When the producers of the first big Superman movie were looking for a location, they didn’t even think about Chicago. Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, was filmed in England, Alberta and New Mexico. New York City represented its namesake, Metropolis.
Why not Chicago? Because when Superman’s location scouts were at work, Mayor Richard J. Daley was still alive. And Hizzoner didn’t want no filmmakers nobody sent. The daily communicant in Daley didn’t like movies with sex or profanity, and the civic booster didn’t like gangster pictures. As Arnie Bernstein wrote in "Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies."
To this day, Daley’s contempt for Hollywood portrayals of his beloved city is legendary. Hizzoner, as Daley was often referred to, couldn't stand to see Chicago or its police department portrayed in a negative light and for many years made it difficult for out-of-town filmmakers to use Windy City locations. Said one Chicago policeman who occasionally dealt with Hollywood crews, “If it’s not Mary Poppins, the mayor doesn’t want it.”
That all changed when Jane Byrne became mayor. Byrne, a generation younger than the Old Man, was hip to the movies’ power to promote Chicago. So when a pair of Saturday Night Live cast members asked permission to film in Chicago, Byrne let them do whatever they wanted: jump over the 95th Street Bridge, rappel down the pillars of City Hall, drop a car from a helicopter a mile in the air. Byrne even posed for embarrassing photos in Ray-Bans and a fedora. The Blues Brothers not only reintroduced the film industry to Chicago, it reintroduced Chicago to America, which had last gotten a good look at the city during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
That decision gave Byrne a role in the city’s history as the Mother of Modern Chicago. She opened Chicago to the West. In the ’80s, everybody wanted to make a movie in this long-neglected locale: if it hadn’t been for Mayor Byrne, Tom Cruise and Rebecca deMornay wouldn’t have gotten busy on the "L" in Risky Business. Matthew Broderick wouldn’t have sung "Danke Schoen" in the Von Steuben Day Parade. We wouldn’t have seen Rob Lowe’s butt in About Last Night. Those movies made Chicago look like a fun place to live and played an important role in the city’s transformation from a provincial, industrial town to a global metropolis. In fact, one reason The Blues Brothers is so interesting to watch today is that it captured Chicago during a dreary period of decline, when the city seemed on its way to becoming a Rust Belt casualty.
As the city’s appearance improved, we got bigger and bigger productions: "The Dark Night," "Transformers 3" and now "Superman: Man of Steel." This place didn’t look like Gotham City or Metropolis in 1978. Some people have been suggesting a role for Rahm Emanuel in the new movie. (Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp from the fifth dimension, would be a good choice.) But maybe we should also cast Jane Byrne as Superman’s travel agent. Without her, he wouldn’t have come to Chicago.