Expo: Magic of the White City (DVD)

There will never be another event like it. Or will there?

Although some might consider it no more than a historical curiosity, 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition—better known as the Chicago World’s Fair—was one of the great events of modern times. It brought together all corners of the world in a peaceful setting, it showcased fantastic new technologies and products still with us today, and it was larger than Disney World, the Smithsonian, and the pyramids of Giza combined.

With a seemingly endless amount of details and anecdotes available about the Fair, trying to capture it all in less than two hours seems impossible. Nonetheless, writer Brian Connelly and director Mark Bussler give it a go in EXPO—Magic of the White City. So sit back and be amazed by a slice of history like no other.

Let’s go back to 1893 and take a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair, shall we? There are several entryways into the Fair, but we’ll take the classiest. Hopping aboard a boat on Lake Michigan, we gently sail beneath the Peristyle, an enormous white arch surrounded on both sides by massive white pillars and topped with gigantic sculptures. This is the gateway between the Fair and the rest of the world. We step off the boat and find ourselves in the Court of Honor, surrounded by the gleaming while buildings that give the Fair its nickname, “The White City.”

We’ll start our tour in the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, the largest man-made structure on Earth at the time. There’s something for everyone here, most notably the gorgeous artwork at the Tiffany’s display, as well as inventions, products, and technical achievements of companies from all over the world. Covering 44 acres, we could spend all week in this building, but we’ve got to move on. The Electricity Building features brightly lit devices of all kinds, but the standout must be Thomas Edison’s Tower of Light, an 80-foot-tall column covered with lights that blink on and off in time with music. Next is the Agricultural Building, which is somewhat bizarre, as produce sellers find new ways to show off their products, mostly by making gigantic sculptures out of various fruits and vegetables. Machinery Hall sure is impressive, with wondrous works of engineering all over the place, but it sure is noisy in there. We’ll take a quick look at the Fine Arts Building and the Women’s Building, where thousands of fabulous paintings are display, but there’s no time to view them all.

Moving away from the giant white palaces surrounding the water, we next visit the state buildings, where each US state shows off its own unique wares and architecture. The Philadelphia building features the one and only Liberty Bell, so we’ll be sure to stop there. Adjacent to the state buildings are the national buildings, featuring an English gentlemen’s club, a recreated Spanish monastery, a tranquil Japanese village, and Germany’s Krupp Gun Pavilion, with the world’s largest cannon on display.

But for a truly international experience, we’ve got to head over to the Midway Plaisance. It’s a completely different experience from the stately white buildings of the Court of Honor, isn’t it? There goes a group of sword-wielding Arab warriors riding camels. Some bald, muscle-bound African tribeswomen just walked by. Let’s not mess with them. The Eskimos don’t look too comfortable in their parkas during the summer, but maybe they can cool off with the alcohol constantly flowing from the not one, but two Irish castles. And then there’s Cairo Street, with its scantily-clad dancing girls, gallons of booze, and general lewd behavior. Sure, you can balk at the inappropriateness of it all, but the profit from all this lowbrow sleaze is what’s paying for the rest of the Fair.

Don’t think I haven’t noticed you eyeing the wheel off in the distance. A lot of people say this Ferris guy is a nut, but his strange invention sure is an attention-getter. The wheel is so large it can be seen from all over Chicago. In our time, Ferris wheels usually seat two people per car. But here in 1893, they seat 40 each. They’re the size of train cars, with everyone relaxing on posh couches, looking out over the city. Tables sit in front of the couches so passengers can enjoy some food; each car even has its own bar and bartender. Tickets are 50 cents each—which is a week’s pay for some people. But let’s hop on board anyway.

The sun is going down by now. As our Ferris car reaches the top of the wheel, we look down on the landscape as all the electric lights switch on. Suddenly, the White City earns that name again, as the entire Fair comes alive with the still-novel electric lights. Outdoor walkways are suddenly as bright as day, a magical sight for people who still light their homes with candles and fireplaces. Searchlights arc through the night sky as we make our way to the exit, knowing that we’ve only seen a small fraction of what the Fair has to offer.

Information overload! The filmmakers have researched the Chicago World’s Fair extensively, and it shows. The movie throws out a constant stream of raw information about the event. By the time it’s over, viewers are exhausted by all the facts, anecdotes, and surprises. Just after we’re wowed by one architectural marvel or historical oddity, the film moves right on to the next, not giving us a chance to catch our breath. That being said, the information here is all good stuff. The facts are amazing, as it seems impossible that something as grand as the Fair could ever exist.

The documentary is narrated by Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein), who ably describes both the lighthearted and serious parts of the story. He gives a sense of fun to the more amusing elements, such as the sexy antics on Cairo Street, but he also provides some dramatics when needed, such as the tragic fire that struck the Fair’s cold storage building. Wilder’s words are supplemented with original photos from the Fair, as well as artwork from the time depicting what it was like to be there.

In an effort to recreate some elements of the fair, the filmmakers rely on newly-shot footage of flowers, fish in an aquarium, ducks in a pond, fireworks, and a sexy belly dancer (played by “Safa,” a.k.a. dancer Claire Litton). This footage is meant to fill in gaps where there are no original photos of art from the actual Fair, such as the inside of the Fisheries Building, the world’s first indoor aquarium. This new footage stands out in contrast to the original photos and artwork, though. The filmmakers were obviously constricted by a low budget, but perhaps an effort could have been made to blend the two elements together a little more successfully. There are also some strange decisions made, such as the shots of mugs full of beer, in which the camera lovingly zooms in on the little bubbles swirling around inside the glass. Also, every time Chicago’s Mayor Harrison is mentioned, the script insists on pointing out his alleged corruption. Is it really that relevant to the story of the Fair to keep emphasizing that point? But these nitpicks are minor. The real treasure of this DVD is the sheer amount of information it provides about the Fair, even if it might take several viewings to absorb it all.

The widescreen image is a good one. On one of the commentaries, the director encourages viewers to use their pause buttons to check out small details of the photos on display during the movie. The 5.1 audio is decent at best. Wilder’s narration comes through loud and clear, but the music selections often sound flat. What few sound effects there are do make good use of the rear speakers.

If you didn’t get enough World’s Fair info from the film, there’s even more in the bonus features. The commentary track by historian David Cope is as dry as dry gets—but if you’re patient, you’ll learn all kinds of additional facts about the Fair. The four featurettes alternate between historical information and behind-the-scenes looks at the making of the film. Each one also has its own commentary, this time with the director and writer. The deleted scenes repeat details found elsewhere in the film; there is also a collection of trailers for other documentaries by director Mark Bussler.

Could something like the Chicago World’s Fair ever exist again? Today, its cost would have ranged into the high billions. And yet, every tourist attraction in the world owes some debt to the Fair. If countries can set aside their differences and work together, et cetera, then you never know what might happen. The Fair stood on the border between the past and the future, celebrating America’s accomplishments and welcoming its new role as a world power, providing a genuine multi-cultural experience for visitors from every corner of the world. We can’t really go back in time to see what it was like, but EXPO—Magic of the White City gives us a hint of what once was.

The Verdict

History buffs, this is the disc for you.

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