Chicago architecture at the movies
From a Charlie Chaplin film made in 1915 to the comic book world of Batman, hundreds of movies have been shot in Chicago. And when they are made here, Chicago architecture has had a knack for making its way into the final cut.
by Kerstin Adams, Judson Picco & Ashley Powers
A Different Kind of “Ferris”
June 2016 marked the 30th anniversary of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the indelible John Hughes comedy that turns cutting class into a grand tour of some of Chicago’s best known attractions. High schoolers Ferris (Matthew Broderick), Sloane (Mia Sara) and Cameron (Alan Ruck) catch a foul ball at Wrigley Field and they’re brave enough to lean their heads against the glass at the top of the Willis Tower —or Sears Tower, as it was known in 1986. There’s also that unforgettable montage filmed in and around the Art Institute of Chicago.
But do you recall Sloane and Cameron’s slow stroll past Alexander Calder’s Flamingo sculpture at Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center? Or the fact that Ferris’s dad holds down a desk job within the postmodern green glass of 333 West Wacker, finished in 1983? This movie’s a whirlwind tour of Chicago architecture. As Ferris would say, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Quite a few superhero movies have been filmed in Chicago. Batman and Superman are the caped figures seen most often in the city—Batman Begins (2005), Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman (2016) all feature scenes filmed in Chicago. But it’s The Dark Knight (2008) that really uses a variety of the city’s architecture—few films explore more of Chicago than this blockbuster hit. It opens with an intricate sequence filmed at the Old Main Post Office, where the massive Art Deco building stands in for a bank. A chase sequence makes use of lower Wacker Drive and a parade marches down LaSalle Street, terminating at the soaring Chicago Board of Trade Building. The Chicago Theater also gets its moment in the spotlight.
Newer buildings get a chance to shine, too—Batman rides his fancy motorcycle through Millennium Station and stands atop Willis Tower to survey the city. The black exterior of the skyscraper even matches the caped crusader’s enigmatic look. A climactic final battle between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) takes place amid the construction equipment at Trump Tower, which was still being built during filming. Though The Dark Knight is set in fictional Gotham City, Chicago’s real-life architecture is instantly recognizable throughout the film.
Stars on the River
In My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Julianne (Julia Roberts) heads to Chicago when she learns that her lifelong friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), is engaged. As Julianne tries to figure out how to stop the wedding, the audience enjoys a visual journey through iconic architecture. As the characters relax on the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, Julianne confesses her true feelings to Michael. But the moment passes them by just as the boat passes underneath one of Chicago’s famous movable bridges.
On the day of the wedding, a chase leads the cast to the Great Hall of Union Station. Beneath the grandeur of this Beaux-Arts masterpiece, Jules admits to sabotaging the wedding. Another scene has our characters at Comiskey Park, now known as U.S. Cellular Field. The big wedding itself is set at Fourth Presbyterian Church, the Gothic Revival landmark that catches the eye of so many North Michigan Avenue pedestrians.
As Seen from the Streets
Moving pictures have often showcased Chicago architectural treasures as part of the transportation landscape. In 1969, Haskell Wexler’s gritty Medium Cool opened with a downtown motorcycle ride under the L and past the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Marina City was just 16 years old in 1980 when it got a starring role in the Steve McQueen action film The Hunter, which sent a car careening off Marina’s spiral parking structure and into the Chicago River. That same year, in The Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood’s “Bluesmobile” famously ripped past the Picasso sculpture and smashed through plate glass at the Daley Center. And the exterior of the “Palace Hotel Ballroom” where the Blues Brothers play their big gig? That’s the beautifully ornate South Shore Cultural Center.
What to Watch Next?
We’ve only covered a few films that have portrayed Chicago and its architecture over the years. What movies would you like us to investigate next? Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest? The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford? Some apocalyptic architecture in Transformers or Divergent? Or maybe we should delve into TV, with locally-produced shows like Empire or Chicago Fire? Let us know what you think on social media by tagging your suggestion with #ChiArchitecture.