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‘World City In Its Teens’ a filmmaking masterpiece and an unforgettable chronicle of 1930s Chicago

German writer-photographer Heinrich Hauser’s haunting 1931 documentary reveals the industrialized city and its people in the wake of the Great Depression.

A view of 1931 Chicago in “World City in Its Teens.”
A view of 1931 Chicago in “World City in Its Teens.”
EYE Filmmuseum

Waving their arms and barking instructions at motorists, Chicago traffic cops negotiate the chaos of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.

Massive crowds flock to the beach — sunning themselves on the sand, seeking cool relief if the waters of Lake Michigan.

Commuters exit an L train and hurry on their way.

On the streets of the city, we catch a glimpse of a man in a suit clutching a bouquet of flowers; a store marquee advertising “Wonder Values”; two nuns smiling as they go about their day; the clock on the Wrigley Building telling us it’s 10 minutes after 10; members of the homeless population passed out on sidewalks and in Grant Park.

Any and all of these images could be captured in the Chicago of 2019 — but they’re from the strikingly, stunningly different Chicago of 1931, as seen in an incredible and unforgettable cinematic artifact titled “World City In Its Teens: A Report on Chicago.”

That’s the loose translation of the German writer/photographer Heinrich Hauser’s 1931 documentary, “Weltstadt in Flegeljahren: Ein bericht uber Chicago,” a silent and haunting masterpiece playing Aug. 24 at the Music Box Theatre, with house organist Dennis Scott providing musical accompaniment.

Hauser’s camera chronicled the Depression-socked Chicago of 1931 from a multitude of angles: from cityscapes as seen from high atop the recently constructed Tribune Tower to fluidly shot sequences capturing the movement of L trains, to close-ups of smiling children playing in the streets, to low-angle, claustrophobia-triggering scenes of cattle and sheep and goats in the old Union Stockyards.

With scene-setting (German) subtitles such as, “The ‘Loop,’ the beating heart of Chicago, centre of all traffic,” and “The flea market,” and “The horse is dead, long live the game of horseshoe pitching,” Hauser’s film is a moving photo album of a city experiencing monumental growing pains, with a portion of the populace cruising along in their automobiles while many more are on the streets and looking for work, living in filthy tenements, trying to scrape together a few bucks by selling pencils or trinkets on the corner.

There’s a kind of 20th century steampunk theme running throughout, as we see the hard-working labor force maintaining locomotives and operating all sorts of complicated-looking mechanical machinery designed to break up the ground or transport gravel or pave the way for new roads. (Workers are insanely casual about their safety. They wear caps, not hard hats; they climb cranes without benefit of any type of safety harness; they perch precariously atop trucks and ledges.)

Poor Chicago children play in the streets in the 1931 documentary “World City in Its Teens.”
EYE Filmmuseum

We see recognizable landmarks such as the Merchandise Mart and Soldier Field — but there’s only sky in great pockets of the city now bursting with tall buildings; only land on wide stretches of property now dominated by condos, apartment buildings and multi-level parking lots.

Maxwell Street looks like something out of a Dickens novel, with a fortune teller and a snake charmer competing for the crowd’s attention while the tightly packed rows of vendors hawk everything from cheap clothes and food to toys and live animals.

Those lucky enough to be employed are seen toiling away at jobs involving intense physical labor and soul-crushing repetitiveness. Meanwhile, we see a child trying to walk with shoeboxes substituting for actual shoes; dozens upon dozens of unemployed men gathering outside Labor Agencies that have “NO MEN WANTED” signs posted in the windows; and a Skid Row man drinking radiator fluid to get high.

It’s impossible to shake off such images.

It’s also impossible not to think about all the nameless, long-gone Chicagoans that briefly passed through Hauser’s lens. Like the man in the suit clutching that bouquet of flowers. He might have a great-grandson or great-granddaughter who this very day could be walking that same downtown street, maybe even holding some flowers along the way.