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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The EXPO that they are talking about in the title is the Columbian
Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893. Oddly, this made it one year late
for the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the new world--which
it was to commemorate. The WHITE CITY is a name given to the six HUGE
white classical buildings that framed the exhibition space.
This documentary, oddly, is narrated by Gene Wilder. Now I am NOT complaining--I just didn't expect to hear this actor narrating a PBS documentary! It consists of many photos, post cards, some VERY grainy film footage and recreations to make it feel as if the viewer has an insight into the event. This fair featured many amazing things for its day. The most noticeable was the extensive use of electricity--with giant arc lights, electric fountains and lighting of the various pavilions. It was, at the time, the biggest world's fair ever--even larger than the Paris fair which featured the great wonder, the Eiffel Tower.
The fair consisted of many things you'd expect--lots of exhibits on various new inventions, horticultural exhibits, pavilions for various nations and other educational items. However, since the fair was paid for by the city, it had to make money and so many not so educational exhibits were featured--such as nude art (which shocked the very straight-laced ladies of the day), exotic dancers and LOTS of beer! So, I guess the fair was to appeal to both the right and left hemispheres of our brains! Despite having very, very little film footage, it was amazing how the film managed to recreate the fair for the viewer. Wilder described the various exhibition halls by various US states, countries and the modern wonders shown in the main exhibition halls. While it seems impossible for the show to adequately portray what was inside the buildings, there were a lot of detailed photos and GREAT narration describing the contents and public's reaction to it. As for the less intellectual stuff seen at the Midway, this also is given excellent treatment in the show--and is a bit shocking in how low-brow some of this was. And, not surprisingly, it was the most popular part of the fair! These were the money-making parts of the fair--and must have been terrifically entertaining. Recreations of Cairo's bazaars included markets, dancers (including Little Egypt and her belly dancing), choreographed knife fights, re-creations of a harem and camel rides! There also was a resident beauty exhibit of gorgeous ladies from around the globe, African villages (with topless folks), Irish villages, Laplanders and Eskimos in native costumes (in the SUMMER!!), and much, much more!
All in all, this is a terrific film that is much like being magically transported back to the fair. While I really would love to instead see it using my time machine, I don't have one...yet. And, I'll just have to content myself with watching this exceptionally well made and thoroughly entertaining film. It's amazing how with such a tiny budget they were able to make such a cool documentary.
By the way, according to Wikipedia, in addition to the extensive use of electricity and the introduction of the Ferris Wheel and spray paint, the fair also introduced several new products to the world--such as Crackerjacks, Hershey's Chocolate, Juicy Fruit Gum, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and Cream of Wheat. Who would have known?!
I knew little about the Fair, even though I was aware it took place in
my city back in the late 1800's. This film is packed with all the
information you could possibly give to someone in the time allowed. I
first got hooked on Chicago history and Architecture after reading the
book "Devil in the White City". I have seen articles from that period
of time at the Chicago Historical Society and have been to Graceland
cemetery to see the graves of the Architects how planned and helped
build the Fair and many of the buildings that still stand in downtown
So when the film started I already had some insight into the circumstances and people responsible for bringing the Fair to Chicago. I knew that one of the buildings still stood, the Museum of Science and Industry, having gone there many, many times as a child but never could even imagine the scope and size that the Fair entailed. Now when I venture into that part of the city my imagination will see, in my minds eye, the ghostly beauty of the buildings that once were there and the people who attended it. I think it is a wonderful film to watch. A little long and drawn out, but still filled with the Magic that once was the "White City" of Chicago.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
My interest in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was stoked by a read
through Larson's recent bestseller ' The Devil in the White City', and
abetted by a flip through 'The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: A
Photographic Piece'. For someone similarly interested, this documentary
is well worth the time and effort; for the more casual audience, it
might be worth sticking on a channel should you click by; I'm not sure
it warrants a purchase or rental.
Amongst the pros, the roughly 2 hour show presents a wealth of imagery of and about the event, primarily period photographs and drawings, fleshing out Larson's descriptions of the illusory grandeur of the event and grounds; the referenced book focuses on architecture and, if I recall correctly, is limited to 93 images. In other words, the value is in the wealth of imagery.
My criticisms echo those of others. I found the period material to be interesting, but found the inclusions of modern footage of animals and fish, and re-enactments, shot in brilliant, bright color, to be jarringly disjunctive. I'll state my prejudice: I am not a fan of re-enactment to begin with, and the ones in this production just don't seem to fit. The narration Gene Wilder is adequate; but definitely not as captivating as a Mark Steel, James Burke or Morgan Freeman. Or, come to think of it, some of my better teachers. It does appear that this was an attempt to gain a bit of celebrity panache. There are also way to many shots of beer steins. You'll know what I mean if you watch it.
A couple of side notes: I listened to some of the commentary and was frankly puzzled. I'm not sure that the concept of a commentary isn't a bit redundant in a documentary, and the commentary provided here really just provides an alternative (or additional) narrative about the fair. It is annoyingly unmatched to the images on the screen: additional discussion of the Chicago labor riots are on screen as the commentators discussed previous Paris expositions; fund-raising commemorative stamps are discussed over unrelated images of Wild Bill Hickok, and what appears to be a first hand account of a visit to the fair is recited over the re-enactment of the mayor's assassination.
I visited the 'Art at the Fair' special feature. My options included 'with music' or 'with commentary'selecting the latter revealed that this is where the producer and writer chose to discuss their sources for material in general. I might have thought that the commentary might have dealt with the 'Art at the Fair'.
The 'Art at the Fair' special feature provide, without commentary, an illustration of how the pendulum swings. This feature is shown as rated PG for nudity and violence. The art on general display at the fair included a lot of fully nude and frank statuary and paintings, albeit in a classical style. It amused me to contemplate this brazen display, requiring a PG warning in 2009, in this age of morbid horror over 9/16 of a second of breast exposure.
In summary, the content of this documentary rates something like 4.5 out of 5, with respect to its ability to satisfy my curiosity. The presentation of the material warrants something like a 2 out of 5, for an overall total of 6.5 or 7.
As a history buff, I looked forward to a well made, engaging
documentary about this fascinating event in American History. What I
got was marginally engaging and clearly made with a budget in mind.
Thanks to my avid watching of The History Channel, Discovery Channel,
etc. I know what to expect from a well made historical documentary.
This movie, if it can even be called that, simply doesn't compare.
The movie consists of period images, artwork, promotional material, maps, and many other visual representations of the Colombian Exposition set to period music. The best part about this technique is the clear organization as we travel across the fair grounds from building to building exploring the varied elements that made up the Colombian Exposition. You really get a good idea of what it must have been like to get off at the purpose built train station and walk into the fair grounds. The flaw in this technique is its monotony. After the tenth building, one wonders how long till we reach the exit. The narration by Gene Wilder was clearly an attempt by the producers to add some pizazz to the production values. Why else would they put his face so prominently on the cover of the DVD? So... if you are interested in this specific historical event then by all means rent or borrow this DVD. If not, save yourself the 2 hours.
Beware of documentaries that value the producer's fantasies more highly
than their commitment to accuracy! At least one INTENTIONAL error in
this film makes me question the integrity of the entire thing. The
live-action footage of the belly dancer completely misrepresents how
the women at the Columbian Exposition would have dressed and danced in
1893. Although the vintage still photos ALL show the dancers wearing
blouses, with their midriffs and upper arms covered, the modern-day
footage shows the dancer with a completely bare midriff and a horrid
enormous navel jewel.
For those who care, the bra as we know it was invented in 1913 (according to patents issued), and the "jewel in the navel" idiocy was invented by Hollywood after the Hayes Code was instituted in the 1930's. So why did the producer force these anachronisms into a documentary about an 1893 event? I am told that the dancer tried to push for wearing historically-correct costuming, but the producer, Mark Bussler, insisted on a "1970's James Bond" look. If Bussler knowingly insisted on a 1970's look for one of the elements of his "documentary" about 1893, what other inaccuracies did he knowingly insert into it? He completely destroyed the credibility of this entire project by depicting the dancer with a look that was 80 years out of context.
For a historically-accurate description of the dancers at the Columbian Exposition, don't view this documentary. Instead, see the book titled Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton.
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