Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there: the World’s Fair on Film

June 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chicago’s White City of 1893 was a quintessential American city, forced up out of marshland by sheer willpower and molded into Venetian-style waterways framed by magnificent Beaux Arts buildings just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition to open, then abandoned to fire and decay as it drew to a close. It was a beautiful spectacle. One visitor described it:  “. . . there are some people who are letting the chance of seeing this White City, that rose like a Venus from the waters of Lake Michigan, slip from them forever. They are missing the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” It inspired two of America’s greatest wonderlands: L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of Oz and Walt’s Disneyworld. And yet despite this, it’s never been the setting for a film. That drought will allegedly end in 2013, when Leonardo DiCaprio adapts Erik Larson’s spectacular book The Devil in the White City to the screen. In the meantime, I set out to find a few other fair-set films to enjoy . . .

Centennial Summer (set during the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876)
The film: Fox’s response to the popularity of Meet Me in St. Louis (see below) was to put out their own world’s fair-set period musical. Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are sisters who compete for the love of a Frenchman who’s come to town to prepare the French pavilion for the Centennial Exposition. The fair: Despite fears of an international boycott, the United States’ first official world fair went off without a hitch. This exposition was the first to feature a women’s pavilion, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Heinz ketchup both made their debuts. The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were on display during the latter half of the fair, and for fifty cents, you could climb up to the torch’s balcony; these fees helped to fund the creation of the rest of the statue.

So Long at the Fair (set during the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889)
The film: This 1950 British suspense film features Jean Simmons and David Tomlinson as siblings who venture to Paris for its world fair. After a night of Paris revelry, though, Jean awakens to find that every trace that her brother ever set foot in Paris–from his signature in the hotel’s guest book to his hotel room itself–has disappeared, and the hotel’s owners claim he was never there. Jean teams up with Dirk Bogarde–the only other person in Paris who remembers interacting with her brother– to solve the case of his disappearance. The fair: Held to celebrate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris Exposition of 1889 is most famous for introducing the Eiffel Tower to the Parisian skyline. At the time, the statue was much hated and considered an eyesore. Writer Guy de Maupassant, when asked why he ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant most days despite hating the structure, responded that the reason he ate there was that it was the only place in Paris where you couldn’t see the Tower! Overseas, things were a little different–four years later in Chicago, the desire to outdo the Eiffel Tower led to the creation of the first Ferris wheel.

Meet Me in St. Louis (set during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904)
The film: This is, of course, the mother of all fair films, but the fair itself is mostly a framing device that only truly appears in the charming last scene of the film. The plot is a loosely connected series of vignettes about the Smith family and their five children (including Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland at her most wonderful), culminating in Mr. Smith’s anguish-inducing announcement that he’ll move the family to New York for a job, taking them away from all their friends and new beaux–not to mention causing them to miss the upcoming world’s fair!. The musical, which used a mix of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “Under the Bamboo Tree”) and ones written specifically for the film (“The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to great effect, inspired a number of other period musicals over the next few years, including On Moonlight Bay, The Belle of New York, and the world fair-set Centennial Summer. The fair: The 1904 Olympics, which had originally been awarded to Chicago, were relocated to St. Louis in order to be held concurrently with the exposition. Things were run so poorly–with the events being spread out over months and many non-American athletes not attending–that it nearly killed the Olympics off entirely. The fair was well known for popularizing ice cream served in waffle cones, and many other food products–from peanut butter to Dr. Pepper–were introduced or popularized there as well.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (set during the Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1939)
The film: Sidney Toler stars as the controversial Chinese-American detective, who investigates the death of his friend after he supposedly commits suicide on a flight home to San Francisco. This film, like the Elvis one below, was not a period piece, being filmed and released at the same time it supposedly took place. The world’s fair setting is mostly a gimmick, since it barely appears. The fair: This exposition celebrated the completion of the city’s two new bridges, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Treasure Island is an artificial island created specifically for the fair; afterwards, it was used as a naval base.

It Happened at the World’s Fair (set during the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962)
The film: Of all the world’s fair films, this Elvis Presley vehicle actually gives us our biggest glimpse at the fair itself–from the Space Needle to the monorail–as Elvis and his friend spend most of the movie hustling for money to buy back their cropduster. (Yeah, I think they were running out of plots at this point in Elvis’s career.) Taking the “cute kid” conceit of earlier Elvis films to its logical extreme, Elvis plays baby-sitter to a girl named Sue-Lin, who herself plays matchmaker between Elvis and Joan O’Brien, a nurse working at the fair. The fair: The Cold War colored all aspects of the 1950s, including the plans for this fair. Its intention was to prove that the United States wasn’t behind the Soviet Union, science and technology-wise, which led to this exposition’s focus on the future. The Cold War would play an additional role in the closing ceremony of the fair, when John F. Kennedy’s scheduled appearance was canceled due to what was later discovered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Seattle fair also included an “adults only” portion, including naked “Girls of the Galaxy” and an R-rated puppet show. Don’t wait for any of that to show up in the Elvis film, though!

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