Retro Review: Expo- Magic of the White City
It has been a while since we covered a documentary on the site, and I can’t say we’ve ever done one for the Retro Review. This film has two strengths to recommend it for this feature: first, it is an entertaining and insightful look into an event usually relegated to a blurb in the American History books, and second it is the last full length movie Gene Wilder did. After 2005, Wilder ostensibly retired from much of public life. He only appeared as an actor once more, on the kid’s show Yo Gabba Gabba, and he only made brief cameos for documentaries and television tributes to other comedians until his passing just last month. So, for good or ill (mostly good) this is the last creative project he starred in. We decided to add it to our look at Wilder’s body of work.
Is it any good? Yes. It has a few bald patches where the director subs in bit actors to recreate (and embellish) certain parts of the 1983 World’s Fair in Chicago, but for the most part the documentary is a font of photos, art, and artistic recreations. Gene’s voice-over narration is genial and soothing, helping to pass the noticeably long run time of 2 hours. It’s free on Amazon Prime, and it’s an informative and entertaining way to pass an evening with a dear departed friend.
Expo- Magic of the White City (2005)
In the 1890’s, Chicago successfully outbid New York City for the rights to host the 1892 World’s Fair that would mark the 100 year anniversary of Columbus’ journey to the New World. Right off the bat, the city, which had recently survived a colossal fire, was faced with enormous challenges. With no central space to set up and no cultural milestones to rival New York, Chicago had to establish its importance to the US cultural life from scratch. The World’s Fair of 1889 in Paris had created a world wide furor with the sights and sounds on display, including the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, and America was expecting Chicago to top that high hurdle. Lastly, the city had to fund the fair 100% on its own, and therefore needed to monetize the whole she-bang while maintaining strict guidelines set by Congress.
Far from stumbling, Chicago triumphed; the World’s Fair of 1893 (they missed the anniversary by a year) was a resounding success, inaugurating the era of American innovation and dominance. Many of the innovations found in and around the fair came to set the scene for city life in “civilized” society for decades, and created a clamor for what the young country, still fresh from a festering civil war, would accomplish in the new American Century.
Sights and Sounds
The documentary is filled with images from the world fair, both from the many paid photographers installed around the site (charging a hefty fee, of course), from magazines and news articles, and from artist recreations. The film also has much to offer in the way of contemporary music from the era. It feels quite a bit like watching a newsreel from the period, where citizens all across the country could vicariously bask in the glow of Chicago’s glow, without paying the many fees and costs.
Gene Wilder’s narration is earnest and humorous, if a tad on the dowdy side. Adding to the feeling of period verisimilitude, Wilder often tut-tuts the rowdier elements of the fair while praising the wholesome bits, like he’s channeling one of the Board of Lady Managers who tried to compel Chicago to clean up the fair of booze and belly-dancers in order to make the whole event family friendly (they largely failed: booze and midway shows paved the way for Chicago to recoup much of the cost of the exposition, and many of the fair’s financial patrons were food and beer barons.)
The Chicago Colombian Exposition, as it was known at the time, was a smorgasbord of classical imagery manufactured with novel techniques. The documentary really carries home the awe and wonder of the fair, all while showing how much innovation in building and decorating was needed to carry off such a massive undertaking.
Just listing the firsts at the fair would make an entertaining and insightful feature, and this production goes to great lengths to do so. Indeed, there are so many things that Chicago did first in 1893, you could just look them up and be amazed. The many points of interest in the fair are repeatedly stressed as being too many to enumerate…but this documentary goes a solid length towards trying to name them all. The film touches nearly every major exhibit (showing a highlighted map that really helps one to get a sense of how large the quickly constructed grounds were.) It misses a few (I was a bit miffed that it neglected to mention two famous mass murderers associated with the fair: H.H. Holmes, the pride of many a cheap Netflix biopic, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, the scourge of many a young liver.
The film isn’t without some rough patches. The opening sequence has many live-action scenes that feel like a cheap board of tourism promotion. The final scenes showing how much of the fair-grounds has remained culturally important to Chicago likewise feel like a guided tour from the city council.
The biggest groans come from the middle segment about the raucous midway, which inter-cuts the many wonderful images and recreations with two live actors: one heavily mustachioed patron guffawing bawdily while drinking imitation suds (mostly pouring them over his prodigious cookie duster for added effect) and one salacious young dancer showing a modern Vegas belly dance. They cut to the dancer quite a bit, which is kind of shameful since she’s in no way period authentic and the dancer even begged to be allowed to wear period-appropriate garb and was vetoed!
A Pleasant, though Long, Stroll
The whole outing takes just over two hours, which is a tad long for a documentary…though to the film’s credit seems like a short stroll through all of the compelling history on display. I actually wish a few more points of interest had been selected, since a quick Wikipedia stroll uncovered so many more nuggets of trivia. The copious amounts of visuals and Wilder’s soothing voice make the video a breeze to sit through. There’s so much to see and do in this virtual tour of the Chicago World’s Fair, this video is well your time to explore.