Expo: Magic of the White City Review
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In 1893, the eyes of the world were on Chicago, the host of the Columbian Exposition, where the latest and greatest achievements from around the world would be on display from May through October. Intended to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World (though, in the end, it was a year late), the Columbian Expo was the largest World’s Fair ever—even larger than the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed.

Expo: Magic of the White City, a documentary narrated by Gene Wilder, tells the story of the famous fair, through photographs, illustrations, and first-hand written accounts. It tells about how the Expo came to be in Chicago—from the history of World’s Fairs in Europe to the debates over where in the US to hold it. It comments on the historical context of the time. And it discusses the two-year process of building an entire city on 700 acres of reclaimed swampland, seven miles south of Chicago.

And, of course, it talks about the Expo itself. Viewers see pictures of some of the buildings—from the buildings designed by each state in the US and many countries around the world to Machinery Hall, the Cold Storage Building (which may have been the first indoor ice-skating rink), and the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building (which, at the time, was the largest building ever built). It talks about the people who came to see the Expo, as well as what they saw—from the world’s largest aquarium to the Ferris Wheel to the acrobats, magicians, and exotic dancers of the Midway.

The film points out that visitors had to pay two dollars per day for a license to take pictures at the Expo—which explains why there aren’t many unofficial photos of the six-month event. And, of course, since moving pictures were just being introduced around the time of the Expo, there isn’t any original video footage. So, in that way, the filmmakers were limited. But they make up for it by including several illustrations, renderings, and maps in addition to the official photos (you’ll also find more photos in the DVD’s special features). There are a few reenactments as well (mostly of a belly dancer and a guy drinking beer), though they definitely could have been done better.

The focal point of Expo, though, is the story it tells. Though visual images may be somewhat limited, the film manages to convey the rest of the experience through its script. There was clearly a lot to see at the event—and, thus, a lot of material to cover—and Expo does a good job of touching on as much as possible, in amazing detail, in just under two hours.

Expo: Magic of the White City isn’t a flashy film. It isn’t packed with fancy computer renderings or high-production-value reenactments. It isn’t a fast-paced film with a witty script (though you might expect that from narrator Gene Wilder). But it does tell an interesting story. It presents the facts in a way that make Chicago’s Columbian Expo come to life. It brings you back in time and sets you down in the middle of the great White City in 1893. And when it ends, you’ll want to know even more.

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