Wow, what a fire! In Old Chicago (1937) is a drama film that centers on the O’Leary family’s arrival to Chicago, in the mid 1800’s. As the film opens, Patrick O’Leary (J. Anthony Hughes) is traveling by covered wagon to Chicago with his wife, Molly (Alice Brady), and their three young boys. He tries to race a train engine, but he crashes when the horses become spooked by the train’s whistle, and he dies out on the prairie. His final words and thoughts for his sons are about the importance of making a name for themselves in this new city.
Jump forward 15 or 20 years, and the three sons are now grown, trying to live up to their father’s request. The youngest son, Bob (Tom Brown), still stays with his mother, helping her around the house and with her laundry business. The middle son, Dion (Tyrone Power), is making his mark as a gambler, and the oldest son, Jack (Don Ameche), is a promising, idealistic young lawyer.
The story focuses primarily on Jack and Dion because each of their own visions of the city differs so drastically. Dion opens his own saloon, where he hires and falls in love with his singing and dancing star, Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye). To get rid of an opposing saloon owner, Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), Dion pretends to support Warren’s run for Mayor, but secretly (and unbeknownst to Jack) Dion gets a group of prominent political men to convince Jack to run for Mayor as well. Then Dion makes sure that his brother wins the election. What Dion wasn’t prepared for was Jack’s determination to rid the city of the low-life riffraff and gambling houses, where Dion is making his fortune. All of the O’Leary’s problems culminate upon the starting of the Great Chicago Fire. The last third of the film follows the O’Leary family as they try to save their beloved city that they have spent their lives building. They will have to overcome their differences, especially when Jack is accused of starting the fire on purpose to destroy the poorly built section of town (known as “The Patch”).
The first two-thirds of In Old Chicago are not too exciting. Good performances from the cast, mixed with the same, tired story about brothers who have opposing views on life. These scenes are filled with musical numbers with Alice Faye and some decently acted scenes between all the members of the O’Leary family.
The film’s remarkable scenes all take place during the fire, where the focus moves from the acting to…well, the fire. For a film from 1937, I was highly impressed with these scenes from a technical standpoint. Being in black and white, it didn’t have the same grandiose feeling as the fire in Gone With The Wind, but it is still well done and quite beautifully directed by Henry King.
In Old Chicago was a successful film, and ended up being the seventh highest grossing film of the year as well as being nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Alice Brady won the Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and she certainly deserved the award. In fact, her character has more great moments than any of her sons. Although it is a strong ensemble cast, she is the character that leaves a lasting impression, and I am thrilled that she was recognized.
The film is also memorable for launching the career of Alice Faye, who stepped into the role only after Jean Harlow’s unfortunate death. After Faye’s performance was so well received, Fox cast her in 1938’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which also starred Tyrone Power and Don Ameche. This next teaming was even better received, as it became the fourth highest grossing film of 1938, and also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.Back to Home for More Reviews