Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In Old Chicago (1938)

Director: Henry King


In 1936 MGM brought to life the great earthquake that rocked San Francisco in one of the best special effects movies of its time in the film San Francisco. 20th Century-Fox’s answers back in 1938 with its own heart pounding special effects drama based around an infamous American disaster with In Old Chicago, recreating the fire that burned the city to the ground in 1871. As one of the most expensive productions ever to be brought to the screen to date. In Old Chicago was meant to be a film that wowed audiences with blazing power through the towering inferno that destroyed most of was one of America’s finest cities. The large budget is on clear display as masterful pyrotechnic and other special effects bring to life one of the country’s most legendary calamities.

In Old Chicago is a fictional telling of the O’Leary family, whom Mrs. O’Leary is infamous for the cow that knocked over a lantern to ignite a blaze, and the events leading up to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A rift comes across the O’Leary family as brothers Dion (Tyrone Power) and Jack (Don Ameche) grow up on two sides of the law and dispute concerning their power over an old, seedy section of Chicago. Raised by their single mother Molly O’Leary (Alice Brady) Jack grows up to become a lawyer and eventually mayor of Chicago. This is partially with the aid of his brother Dion, who grew up to become a owner/operator of a major saloon and is friends with much of the seedy figures of the city. When Jack plans, as mayor to raise the older and more corrupt part of town, known as “the patch” where Dion so happens to run his saloon and draws his power from, Jack and Dion have major differences. When the infamous fire is started Dion first thinks it was his brother that intentionally started the blaze only to realize the truth too late, losing his brother to a mob first brought together by Dion. The O’Learys, except for the lost Jack, make way to safety, watching their city burn to the ground, determined that it will rise again better than before.

The story shared in the film In Old Chicago is a tale of an unfortunate family rift, with two brothers growing in power by different means, one with pure intentions, the other with greed and manipulation of the people and crooked happenings not seen by most. All this is set to the background of the Great Chicago Fire, which leads to the main purpose of the picture. That purpose is that it is a special effects feature, meant to awe audiences with controlled images of absolute carnage that the average person would only have read about in history books. The film is an entertaining story, but leads to the ultimate reason anyone would have bought a ticket to the theater to see the picture, to see the recreation of the Chicago fire, and the film does not disappoint. The extravaganza of pyrotechnics effects is awe-inspiring and worth sitting through the first two-thirds of the picture to get to, even though the plot itself still makes for a very satisfactory picture.

In this period piece, taking place in nineteenth century, the film is filled with large, lavish sets, period costumes, and a brilliant spectacle of sights and sounds to recreate an era just a mere 66 years before the release of the picture. All this was directed by a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the governing body which awards the Oscars each year) and respected veteran director Henry King. Though having directed many films dating deep into the silent era, King had never directed a picture of this magnitude or reverence before, but with the resources that 20th Century-Fox gave to this picture it stands as quite an epic size spectacle of grandeur and special effects in its production value, most notably the final 20 roaring minutes.

Despite establishing credibility for the feature from the moment of the opening credits, stating a word of gratitude for the Chicago historical society for aiding in accuracy of the picture, almost all of the events of the picture are fiction. In the film’s account of the O’Learys other than the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocking over the lantern to start the blaze it can be said that everything else is false information. Events including the O’Leary family history, the father dying in an accident as shown in the film’s opening, the number and gender of the family’s children and even the name of Mrs. O’Leary ,which was in fact Catharine and not Molly as depicted in the picture, are all fabrications of  fiction for the entertainment value of the picture.

So the feature misleads audiences into believing what they are seeing is how events might have happened. Not that portions are not based on slivers of truth creatively weaved together to produce a better story, but many films throughout cinema have similar ploys, stating words similar to “based on a true story” while in fact being completely false. That is just part of the movie experience sometimes, and it is all meant to entertain, even with white lies. Audiences know of the Chicago fire and the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, but from there we let 20th Century-Fox and Henry King take us away on a journey for an hour and a half to entertain and bring us awe inspiring visuals of what it could be like to watch your beloved city tragically burn to the ground.

The feature’s three stars would become quite well acquainted with each other in the coming years as Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche would work with each other numerous times in the coming years. Power and Ameche had already had a small history together in the recent past. Ameche was the senior by six years to Power and was a veteran of the vaudeville, where he was thought to stiff, and films with a couple of pictures under his belt, but Power would steal a leading role for Ameche in Henry King’s previous picture Lloyd’s of London. King liked both enough to bring them both as brothers to the set of In Old Chicago. The leading lady role of Belle Fawcett was original intended to be played by Jean Harlow, but in 1937 Harlow would fall very ill and pass away from kidney failure, opening the door for newcomer Alice Faye. With her skills primarily as a talented singer Faye was made up to be a softer version of Harlow, with more natural blonde hair and make-up. The picture would be a huge break for the new actress as many critics would believe she gave the best performance of the year for her role in In Old Chicago.

The supporting cast would be filled with a delightful set of actors to bring life to the story. The young and beautiful Phyllis Brooks plays Ann Colby, a romantic rival to Alice Faye’s Belle in winning the attention of Dion. Brian Donlevy plays well the role of a crooked saloon owner (a part somewhat similar to his part in Barbary Coast) and attempted politician as Gil Warren, rivaling the good that the role of Jack O’Leary provides in the picture. The unique acting of Any Devine graces the screen as usual side comedic role playing a slow, but tough friend of the O’Leary’s, as Devine always seems to  be at home in westerns or period films. The overlooked, and very minor character of the third O’Leary brother, Bob, would be played by former child model Tom Brown. Above all the supporting cast in the Alice Brady playing the minor, but very essential role of Molly O’Leary, the family matriarch and holder of all hope throughout the picture. Brady’s somewhat overacted role played so much importance in the film’s story and heart that it would win her an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

In Old Chicago was a major event picture of the time and would be held in high praise by audiences and critics alike during its initial run. The film would be awarded by the Motion Picture Academy two awards, Brady for supporting actress as well as Robert Webb for best assistant director. This would be the final year for the short lived award for assistant director, a category the public would not understand or appreciate. It should be noted that an assistant director in a film of this magnitude would be paramount in keeping all extras working correctly to support the story as well as making sure Henry king’s vision is carried out as best as possible. Therefore, Webb’s win was well deserved. In Old Chicago would also receive nominations for best score, sound recording, and writing (original screenplay). All nominations were well deserved in a film of this magnitude.

 Although completely inaccurate, In Old Chicago is a very good picture, one that shines with magnificent pyrotechnic effects and a decent story to be based around it. For 1937/8 it was a film that would have wowed audiences. The only way it would have wowed more was if it were filmed in Technicolor. Perhaps the burning of Atlanta scene in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, filmed in glorious color, would cause this picture to be greatly overshadowed in the long run of cinema history as In Old Chicago is just a footnote of good pictures of the late 1930s and not remembered as one of the best. That should not take away from the actual accomplishment that the film was and the entertainment value the film still provides for those fans of the Hollywood Golden Age films

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