Saturday, March 23, 2024

#2,951. In Old Chicago (1938) - Don Ameche 4-Pack


On the heels of MGM’s hit 1936 film San Francisco, Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox countered with In Old Chicago, a fictionalized biopic of the O’Leary family, whose cow is rumored to have sparked the deadly 1871 fire that destroyed a large section of the city.

While relocating his young family to Chicago, Patrick O’Leary (J. Anthomy Hughes) is killed in a freak accident. Left on her own, his widow Molly (Alice Brady) brings up their three boys, two of whom would make a name for themselves in the city.

Oldest son Dion O’Leary (Tyrone Power) is a schemer with big dreams. After convincing lounge singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye) to join him in a new business venture, Dion alienates Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), Belle’s previous employer and the most powerful crime boss in the section of Old Chicago known as “The Patch”. Establishing himself as the new driving force of “The Patch”, Dion manages to get his younger brother Jack (Don Ameche) elected as Chicago’s new Mayor, using deception and backdoor dealings to steal the election from Warren himself, who ran against him.

A trained lawyer, Jack takes his new position seriously, and intends to clean up Chicago by wiping out the political corruption running rampant in “The Patch”. In so doing, he finds himself squaring off time and again against Dion. But when a fire started in the O’Leary’s barn threatens to wipe out the city, the two brothers put their differences aside and do what they can to save their beloved Chicago.

Tyrone Power has charisma to spare in the role of Dion, a swindler and crook who is always looking for the advantage in any situation. Whether it’s stealing a shirt from his mother’s laundry business to wear for the evening or making unwanted passes at Belle (the initial scenes between the two, where Dion comes on strong and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, don’t play so well today), this is a guy who usually gets what he wants, and won’t back down until he does.

With a smile on his face, Dion lies and steals his way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, to the point that he’s powerful enough to rig an election in his brother’s favor. By the time the final act rolls around, Dion is firmly established as the film’s true villain, and yet Power is so damn likable in the role that we can’t help but admire the guy!

Don Ameche is also solid as the straightlaced, well-meaning brother; as are both Alice Faye (who gets to sing a few songs) and Alice Brady (winner of that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as the cantankerous Mrs. O’Leary), but from the moment he first strolls on-screen, In Old Chicago belongs to Tyrone Power.

As it was with San Francisco, all the drama, the family spats, and the political machinations are merely a set-up for the disaster yet to come: a reenactment of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Director Henry King and his crew spent $150,000 on this final segment, and the fire is a sight to behold. Walls topple, buildings explode, and houses burn to the ground, all at a fever pitch. There’s drama here as well; Gil Warren manages to convince many residents of “The Patch” that Mayor Jack O’Leary, who had been looking to have that section of Old Chicago condemned, started the fire intentionally. Warren even assembles a posse to confront Jack as Chicago burns around them. Still, it’s the awesome spectacle of a city on fire, presented so realistically, that makes this final act as hard-hitting as it is.

Yet much like San Francisco before it, In Old Chicago ultimately proves to be more than the sum of its disaster sequences. In fact, I found myself so wrapped up in the story of the O’Leary boys and their squabbles that I had forgotten about the tragedy to come! In Old Chicago works as an early disaster film, but it works just as well as an example of a big Hollywood production done right.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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