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Vintage Chicago Film Found at Estate Sale Shows 1940s-era City

By Emily Morris | March 13, 2014 3:32pm | Updated on March 10, 2016 1:05pm
Chicago - A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education
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Jeff Altman

CHICAGO — For those who wish they could hop into a time machine and see 1940s Chicago, a digitally restored film gives a expansive look at the city before the Willis Tower, John Hancock Center or the Trump Tower reached soaring heights.

Former Bucktown resident Jeff Altman, a professional film and video colorist who recently moved to New York, said he found the footage while rummaging through items at an Auburn Gresham estate sale back in the fall.

The canister of film was featured quite prominently at the sale, as he recalls, but no one could tell him what was captured on the reel or when it was created. The only markings were labels that read "Chicago" and "Print 1." He snagged it on the last day for less than $40.

"I was curious," Altman, 27, said, "so I picked it up, and it turned out to be pretty cool."

The footage, produced by the Chicago Board of Education with help from United Airlines for the aerial shots, includes glimpses of the city's beaches, various universities, shopping districts, manufacturing plants and more.

Altman tweaked the colors of the film, which he said were a little too pink, and sharpened the focus before uploading the 32 minutes of footage to his Vimeo account and making it publicly viewable Wednesday.

Kyla Gardner discusses another tourism video from 1977:

It was also touted on Reddit Chicago, where the film drew a number of positive comments.

It's unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film "Conflict."

The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board's business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.

A spokeswoman from the board of education said staff was searching the board's archives to find a reference to the film but, so far, it seems unclear why the video was created and who saw it.

Anne Wells, the collections manager for Chicago Film Archives, said sponsored films from this era like this one are "fairly rare," and that it looks to be in particularly good shape.

"When they were created, no one had the foresight that someone would be interested in those 50 years later," said Wells, who added that the city didn't generally keep good records of its films.

Finding usable film from the 1960s and '70s tends to be more common, she said.

Altman noted that unlike most tourism videos he's seen, the film goes beyond Downtown and into areas where visitors wouldn't likely go, like the steel plants in South Shore.

"Back then, travel films were very popular; they'd be shown before your mainstream movies," Altman said. "This seems a bit different, which I thought was very interesting."

Shots also include the Uptown Theatre, Lincoln Park Zoo and one of Lake Shore Drive that's positively serene compared to the rush-hour view of today.

"Chicago, a city of beauty, strength and power," Neblett says in a booming voice often associated with '40s and '50s voiceover. "Chicago, commercial capital of the nation, agricultural market and industrial center of the world.

"Chicago, the most American of American cities."

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