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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Crashing the boys’ club: independent women directors in the 60s and 70s

Posted By on 08.07.18 at 06:00 AM

Barbara Loden's Wanda
  • Barbara Loden's Wanda
The explosion of American independent filmmaking in the 1960s and '70s was largely an all-male affair (surprise), but a few talented women also got their hand in during this vital and changing period. The Chicago Film Society is showing one such effort, Juleen Compton's 1966 rarity The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, which has been recently rediscovered and restored, on Wednesday, August 15. We've selected another five diverse titles below.

The Connection
I saw the Living Theater's legendary production of Jack Gelber's play (directed by Judith Malina) three times during its initial run in the early 60s, and no film adaptation half as long could claim its raw confrontational power. Echoing The Lower Depths and The Iceman Cometh, it's about junkies waiting for a fix (among them a performing jazz quartet with pianist-composer Freddie Redd and alto sax Jackie McLean), and spectators were even accosted in the lobby by one actor begging for money. Shirley Clarke's imaginative if dated 1961 film uses most of the splendid original cast (Warren Finnerty is especially good), confining the action to the play's single run-down flat. It's presented as a pseudodocumentary; the square neophyte director, eventually persuaded to shoot heroin himself, winds up focusing his camera on a cockroach. The film retains the same beatnik wit that the play effectively distilled, as well as a few scary shocks. With Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, and Roscoe Lee Browne. 105 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

The Velvet Vampire
Given the genre (horror) and the budget (extremely low), it may seem perverse to say that Stephanie Rothman's 1971 film is among the best women's films ever made, but so it is—a highly intelligent, deftly poetic reimagining of the vampire myth, with the theme of fatal sexuality transferred to a female character. The vampire is neither an aggressor nor a seductress, but an abstract figure of polymorphous sensuality: her "victims" choose her, and they range from a would-be rapist to a liberated (and wittily parodied) southern California couple. 80 min. —Dave Kehr

Hester Street
Joan Micklin Silver's ingratiating little movie (1975) begins with some big ideas about immigrant culture, but these are soon and happily shucked in favor of a modestly effective domestic melodrama. In the New York of the 1890s, Jake (Steven Keats), a Jewish immigrant with five years in America, dreads the arrival of his wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), from the old country. Jake is a "Yankee" now, resenting Gitl's naivete and superstition. Photographed in a self-consciously quaint black and white, Hester Street is compromised by preciousness and oversimplification, but it makes a pleasant and efficient entertainment. 90 min. —Dave Kehr

Harlan County, USA
Barbara Kopple's 1977 documentary on a Kentucky coal miners' strike is muddled on the issues, but it earned its Oscar as a dramatic, involving story, full of tough and appealing characters. Kopple's fiercely partisan stance upsets the classic balance of cinema verite documentary, but who could fail to take sides in this timeless labor-management confrontation and still claim to have a heart? 103 min. —Dave Kehr

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Friday, June 22, 2018

What I learned about gay pride from the Mattachine Society

Posted By on 06.22.18 at 06:00 AM

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C. (October 14, 1979) - ONE ARCHIVES AT USC LIBRARIES
  • ONE Archives at USC Libraries
  • National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C. (October 14, 1979)

I would not have survived long in the Mattachine Society. The organization's own founders were ousted in its third year. Even five cisgender white men were considered too radical to run a homosexual group seeking respectability, especially one fearful of FBI infiltration. Although the society was founded in 1950 in order to declare homosexuals a cultural minority and became the first successful American homosexual rights organization, the leaders who overthrew the proud founders were determined to declare us a group just like everyone else in mainstream society. Their lack of pride in their queerness took the organization down a narrow path. It's a story I began studying in 2015 in order to produce my podcast, Mattachine: A Serialized Story in Gay History.

The conservatives of the Mattachine Society believed that, despite our queer existence, there was no special queer culture: queers had no unique identity or perspective on life. It was a form of self-protection, even as the FBI was collecting Mattachine publications and showing up on the founders' doorsteps. The conservatives wished to come out of the closet quietly, to get in line with mainstream society, and make no disruptions. Never ask too much in the way of human rights, they said, never wear clothes of the wrong gender or swish down a sidewalk, but always remain loyal to the American family values in which you can never participate. For maintain the safety of its members, they pushed out the communists and the femmes. The new iteration of the Mattachine Society asserted its homosexuality meekly.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

How two Belgian boys became the youngest kids to bike across the U.S.—in 1935

Posted By on 06.21.18 at 06:07 PM

Jacques, Pierre, and Victor de Visé during their 1935 cross-country bike trip - COURTESY DANIEL DE VISE
  • Courtesy Daniel de Vise
  • Jacques, Pierre, and Victor de Visé during their 1935 cross-country bike trip

On the evening of June 17, 1935, Victor de Visé and his young sons arrived in Chicago after pedaling 793 miles from Trenton, New Jersey, over 13 days on their bicycles. They had 2,349 more miles to go.

As Victor's grandson, I'm fairly sure that his sons—ten-year-old Pierre, my father, and nine-year-old Jacques—became the youngest people in history to cross the United States by bicycle when a month later, they reached Hollywood, where Victor was to work as a correspondent for a Belgian newspaper.


My father's family had just arrived in America from Antwerp, evacuating their Belgian homeland ahead of the Nazi menace. The cross-country cycling tour was my grandfather's harebrained scheme for exploring his adoptive homeland. Goodness knows what horrors they endured on the roads. Yet Chicago, at least, left a favorable impression. My father eventually returned and made a life here as an urban planner for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission who researched the city's color and health-care gaps in the 60s and 70s. (The Tribune once dubbed him "Dr. Gloom" for his views, which he shared in letters published in the Reader.) He died in 2004, having spent nearly six decades of his life in the city.

Why Victor would choose to lead his sons on a 3,000-mile bicycle ride is a question I never heard a satisfactory answer to in childhood—Victor died a few years after I was born. But the great bicycle trip would come up in conversation whenever talk turned to my father's eccentric Belgian kin. Pierre, my father, told me Grandpa Victor thought a marathon cycling tour would be a nice way to see the country. Jacques, my uncle, seemed to believe the journey was motivated by Victor's essential meanness.

Looking back now with the cynical eye of a former newspaper reporter (I covered higher education for the Washington Post for eight years), I can only see the trip as a publicity stunt.

Victor de Visé had knocked around Brussels in the years since the Great War, working as a schoolteacher and covering sports for L'Étoile Belge (the Belgian Star). His wife, Madeleine, died of peritonitis after a botched abortion around 1930, leaving Victor to care for two young boys. Having lost their mother, the boys endured a cruel father. Rather than hire help, Victor would lock the boys in a closet before he set out for the offices of L'Étoile, where he worked nights. The boys sometimes awakened with bruised faces; they managed to incur their father's wrath even in their sleep. Victor sent them to live with German relatives in the summer and eventually hired a German governess.

An old saying has it that a Belgian boy is born with a bicycle between his legs. In 1934, Pierre, then ten, and Jacques, eight, bicycled nearly 500 miles across Belgium and into Germany, where, visiting Berlin, they saw what it was like to live under Hitler's Third Reich. After hearing Der Führer's shrill voice blaring forth from public loudspeakers and glimpsing a Nazi party meeting in a parlor at their hotel, Victor resolved to leave Europe. He had already traveled to Chicago once, in 1927, to cover the celebrated boxing match between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey at Soldier Field.

The cross-country journey began on a spring day in 1935 when Victor and his sons disembarked at New York Harbor after a 15-day crossing from Europe and began to make inquiries in accented French about the location of a "Hotel Eem-kah." New Yorkers shrugged; the name did not ring a bell. But Victor eventually found the hotel: the YMCA.

After a brief stay at the Y, the three set out on bicycles on June 5 from Trenton along U.S. 30, the old Lincoln Highway, a route that would take them through Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. They traveled 50 to 70 miles a day and camped on the roadside or in "sleeping rooms," typically pine shacks with dirt floors. Pierre was a slower cyclist than Victor, and Jacques slower still, so Victor would give the boys a head start each morning, Jacques setting out first and Pierre some minutes later, so that all three would reach their eventual destination at roughly the same time. In racing this is called a handicap, but it left Victor's young sons to pedal for hours on the road alone. Neither child spoke English.

On June 11, near Pittsburgh, the family became separated. Jacques had started the daily ride alone, as usual, and came upon a fork in the road. It was a bypass, offering motorists the option to steer around the city. Jacques could not read the sign, so he proceeded on instinct. Evidently Pierre chose the same road, and he eventually found Jacques—but not his father. Around noon, the two boys were spotted "wandering aimlessly about" on their tiny bicycles by J. L. Broderick, a man employed as boys' work secretary by the local Y. He addressed them in high school French and found the boys "very friendly and extremely polite" as they clutched their berets, according to an account in the Pittsburgh Press. But they didn't understand a word he said. Broderick found an interpreter, and through him, the boys explained their plight. A police bulletin finally located the elder de Visé, who was comfortably settled at the elegant Fort Pitt Hotel.

Delighted at the attention, Victor parlayed his parenting lapse into two full days of media coverage, lecturing the Pittsburgh press like a visiting diplomat. "I see another terrific war in Europe as inevitable," he told them. "It is coming soon." Victor recounted how his own parents had been burned alive when the Germans marched through Belgium in 1914.

On June 17, the cyclists arrived in Chicago having logged 800 miles. Victor dressed his tanned boys in matching argyle sweaters and again summoned reporters. The Chicago Daily Tribune covered the makeshift press conference (at which my dad was said to be 11, but his birth certificate reveals he was only ten when the trip started):

The Tribune story on the trip from June 18, 1935.
  • The Tribune story on the trip from June 18, 1935.

"Victor de Visé, a Belgian newspaper man, and his two sons, Pierrot, 11 years old, and Jackie, 9, arrived in Chicago last evening on their European bicycles after pedaling 793 miles here from Trenton, N.J., in 13 days. They are guests at the home of Louis Clement, 1120 Lake Shore Drive. De Vise was once Clement's swimming instructor and tutor in Brussels.

"De Vise says he plans to make his home in America."

The Tribune account said the boys had arrived "bright eyed and fresh," perhaps anticipating that readers would question Victor’s wisdom in staging such a trip with such young boys. Victor amiably explained that Pierre and Jacques had "developed bicycling stamina by touring Europe."

After lodging with the family friend for a few days, Victor and family pressed on through Iowa and Nebraska and into Wyoming, which was "a desert, really, hotter 'n hell," Jacques recalled to me 70 years later. They continued through Utah and Nevada, sleeping on Indian reservations. Finally, after more than 40 days of cycling, the family arrived in California, their journey complete.

Victor's bragging was off-putting, but his family's accomplishment was real. Assuming that he and the boys pedaled the full distance—and neither Jacques nor Pierre ever suggested otherwise—they were almost certainly the youngest souls to traverse the nation on bicycle. When another nine-year-old boy completed a cross-country bicycle ride 79 years later, in 2014, he did it with his family riding alongside him in a bus.

Victor de Visé settled in Hollywood, taking an apartment near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine and planting his sons outside fashionable nightclubs with cigarette trays in hope that they'd be discovered. They were, and the boys reaped bit parts in various films. In 1936, Pierre, my father, landed a tiny speaking role as a bellhop in the Oscar-winning drama Dodsworth, directed by William Wyler and starring Walter Huston.

When neither the boys' film careers nor Victor's photojournalism business took flight, Victor relocated to Chicago and took a job at the Belgian consulate. Pierre, the more studious brother, earned a diploma from Waller High School (the present-day Lincoln Park High School) at 15, and an associate degree at 17. He entered the University of Chicago that fall, but war interrupted his studies, and he took a job at the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Pierre then trained his considerable ambitions on his bicycle, and through the war years, he emerged as one of the better amateur cyclists in the east.

Family photos suggest my father rode his first bicycle race in 1938, the year he turned 14. Press clippings show him placing fourth in a 40-mile road race in Baltimore in June 1944, and ninth at a race in Detroit the following month. Although I have no records to prove this or other claims, my father told me he once held the national amateur speed record for the distance of 10,000 meters. He and Jacques also claimed to have pedaled more miles on their bicycles than anyone else on the amateur racing circuit; after all, they had a 3,000-mile head start.

Not surprisingly, I grew up in a home where bicycle racing, rather than baseball, framed the summer months. Bicycle wheels hung from suspended broomsticks in the basement. Bicycle frames dangled from hooks in the garage. I owned my first fixed-gear track bike at six or seven. I owned a spoke wrench at 12. Though we lived just a mile from Wrigley Field, our preferred spectator sport lay 20 miles away, at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook. There, on Thursday nights, we would file into the grandstands for an evening of bicycle races.

I never entered a bicycle race; I lacked the reckless, daredevil spirit I recognized in the racers, who jostled and bumped like bulls in Pamplona and regularly sustained gruesome injuries. Instead, I threw myself into a routine of relentless recreational cycling, pedaling back and forth across the north side of Chicago on summer days instead of taking the el, and logging 30 or 40 miles at a time on weekend rides with my father. We would head north up Sheridan Road through the elegant North Shore toward the Glenview Naval Air Station, or northwest through the Caldwell Woods along the bicycle path that abutted the Chicago River. One summer, I commuted 36 miles daily on my bicycle to a job in Des Plaines. I loved the hypnotic rhythm, the bucolic scenery, and the rush of accomplishment that came after completing a long ride.

My father died after attaining a measure of fame as an urban scientist and seer of Chicago's demographic future. A few years ago, I set out to write a book that honored his passion and celebrated the glory days of bicycle racing in America. The book recounts the glorious career of Greg LeMond, probably the greatest American cyclist of the modern era, climaxing with his comeback from near death and miraculous victory at the 1989 Tour de France. Of all the great tours my father and I watched on television, that was our favorite. The book, titled The Comeback, came out this month. Naturally, I dedicated it to Pop.

Daniel de Visé is a Chicago native, former Washington Post reporter, and author of The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France (Atlantic Monthly Press).

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Queer filmmaker Derek Jarman gets a Pride Month retrospective at FilmStruck

Posted By on 06.20.18 at 06:00 AM

Derek Jarman's Caravaggio
  • Derek Jarman's Caravaggio
The queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, is one of the artists featured by the streaming channel FilmStruck during Pride Month. We spotlight five of his eclectic and highly original films.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Chicago corruption for sightseers: Walking tours show seedy underbelly of the city’s politics

Posted By on 06.14.18 at 06:00 AM

The legendary Mirage Tavern and its successor, the Brehon Pub - SUN-TIMES/COURTESY BREHON PUB
  • Sun-Times/Courtesy Brehon Pub
  • The legendary Mirage Tavern and its successor, the Brehon Pub

The Brehon Pub sits inconspicuously at the northeast corner of Wells and Superior. From the outside, its bold green signage, four-leaf clover decorations, and Gaelic logo make it hard to pin down as anything other than a traditional Irish pub. But from the inside its completely nontraditional roots are impossible to disguise. The Brehon has a history deeply tied to the corruption of Chicago: the establishment was formerly known as the Mirage Tavern.

The Mirage was a phony bar established by the Sun-Times in 1977 as part of an investigation into corruption allegations and quickly became a hotbed for shady business dealings, bribery, and other white-collar criminality until the story broke in 1978. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the revealing 25-part series that impacted everything from city zoning laws to the ethics of investigative journalism. It was here that journalist and historian, Paul Dailing and I met to talk about his Corruption Walking Tours. In Dailing's eyes, the stories he tells on the tour are in many ways more poignant now than ever before.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Five literary biopics whose pictures are worth a thousand words

Posted By on 05.30.18 at 06:00 AM

Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table
  • Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table
The biopic has been a staple in filmmaking since the sound era began, though over the years literary figures seem to have gotten fewer screen treatments than other notables. On Friday, Gene Siskel Film Center opens Haifaa al-Mansou's 2017 film Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, and next Tuesday, Chicago Film Society screens Charles Vidor's 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. Taking a page from these, we've selected five additional biopics about writers, ones that don't just rest on words but also offer up some visual artistry.

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Chicago once waged a 40-year war on pinball

Posted By on 05.05.18 at 04:14 PM

Pinball machines were routinely confiscated and destroyed after they were banned. - CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • Pinball machines were routinely confiscated and destroyed after they were banned.

Pinball was banned in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City for decades and . . . wait, what?

I didn't have a clue about pinball's prohibition until I interviewed Roger Sharpe for this week's Reader cover story. He's the man who helped overturn the 35-year old ban in New York City with his Babe Ruthian "called shot."

Then again, the ban was overturned in Chicago in early 1977—before I was born. As an 80s kid who spent a significant time playing pinball and video games at a Bally's Aladdin's Castle (th
e Chicago-based "McDonald's of the arcade business"), my general impression was that arcades were viewed by adults as dens of adolescent sin. That manifested itself in the pop culture of that era when arcades became lazy visual shorthand to suggest misspent youth. That's where you'd find Sean Penn as slacker icon Spicoli hanging out in the Reagan-era flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The low-budget 1983 comedy Joysticks was a (bad) movie about teens fighting to save their arcade from a moralistic businessman who claimed the joint was a threat to their mental health.

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

A chat with Bill Veeck, the most fun White Sox owner of all time

Posted By on 05.03.18 at 06:00 AM

Bill Veeck at Comiskey Park, 1980 - CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • Bill Veeck at Comiskey Park, 1980

Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

The Sox are off to a miserable start this year—after last night's loss to the Cardinals, they're 8-20—but really, what do you expect when your ballpark is identified with a giant downward-facing arrow? Let's look back on happier times, to the reign of Bill Veeck, the man who had a much better eye for decoration than the current owners and who is responsible for the exploding scoreboard. He installed that in 1960 during his first stint as the Sox' owner. He sold the team the following year due to poor health, but he bought it back in 1976 in order to save the Sox from leaving Chicago for Seattle. (Yes, that was really a thing.)

That spring, he sat down for an interview with the Reader's Dan Vukelich. Vukelich interspersed Veeck's present-day reflections with news items from his colorful past, mostly complaints from sportwriters and other owners that he was too colorful. ("UPI Item—March 17, 1953: 'We stood by while he introduced fireworks and midgets. He often has shown little regard for normal baseball protocol … This is where we must put our foot down. We've had enough of him … '—the other baseball owners.")

Vukelich wrote in his introduction.
Had he been born into another place or time, Bill Veeck might have been the beckoning captain of an adventuring ship. Or he might have joined the circus, or managed trade exhibitions, or even become a promoter of rock concerts (indeed, if he had had anything to do with Woodstock at least there would have been good toilets). It was merely a matter of fortune for Bill Veeck that he was born into baseball at a time when it was the undisputed king of national diversions.
Veeck, he noted, was, in addition to his ridiculous stunts like sending the midget Eddie Gaedel (who had a correspondingly short strike zone) up to bat and offering free admission to White Sox fans with the last name of Smith as long as they cheered for outfielder Al Smith, responsible for a lot of practical innovations that still exist in major-league ballparks. When he owned the Cleveland Indians, he integrated the American League just a few weeks after Jackie Robinson started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He introduced promo giveaways like bats and caps, and deserves credit for opening up a nursery for small children so their parents could enjoy the game, and for putting players' names on the backs of their uniforms. He designed the Wrigley Field scoreboard and planted the ivy along the outfield wall.

He told Vukelich:

I think everyone is a potential White Sox fan, not just the south-siders, but the north-siders too. If we can put on an interesting show, and make it exciting and fun, I certainly anticipate getting casual Cubs fans here like we did before. So I see no reason to think that we won't do it again.

"And I don't think our fans fight and drink any more than fans anywhere else. I think that the security, perhaps, needs careful study. But you know, people behave much as the host does. If you go to somebody's house and they're throwing cigarette butts on the floor and so on, you'll start doing the same thing. In other words, you'll behave in accordance with the surroundings. The better the surroundings, the better the behavior. If people don't care enough to keep their own place up, why should someone else?
This was the man who, three years later, would introduce the infamous Disco Demolition Night. So people don't always behave as well as you might want them to. But he also persuaded Harry Caray—who was then the voice of the Sox—to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. Most of all, he got butts into seats at Comiskey Park because he understood that baseball was supposed to be fun. As he told Vukelich:
I believe that baseball should have an element of fun in it. I don't think of baseball as being the World Series. I think it's a game. Not that there's any connotation of not wanting to win—everybody wants to win—because if you didn't there wouldn't be any reason to keep score. But you can't always guarantee that the game is going to be exciting. You can, however, guarantee that you'll create a festive atmosphere. That's the reason for things like the fireworks. Often that's the only explosion that occurs.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Remembering the Haymarket Affair and the city’s attempts to forget it

Posted By on 05.01.18 at 06:00 AM

Anti-capitalist protesters in Haymarket Square on May Day 2013 - AL PODGORSKI/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Al Podgorski/Chicago Sun-Times
  • Anti-capitalist protesters in Haymarket Square on May Day 2013

Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

The current print edition of the Reader features an article by Kim Kelly about The Little Red Songbook, a collection of labor anthems by Joe Hill, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. If you've read it, you know that today is May Day, or International Workers' Day, and you know what songs to sing to celebrate.

The current print issue also features a story by Jeff Huebner about one of the city's first monuments to Martin Luther King, a mural by the artist Eugene "Eda" Wade, and how that mural has somehow gone missing. Huebner is not just a journalist but a scholar of public art—there are few people who know more about Chicago's murals—and  he has, over the years, gone on many other quests to find the city's lost monuments. In 1993, he tried to find the site of the Haymarket Affair, something that also came up in Kelly's story.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

The Music Box kicks off a season of Michael Curtiz revivals with the silent melodrama A Million Bid

Posted By on 04.20.18 at 06:00 AM

Dolores Costello in A Million Bid (1927)
  • Dolores Costello in A Million Bid (1927)
Tomorrow morning at 11:30 AM, the Music Box Theatre will present a 35-millimeter screening of the 1927 silent melodrama A Million Bid. The film was the second American feature directed by Hungarian emigre Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct some of the most beloved films Warner Bros. ever released, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, and The Breaking Point. (He also directed a little movie called Casablanca—maybe you’ve heard of it?) All three of those are scheduled to play at the Music Box in June, when the theater kicks off a two-month slate of Curtiz revivals. Alan K. Rode, author of the new biography Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, will be on hand on June 9 and 10 to introduce screenings and sign copies of his book, which is an illuminating account not only of Curtiz's life, but of Hollywood at the height of the studio era. Rode has provided entertaining commentary over the years at the annual event Noir City: Chicago; doubtless he will have many fun stories to share when he appears in June.

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