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Classic Movie Lovers Rejoice! The Northwest Chicago Film Society Is Back

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 22, 2015 4:10PM

Scene from "Gulliver's Travels" (1939).

Chicago’s repertory cinema scene gets a welcome shot in the arm with the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s return to regular programming. While Doc Films and the Music Box’s weekend matinee series are invaluable, for adventurous programming of vintage films, the NCFS has been tough to beat.

But after first losing the Portage Theatre (under the woeful ownership of Eddie Carranza) and then the Patio Theatre (when it closed its doors before reopening under Carranza management) as venues, the NCFS was limited to a few scattered screenings at other theaters. Wednesday, July 1 marks the launch of the group’s first slate of weekly programming in over a year. And, with luck, hopefully it will be ongoing in their new home at Northeastern Illinois University.

The lineage of the NCFS goes back to 1971, when Chuck Schaden, original host of the long-running old-time radio showcase Those Were the Days, started The Memory Club movie series. Classic films were initially shown in the unlikely venue of the basement of what was then North West Federal Savings at 4901 W. Irving Park Rd. As the series became more popular, a small 300-seat theater was built that, despite no marquee, a back parking lot entrance, multiple changes in bank names, and little-to-no advertising, became a Saturday night home for decades to a mix of senior citizens, young film devotees and assorted other regulars.

While the series began mainly with well-known favorites, a string of passionate, knowledgeable programmers took the series to less familiar territory. Former Columbia College teacher Scott Marks escalated the move to more rarities and eclectic choices, while Park Ridge Classic Film’s Matthew Hoffman, Mike King, South Side Projections’ Michael W. Phillips and others carried on that tradition during their tenures.

But arguably the old “bank series” topped its own considerable legacy when it was forced out of its original home in late 2010, as then-owner Bank of America sold the building. The newly christened Northwest Chicago Film Society, led by Julian Antos, Rebecca Hall and Kyle Westphal (all of whom had contributed to the series during some of Phillips’ tenure) maintained a “film only” rule at the Portage and Patio, even as the advent of digital projection greatly diminished an already thin market for 35mm and 16mm print rentals of older films.

Despite that handicap, the NCFS brought an amazingly diverse menu of movie history to the screen from 2011-2014, with everything from rarely screened golden age Hollywood fare to experimental features from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Virtually no genre went untouched, and foreign films became an increasingly regular part of the mix.

Thankfully, their new eight-week schedule shows the society’s programming is as wide-ranging as ever. It kicks off with a restored print of Follow Thru, a 1930 musical in the early two-strip Technicolor process. Also on the calendar: Michael Ritchie’s brilliant satire of the American success ethic, Smile (1975); the Fleischer Brothers’ animated adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels (1939); Summer with Monika (1953), a lesser-known early work from Swedish cinema giant Ingmar Bergman; the classic screwball comedy Midnight (1939); It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), a “jazz craze” comedy from Richard Lester (predating his breakout success, A Hard Day’s Night); Bill Forsyth’s 1987 adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable novel Housekeeping and Bend of the River (1952), one of the beloved westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring Jimmy Stewart.

Considering the difficulty in obtaining some of these prints, it’s a true gift that the admission will be just $5 for these movies (and only $2 for NEIU students). All screenings start at 7 p.m. at the college’s auditorium (Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.). More details on all the films showing can be found here.