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September 22, 2017

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De Niro, Batman, the Blues Brothers: Chicago in movies

CHICAGO, Illinois -- So this was the spot where Cameron Diaz stood and gave the "yes" word in the romantic tear-jerker film "My Best Friend's Wedding"? Over and over, tourists are taking snapshots of the otherwise unimposing church in Chicago's area called the Magnificent Mile. Its real name is the Fourth Presbyterian Church.

The first films ever produced were in Chicago at the outset of the 20th Century. Long before Hollywood became the center of the film industry, the Essanay Studios were doing business in the metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan. Even Charlie Chaplin lived and worked for awhile in the city.

Given the rich history, tours of the film locations are provided by, among others, Chicago Greeter and the Chicago Film Tour, in which the bus driver and guide are dressed up like the Blues Brothers, just to name another well-known flick shot in the city.

"That was one of the biggest stars in the film industry here," notes John Popik, who welcomes guests for the Chicago Greeter. Chaplin made three films in a six-month span — before quickly returning to Los Angeles again. Chicago was too cold for him.

To this day many films are not made in L.A. but rather in Chicago, for some rather mundane reasons, as Popik explains: "It is cheaper to produce a film in Chicago than in New York or Los Angeles." This is above all due to the fact that pay scales for studio employees are lower. In addition, the reservoir of actors in Chicago is huge. There are more than 200 theaters in the city.

The Chicago Film Tour starts in the Chicago Cultural Center. Once upon a time a public library, the massive neoclassical-style building from 1897 has made appearances in a variety of film roles. "Some use it as a court building, others as a city hall," Popik says. "That's what's so great about films." One scene from the film "The Untouchables" is legendary, with Robert de Niro racing down the huge stairway of the center.

Many film locations no longer exist, having given way to the city's skyscrapers. But one of them has come back to new cinematic life. It was in the lobby of the Illinois Center West that the film makers of Batman movie "The Dark Knight" set up Batman's apartment. TV monitors in the windows gave the illusion that the ground floor lobby was actually a top-floor penthouse.

The skyscrapers of Chicago likewise played a major role in "Transformers," albeit a not particularly happy one. Their spires were simply blown away — thank goodness only by special effects. To shoot the film, streets in the city were blocked off for days at a time, including Wacker Drive, the underground street alongside the Chicago River where there were wild chase scenes and countless explosions.

"Tourists always love it when there is such a crowd gathered for a film shoot. The locals are mostly annoyed," Popik says.

One of the best-known buildings in Chicago is the Wrigley Building, headquarters of the chewing gum empire. Probably for very good reasons one film that was forgotten was the 1957 science fiction-horror flick "Beginning of the End" in which gigantic grasshoppers were scaling the walls of the Wrigley Building. That of course was merely a cheap special effect. For budget reasons, the insects were simply stuck onto photographs of the building and then filmed.

And no tour tracing Chicago's film history — or for that matter, no visit to the city per se — is complete without a visit to Millenium Park. "Space ships flew overhead here in 'Transformers 3,'" Popik points out. Then there is the huge stainless steel sculpture "Cloud Gate" — locals call it the "bean" because of its shape — which had a major appearance in a film. It was where Sandra Bullock waited in "The Lake House" to meet with Keanu Reeves.

And what films does John Popik like? "Actually, I prefer European films and not the Hollywood blockbusters so much," he says. "But naturally I love every film that has been shot in Chicago."

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