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Chicago: Hollywood's Filmcity

Kalpana Sunder takes a movie tour in this popular US city and lives her Hollywood dream as she follows the footsteps of her favourite stars where they shot memorable scenes of their blockbuster films

The icy wind whips through my parka as I follow the footsteps of the handsome Dr Richard Kimble aka Harrison Ford dodging Tommy Lee Jones in the 1993 thriller The Fugitive.

The Cloud Gate also known as the Bean has been designed by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor. Pics/Kalpana Sunder
The Cloud Gate also known as the Bean has been designed by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor. Pics/Kalpana Sunder

The chase scene spans through the grand Chicago Hilton and Towers Hotel, into the laundry room and even onto the roof. The luxurious Hilton and Towers Hotel in Chicago, a popular landmark, was built in 1927 as the Stevens Hotel with 3,000 guest rooms. It was the world’s biggest hotel at that time.

The luxurious Trump Tower seen in The Dark Knight
The luxurious Trump Tower seen in The Dark Knight

When the Stevens family went bankrupt during the Great Depression, the US Army used it as barracks and an army school. Scenes from the 1997 romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding as well as the finale scene of the 1992 hit Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, where the family is reunited, have been shot here.

A view of the famous Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan
A view of the famous Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan

Close by is the Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel, which was a wedding gift from Potter Palmer, a business magnet, to his socialite wife, Bertha Honore. The hotel has hosted legendary entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte.

The famous Ferris Wheel in Navy Pier
The famous Ferris Wheel in Navy Pier

Cinematic dreams
I am in Chicago, Illinois where innovative buildings showcasing the talents of well-known designers, engineers and architects are as striking as its prolific street art. But I am seeing the visually stunning Windy City through a different lens my companions are noted film critic Patrick McDonald and cinema buff John Brinkman, who conduct a movie tour of Chicago.

Noted movie critic Patrick McDonald and film buff John Brinkman are the brains behind the cinema tour
Noted movie critic Patrick McDonald and film buff John Brinkman are the brains behind the cinema tour

This tour takes you to over 30 sites, right from Chinatown in the south to Uptown on the city’s north side, where more than 80 films have been shot. The bus is equipped with TV monitors, and as it passes each location, McDonald plays a short film clip, bringing the cinematic scene to life by narrating fun facts about the movie, behind-the-scenes trivia and its connection with the city.

The tour aptly starts by showing a clip of Vince Vaughn (acting as a Chicago Tour guide in the 2006 famous romantic comedy, The Break-Up) asking everyone on the bus, “Are you ready to see Chicago?” Chicago’s immense scale overwhelms one at first glance.

We pass the La Salle Street Bridge with its ornate railings and eye-catching shape, which, framed by the perfect canyon-like cityscape, is the first sight of Chicago that fascinates Tom Hanks’ son in the 2002 crime thriller Road to Perdition. The glass and steel Trump Tower dominates the skyline near the Magnificent Mile, a swanky shopping stretch filled with high-end stores.

Built by the multi-millionaire Donald Trump, this skyscraper condo-hotel was billed to be the tallest building in the world, till plans were scaled down post 9/11. Movie buffs will identify it as the location of the climactic face-off between Batman and the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, which was actually filmed in two separate locations: the exterior is the Trump Tower.

The building was under construction during filming, so the interiors used were two aircraft hangars in England.

A layered city
I discover that Chicago is built in layers, with double and triple decker streets to raise it from the level of the pale green Chicago River. We drive on lower Wacker Drive, the underbelly of the city that looks dark and eerie.

“It is the favourite of movie directors and is the scene of many action-packed stunt chases”, says Mcdonald. It has been used in blockbuster movies such as The Dark Knight and 1980’s The Blues Brothers.

Navy Pier is a much-loved children’s destination with rides and entertainment and even a children’s museum skirting Lake Michigan. Framed by the azure sky is a Ferris Wheel, modelled after the world’s very first ferris wheel constructed for Chicago’s 1893 World Exposition.

“This was recently seen in the science fiction movie Divergent, which portrays a futuristic Chicago divided into factions,” explains McDonald as he plays a clip. Besides serving as movie locations, the city also has other connections with the tinsel world. “Walt Disney was born here and went to Art school here, and the iconic gold plated Oscar statuettes are still produced here,” says McDonald proudly.

Uptown is today a scruffy neighbourhood, but in the past it served as the city’s entertainment district. It was replete with art deco hotels, department stores and performing arts institutes. We drive through shells of grand theatres of the past such as Riviera Theatre and Uptown Theatre a lavish movie palace with over 4,500 seats ‘where every man could see a movie like a king’.

Though the theatre is closed, it’s used now as a location for many movie shoots. Remember Home Alone 2 and the Christmas scene where the Grand Staircase was decorated with hundreds of Christmas lights? That was the lobby of the Uptown theatre.

I follow my all-time favourite comedian, Charlie Chaplin, to the red brick buildings of Essanay Studios on Argyle Street which is today St Augustine’s College. Many of the early silent movies including the all- time movie The Tramp filled with drama and pathos were filmed at the famous Essanay Studios.

Chaplin had told a Chicago Tribune reporter in early January 1915 while filming the movie, “I think I’m going to like it here. Nice people, nice studio, etc. With conditions favourable, a man can do so much better work, you know.” The school’s auditorium, now called the Charlie Chaplin auditorium, still has the feel of a movie studio, with the original catwalk.

We visit Wrigley Field, the great baseball field named after the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley who used to own it, with its large red, art deco-style marquee that read Wrigley Field, Home of Chicago Cub. I remember it as the place where Jennifer Aniston meets Vince Vaughn during a Chicago Cubs game, in The Break-Up.

We even encounter drama in real life. In the Lincoln Park area is the famous Biograph theatre with its vintage sign that is famous as the place outside which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tracked down the notorious bank robber Dillinger and shot him dead.

McDonald tells us of a humorous anecdote when a day after the robber was shot a bar next door put up a sign saying “Dillinger had his last drink here!” The 2011 action thriller Source Code, which revolved around a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man, and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train, had many computer-generated scenes with visual effects but the climax was shot at Cloud Gate in Chicago.

Designed by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor, it is a giant, silvery bean-like sculpture made of 168 stainless steel beams welded together with no visible seams, which represents a blob of mercury and reflects the city and its residents.

I walk around the ‘Bean’ taking quirky photographs of myself juxtaposed against the towering giants around me. It’s a fitting closing scene of my personal saga in a city that Frank Sinatra appropriately called ‘My kind of town’!

Fact File
Go: Fly to Chicago on Etihad Airways through Abu Dhabi
Do: Take an architectural tour of the city, walk the ledge of the Willis tower, visit the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum and spend some time at Navy Pier. Log on to http://www.chicagofilmtour.com for Patrick McDonald’s movie tour 
Eat: You must try the city’s signature deep dish pizza and its own brand of hot dogs
Buy: Shop on the ‘Magnificent mile’ for clothes and footwear

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