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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Science > Expo - Magic Of The White City: The 1893 Chicago World's Fair

Expo – Magic Of The White City: The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Documentary: A-



The occasional World’s Fair that does happen has consistently been a great, fascinating event and is always a great subject for special interest DVD.  Image Entertainment’s 1964 World’s Fair (reviewed elsewhere on this site) has been a favorite around here for a long time, so when we heard a disc was coming out on the earlier 1893 Chicago Fair that sounded great to us.  Expo – Magic Of The White City (2005) is the latest documentary DVD from the fledgling Inecom label, whose previous titles have been a slate of Civil War titles at least as good as those of “Mr. Linear History” himself, Ken Burns and one on The Johnstown Flood with Richard Dreyfuss.  Those were good, but Expo is a new peak for the company’s in-house director, Mark Bussler and their “Minutes Of History” series.


Shot in digital High Definition video and composed of some live-action footage, tens of thousands of stills, many of which are postcards, advertisements and other art realizations of the event, this Fair was far more massive than anyone could imagine.  Besides expanding the city of Chicago itself permanently, almost every country and up and coming corporation in the world at the time (many of which still survive) contributed sections, as well as every state in the United States itself.  For two very entertaining, smart, intense, densely filled hours, Expo covers virtually every single location and event that happened prior to the Fair in how it came together, the results of the event, and the aftermath.  The many innovations, triumphs and catastrophes that would mark the 20th Century made their debut here, from Vaseline to Cracker Jacks, from early weapons of mass destruction to the massive use of electric light.  It was an inspiration for many writers and inventors, a true glimpse into the future.  In this, there could not possibly be a better narrator than the original Willy Wonka himself, the great Gene Wilder.


Wilder’s empathetic read of the Brian Connelly script takes a painstakingly well researched story and brings it up to a higher level of excellence that makes this one of the most compelling documentaries we have seen in a while; a nice break from all political cycle we have been lucky enough to have recently.  In so many ways, this Fair was the starting gun for the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the 20th Century city; the kind of city that would become legendary in films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926, reviewed elsewhere on this site), Just Imagine (1930) and William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come (1936).  To its credit, Expo pulls no punches about the dark side and down side of events at the Fair and how those who built it could not attend it.


On the other hand, it was, like all the great Fairs, supposed to show how and why the future can be great and has often done this with great accuracy.  Unfortunately, it would also show things that were memorable for all the wrong reasons, but that’s civilization and technology for you.  It becomes ironic how these innovations can go one way or another, while some of the new inventions go nowhere, which are always a hoot.  There are literally hundreds of surprises here throughout, which this critic will not ruin.  All this and much more make Expo – Magic Of The White City one of the best Documentary and Special Interest DVD titles to date.  Then there is the quality of the disc.


The anamorphically enhanced 16 X 9/1.78 X 1 image is said to be from Bussler’s HD master and it sure looks that way.  We have now seen dozens of HD 16 X 9 productions on DVD and this is one of the best-looking to date, with minimal detail limits, hardly any digititis, good color consistency and picture richness that could teach larger DVD companies a thing or two.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is not bad, though the use of the .1/LFE/subwoofer channel is sparse, while Wilder’s voice is not too forward.  This is a very pleasant, involving combination that only a new HD format is going to be able to surpass.


The extras are also impressive, including an audio commentary by World’s Fair scholar David Cope that offers a whole new perspective on the fair as you watch the original program.  That is such a refreshing change form commentaries that feel more like animated radio or bad radio sports journalism.  The four featurettes show just how hard this was to make, with a couple of commentary options for each, all to be watched after you see the feature.  You also get previews for the other impressive “Minutes Of History” series titles, which we will be reviewing on this site, and eight deleted scenes that prove this could have gone on even longer.


This is such a strong work that if it catches on, it could potentially become an Oscar® nominee for Best Documentary.  Though the director has the final say, some of the deleted scenes ought to be reintroduced into the body of the work.  Either way, along with the current independent hit Murderball, Expo – Magic Of The White City is in the lead for such recognition and deservedly so.  This is the kind of surprisingly good release that people expect when they buy a DVD player in the first place.  Don’t miss it!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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