1940s Chicago in living color

A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1” which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.

The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.

Chicago – A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education from Fading Dyes on Vimeo.

The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.

There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.

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.

The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.

7 thoughts on “1940s Chicago in living color

  1. Wow! Just wow.

    That was wonderful, Liv. But, it was also saddening, in a way. I was 2 or 3 when this was made and it’s sad to think of what was and what is…just in my lifetime. That post-WWII optimism didn’t last very long, did it?

    But, I loved seeing Chicago as it once was.

  2. That is absolutely WONDERFUL! I had great fun pausing at key landmarks and looking for contemporary pictures of them to compare to.

    I can’t get over how many fewer cars there were on the roads. In some of the one-way stretches it looked like there weren’t any lanes, just wide spans where you could ride anywhere you wanted, right, left, or middle. Was that really the case, does anyone know?

  3. The USS Sable was a steam sidewheel aircraft carrier used to train pilots from Glenview Naval Air Station in carrier landings and takeoffs.

  4. I was born in Chicago about the time this film was made. I recognize a fair number of buildings that survive to the present. I worked for awhile at the “largest steel mill in the world”, US Steel’s South Works shown early in the film.

    Interestingly enough, there seem to be many more North Side sites shown than ones on the South Side. I can’t identify many of the schools and churches but I’ll bet those are weighted to North Side institutions.

    The one school that I did recognize was CVS (Chicago Vocational School). At least when I was growing up (late ’40s to early ’60s) it was the largest high school in the world.

  5. “Interestingly enough, there seem to be many more North Side sites shown than ones on the South Side.”

    That’s no surprise. There are still Chicagoans who think the city stops at Roosevelt Road.

  6. Like Sandy, I was about 3 when this was made, and though not from Chicago, I lived in a city very similar. Nostalgia for us now, but something else, I think, for the intended audience. The construction of the film gives some clues, but the ending seems to lay it out clearly. At the time this was made, wartime industry had wound down and factories were transitioning, vets were returning home to become students, start jobs and families. The country was entering a post-war recession.

    My guess is that this film, clearly selling Chicago as a place to live and make a future in, was intended to lure, in addition to new industry, but also a desirable workforce to the city. Note that in the film, not a black or brown face appears, nor any of the filth and dirt that accompanied stock yards and coal yards. I’d think it would be shown at conventions, vets’ associations, and even in movie theatres. A lot of this sort of thing was shown along as prelude to a feature film in that era when people would watch anything optimistic about the future. The war was over, people were frightened of the developing recession, and this film was emblematic of hope.

    It’s too bad the people who might have known for sure are gone. Perhaps somewhere there will be someone even older than Sandy and I who has some info tucked away in an attic. I hope so.

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