Striking an odd balance between the history of a city and a full-fledged guidebook, Hollywood on Lake Michigan nevertheless works—as a guidebook, as a history, but most significantly as a warm and expansive portrait of a city, researched and written by long-term Chicago residents Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein. Try not to read it in one sitting.
For the most part, it’s unclear which author wrote which portions of the text. A variety of voices emerge from the book, itself organized geographically by sectors of the city and not meant to be read cover-to-cover, rather than as a reference to pick up when curiosity strikes. The first clear voice is that of the historian, arising from Bernstein’s research on Chicago’s role in the silent era of cinema, all the way back to the origins of the Selig Polyscope Company, which sprung out of a scheme to copy the design of the pioneering Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe to create a new patented camera and projection system. The opening chapter on “The Silent Era” survives from the book’s first edition, written solely by Bernstein, as a chronicle of the days in which Chicago was a true rival to Hollywood and home to studios like the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, whose tumultuous relationship with contracted star Charlie Chaplin provides some of the book’s more relevant gossip.
Most importantly, the chapter provides a significant excerpt narrating the career of seminal African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, presented alongside a slew of other segments detailing the longevity of race films. The Chicago of the silent era depicted in these pages, furthermore, receives a balanced treatment detailing the popular reaction to aggressive, socially minded dramas like Micheaux’s as well as the controversy over The Birth of a Nation and the appeal of stereotype-driven comedies that provoked the founding of new minority film initiatives. Firmly regimented by location and by subject, the authors know stay on task and do not attempt a full-scale historicizing of race in Chicago cinema, but the impressive groundwork remains for readers to conduct their own, supplemental research.
Leaving these concerns behind, the book adopts the tone of Corcoran, a professional tour guide, as it delves into its locational walkthrough of Chicago, filled with as many illuminating segments as five-line blurbs on a building where one might recognize a shot from Return to Me. The negatives are interspersed with rewards; freed of a strictly academic or historical approach, the authors seize the opportunity to give not only a block-by-block dissection of Chicago’s presentation in the movies, but to delve into the lives and work of individuals in the film industry who have made Chicago their home. Harold Ramis receives a fair amount of awestruck praise for his serious investigations into psychology for Groundhog Day and Analyze This, though others profiled by Corcoran and Bernstein may be unfamiliar to readers, such as special effects coordinator Dieter Sturm and actress Denise Hughes, best known for a brief but pivotal role in Stranger Than Fiction into which she brings her real-life expertise as a bus driver.
For every carefully rendered portrait of a Chicagoan who has devoted something of themselves to filmmaking, there’s a tossed-off remark about the acting talent of Keanu Reeves, whose roles in multiple Chicago productions give Corcoran and Bernstein the opportunity to hone their digs about stone-faced acting and deadpan dialogue. Welcome as their enthusiasm for the films discussed may be, the jocular tone interspersed throughout creates the sort of unevenness that’s only tolerable if one is using the work as a reference book, and not a cohesive read.
Which, it should be mentioned, is truly unfortunate, if only a minor point against the authors’ success overall. For Corcoran and Bernstein have constructed something more than a reference, or a guidebook, or an atlas by way of IMDb trivia (though the book does include one of the all-time funniest behind-the-scenes anecdotes this author can remember, courtesy of Verne Troyer on the set of Baby’s Day Out). Indeed, Hollywood on Lake Michigan bursts at the seams with passion not only for movies and architecture, but for people and their passions, and the shared histories between them that have made a life in Chicago, for these writers, so memorable and enriching as to spur two editions of this rewarding and engrossing book.
Everyone who has traveled can recall the experience of stepping into a new city for the first time, the first breath of air that seems to contain stories, architecture, and a certain flavor of freedom that comes with new sidewalks and streets to wander. The truest testament to Corcoran and Bernstein’s achievement is that Hollywood on Lake Michigan feels a little like taking that deep breath.