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Chicago on DVD: The Green Mill

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 9, 2005 4:36PM

Chicagoist was reminded yet again of the filmic lip service given to our city when we were viewing the first season of The Bob Newhart Show on DVD recently. Excited to get a glimpse of Chicago in the 1970s, our hopes were dashed after the opening credits. Sure, you see Bob making that long walk from his office to the Ravenswood El as he journeys to what appears to be the only Cabrini-Green housing project with Lake Shore Drive-condo style interior. But after that: nothin’. The Bob Newhart sculpture has now spent more time being filmed downtown than the Newhart crew ever did. The whole experience had us rushing for our DVD library to remind ourselves how good Chicago can look on film.

2005_06_09_greenmill.jpgWith its Uptown neighborhood becoming increasingly gentrified (RIP Saxony!), the Green Mill is a crucial piece of Chicago history—cinematic and otherwise. It opened in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse. Three years later, it became The Green Mill Gardens and was a frequent hangout for actors due to its close proximity to nearby Essanay Studios on Argyle. In the 1920s, it was partially owned by Capone henchman “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn and featured a booth that allowed the gangsters to watch both the stage and the entrances.

The Green Mill has probably been featured in more movies about Chicago than any other watering hole in the city. It’s classic look stands in for everything from your neighborhood tavern to a classy jazz club and its connection to organized crime has made it a natural setting for movies like V.I. Warshawski and Next of Kin. Here are a few other films that show off the Green Mill in all its glory:

High Fidelity (2000): As Plush’s Liam Hayes provides spot-on “sad bastard” music to accompany Rob Gordon’s melancholy recounting of one of the darker days of his most recent top 5 relationship, he sips a schooner of...Schlitz? Point? A brilliant example of the comfort a quiet bar and a full beer can provide even in the darkest moments. Check out the deleted scenes for a view of the stage and the façade with its beacon-like neon glow.

Prelude to a Kiss (1992)/Kissing A Fool (1998): On the opposite end of the spectrum are these two films that showcase the Green Mill less as a character and more as great eye candy. Perhaps the less said about them the better but we’ve yet to go to the Green Mill and see a bad performance onstage and that includes the performances in these two films that time is quickly forgetting. Kissing A Fool is worth checking out for the cameo by the Mighty Blue Kings (and Jason Lee’s ability to weave a silken performance from any sow’s ear of a script thrown at him).

Thief (1981): In an interview we published earlier this week, Sam Hallgren from Cinecast noted that one of his favorite Chicago movies is this Michael Mann crime drama. It’s a familiar story about a longtime safecracker (played by James Caan) who wants to pull One Last Job before he retires for good. With many scenes filmed in the daytime, the movie captures the feel of a tavern as a meeting place—a notion that’s rapidly dying thanks to our city inspectors. In the film, Caan’s character owns the Green Mill. We won’t spoil the ending but had this movie been filmed today, special effects would have robbed us of that sinking feeling in our gut when we see what happens to one of our favorite places for gin and jazz.

The Green Mill can also be seen in Soul Food (1997) where Miles’s band Milestone performs; in Folks! (1992), an awful film starring Tom Selleck but notable as the Green Mill stands in for a South Side bar (!!!) that Don Ameche stumbles into; and A Family Thing (1996) starring Robert Duvall.

Chicago on DVD will be an occasional Chicagoist feature where we discuss movies filmed in and around Chicago that are available at your local video store or online movie rental website. Thanks to Arnie Bernstein’s excellent book Hollywood on Lake Michigan for some crucial help with research.