This Saturday, Chicago loses its most idiosyncratic movie palace, the Bank of America Cinema (née LaSalle, née Talman, née North West Federal), where the Saturday Classic Film Series has been running week-in, week-out since 1972. One last time, for those unlucky souls who haven’t been there: yes, it’s really a movie theater, with popcorn, a big screen, 35mm and 16mm projectors—the works. And yes, it’s really in a regular Portage Park bank branch, with tellers, a vault, and everything. It’s totally unmarked from the outside, and you enter through the alley, like a speakeasy. The programming is hardcore talkies-era Hollywood (with the occasional silent film), and the vibe is that of a secret society. No small amount of the Cinema’s success is due to the subversive charge of slipping into a bank on a Saturday night alongside 150 fellow eccentrics to eat Goobers and watch Gun Crazy. (continued)
Although it shows mostly old movies to mostly old people, the Bank is no nostalgia house. This is largely due to the fact that, for most of its history, the Bank’s curators have been markedly younger than its clientele. I was 24 when I lucked into the gig, and didn’t have the faintest idea who Jeanette MacDonald was. I began inhaling Turner Classic Movies to try to get up to speed, and quickly discovered just how deep Hollywood’s well ran. I became a zealot for the kinds of directors most revival houses rarely touch, but that the Bank has always specialized in: Rouben Mamoulian, John Brahm, Jean Negulesco, Joseph H. Lewis, Henry Hathaway. It seemed to me not only impossible but also unjust that there weren’t Robert Siodmak retrospectives happening all the time. So when I eventually booked those pre-code Ernst Lubitsch musicals with MacDonald, it was because I was dying to see them for the first time, not out of misty-eyed nostalgia. Of course, while I was being blown away by Monte Carlo and hyping Criss Cross with the fervor of the newly converted, much of the audience was already long hip to it. Some of the die-hards had probably even seen it once or twice at the Bank over the decades, when a previous programmer was first discovering it.
Nowadays, you can get films by all these great also-ran masters on DVD, which for the most part strikes me as almost inconceivably good luck. But it’s not a replacement—what you don’t get at home, as every good cinephile knows, is the audience. For oddball charm, the Bank’s clientele rivaled the character actors populating a Preston Sturges comedy. A particularly divisive regular was “laughing man,” a guy who, at one random point during every show, let out a big, booming “HA!” Every screening contained an element of suspense: what incidental camera move or pedestrian reaction shot would trigger his yuk this time? I could never unlock the secret. Many of these people knew far more about classic Hollywood off the top of their head than I ever will, and I learned a lot about how to watch movies from them. The best way to appreciate classic Hollywood’s unique rhythms and eloquent staging is to experience it with an audience, and, having grown up with the stuff, this crowd was tuned into it on a subliminal level. Jokes that I had not even detected when previewing International House alone in the booth now struck me as utterly hilarious.
Of the many lessons the Bank taught, the most crucial was that even masterpieces have dumb parts, and it is okay to acknowledge them. Take a film like The Lady From Shanghai. When it plays Doc Films at University of Chicago, the undergrads laugh straight through it, to prove how smart they are. Go see it at Gene Siskel Film Center, and nobody laughs at all, as if they are humbled by how smart the film is. At the Bank, people would laugh along with the jokes, but also chuckle at first hearing Orson Welles’ wretched fake Irish accent. Because it’s funny. But that doesn’t make the film any less powerful, and strikes me as a useful, realistic way to approach cinema. You can’t take art seriously if you are constantly in deference to it. Orson Welles wasn’t some tragic genius, whose every studio-mandated compromise was to be mourned forever, or at least not only that. He was also a guy who did a lousy Irish accent. This is what they don’t teach in film school.
This under-the-radar Chicago institution began as a classic movies club in the basement cafeteria of a North West Federal Savings and Loan in 1971, and has survived multiple corporate takeovers and mergers. LaSalle’s buyout by Bank of America in 2007 marks the first time the Cinema’s owning bank has been based out of town, and three years later it’s closing down. To a bank, the cost of running the Cinema is peanuts—certainly far less than many bankers’ annual bonuses—and it more or less broke even anyhow. Before Bank of America came along, it was viewed as a community service, but nowadays much of what passes for corporate outreach is name-above-the-title sponsorship of events that would happen anyways (during the takeover, Bank of America was in a hurry to slap their name on the Chicago Marathon—meanwhile, we couldn’t get anyone on the phone). When the definition of community is stretched to encompass global marketing events, it’s tough to make a case for a little revival house in Portage Park. And as anyone who’s ever sat in that mustard room knows, the Cinema wasn’t exactly something you could show off to investors. In the past few years, Bank of America has screwed over thousands of Americans far more egregiously than Chicago-area cinephiles, but it’s still difficult to see this as something other than the banks taking one more thing away from us.
Revival houses are different now. In many ways, the Bank is a relic of a time before DVDs (before VHS even), when scratchy 16mm prints were acceptable because there was literally no alternative. For the most part, the survivors have stepped up their game. Every night, Chicagoans are treated to pristine prints at cathedrals like the Siskel, where the projection is better, the seats are more comfortable, and the popcorn butter presumably doesn’t originate in disquieting gelatinous sleeves. But you will never see lunatic whatsits like Gabriel Over The White House there. That was the Bank’s beat, and its looming absence leaves a major programming void—in order to fully grasp American film history, you have to venture well beyond the canon.
But as much as the Bank’s curators have cherished resurrecting oddball titles and overlooked directors, they were just movies. More than anything, the Bank was a throwback to an even earlier time, when movie theaters were social hubs for the surrounding community. People don’t show up at the AMC River East hours before every single show to talk with friends that they made there, and then hang around talking afterwards until the last possible minute, when the programmer sends them home. This happened without fail, before and after every Bank show I ever worked, and is ultimately what I’ll miss most about the place: the feeling that the movies were incidental.
(For those who regret missing out on the above, rumor has it a new Wednesday-night series will launch at the Portage in mid-February under the moniker the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Don’t miss out!)