the actions of Northwest Federal 38 years ago, who supported the series because it was a service to their community, and those of Bank of America, who killed the series despite its value to the community. But, then again, we all know that Bank of America is no Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association.
As for the series itself, Phillips and his staff are moving it to the Portage Theater, a restored movie palace in the same neighborhood. The new venue brings changes that may affect the series’ future success, including a much larger theater that lacks the intimacy of the bank’s 300-seater as well as a switch to Wednesday evenings. However, I will fully support the new version of the series, now called the Northwest Chicago Film Society, when it opens in February, because it is a Chicago institution that needs to continue. I can’t wait to see the old gang again.
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