For years the Northbrook Public Library has offered the best repertory film screenings in Chicagoland outside the city limits. Every Wednesday the library presents a different classic film free of charge; as an added bonus, movies are often projected from 35-millimeter celluloid (though in recent years the library has screened films from DCP and BluRay as well). The diverse selections showcase the best of every decade of American cinema, with lesser-known titles and foreign films often thrown into the mix. Recent screenings have included the basketball favorite Hoosiers (1986), the family drama I Never Sang for My Father (1970), and the recent South Korean drama The Beauty Inside. Coming in August are four popular literary adaptations, programmed to coincide with the library’s summer reading club; titles include Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
“There’s a definite theme in the programming each month, be it a filmmaker, an actor, other themes,” explains librarian Margo Hill, who has overseen the library’s film programming since 2016. “We did a whole month of films with horrible bosses in them, for example. So we always have an idea that we can wrap our heads around for the month.” The library also presents a recent release on the second Saturday of the month and a family-oriented film on the last Saturday, but the repertory screenings are Hill’s favorite. “I’m a bit of a film history buff, so for me, it’s a lot of fun to choose those.”
Hill learned about the art of programming from her predecessor, Steve Gianni, who retired two years ago. Gianni had programmed films for the library since the 1980s, and Hill had the opportunity to assist him for much of his tenure. “I grew up in Northbrook,”” she explains, “and working at the library was one of the first jobs I ever had. . . . I was a film major at Columbia College, and I would help Steve about once a month with projection on the Saturday films.” Hill says she worked in film postproduction in the Chicago area for about 15 years when, having returned to school for a film degree, she got a regular position at the library.
“I learned from Steve not to be afraid of challenging your audience, because they end up surprising you,” Hill recalls. One of the biggest surprises came earlier this decade, when the library programmed series devoted to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. Given that many of the attendees are older, these two firebrands might have been “a little outside of where our audience might look for classic films. But in the end, I believe they definitely appreciated having access to those films.”
Gianni also taught Hill to listen to the community, and she says she gets programming suggestions all the time, whether from audience members, library coworkers, or community organizations. “One of the things that we’ve done recently was a partnership with the Village of Northbrook’s community relations commission, which does a celebration-of-cultures event every spring.” A month of foreign films served as a tie-in to the event, and Hill plans to repeat the series next spring.
Sometimes filmmakers reach out to the library with requests to show their work. Maggie Thomann, the library’s fiction and media manager, remembers one event in particular. “A community member had come to us about a short film, Grace, that she was involved with,” Thomann says. “It was about her journey through breast cancer and the aftermath of that. It turned into a screening with a panel discussion afterward that involved her, her doctor, her tattoo artist, and the filmmaker, Rachel Pikelny. I thought it was a very powerful evening; we had a lot of breast cancer survivors in the audience that night.”
Some of Hill’s favorite screenings have taken place in September, when the library presents silent movies with live piano accompaniment by Chicago-based pianist Dave Drazin. Among the more impressive revivals were Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur (1925) and Eric von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), both projected from celluloid. “A couple years ago Flicker Alley had a restored version of Sherlock Holmes, which the Chicago International Film Festival was going to show,”” recalls Hill, referring to the 1916 silent adaptation of William Gillette’s popular play. “Somehow we got it just a little bit before them, and I thought that was quite amazing.” This September’s line-up includes Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927); John Ford’s Hangman’s House (1928), his first movie to feature John Wayne; The Blot (1921), often called the masterpiece of pioneering woman director Lois Weber; and Buster Keaton’s comedy classic The General (1925). “I have a spreadsheet of our screening history,” says Hill. “and I was surprised to see that we’d never done it.”
The most memorable screenings, however, aren’t always the most obscure titles. “One of my favorite things we do is our Oscar month each March, when we show the current nominees or winners,” Thomann explains. “A screening that sticks out to me was watching The Shape of Water this year in our auditorium. What made it a special experience is that it was an intimate setting—our auditorium seats just 225 people—and we were surrounded by community members. The people who come to these shows are very engaged with film and love to discuss them. So the experience isn’t just watching the film, but talking to people about it afterwards about what they thought. The engagement you have with other attendees is really important.” v