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Story of the great fire of 1871. Fictional story of two sons of Mrs. O'Leary (the owner of the cow which started the fire), one a rogue (Power) the other a lawyer (Ameche). One of the most expensive films of its time ($1.8 million). Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
IN OLD CHICAGO (20th Century-Fox, 1937/38), directed by Henry King, is a prestigious production inspired by MGM's SAN FRANCISCO (1936) climaxed by the earthquake that destroyed the city in 1906, thus, the birth of natural disaster films. Headed by the youthful trio of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche, all with only a few years into the movie business, it is veteran actress Alice Brady, best known for her scatterbrained society matrons of numerous comedies, who stands out with her change of pace characterization. Also playing against type is musical star Alice Faye in a rare dramatic performance. With her name on the marquee, one would assumed this to be a turn-of-the-century Technicolor musical. Granted, it's a dramatic story with some doses of comedy and production numbers, but no Technicolor, which would have benefited with its lavish sets and periodic costumes. IN OLD CHICAGO can be best summed up as a fictionalized story of the O'Leary Family, a "strange tribe," and the events leading to the big Chicago fire of 1871.
The story opens with a prologue as the O'Leary's traveling on wagon train bound for new beginnings. After racing alongside a passing train just for the fun of it, Patrick (J. Anthony Hughes) meets with an accident that kills him, leaving his wife, Molly (Alice Brady) to rear her three boys (Gene Reynolds, Billy & Bobs Watson) alone. After burying her husband in the plains, the O'Leary's move on, coming to Chicago where Molly earns money washing laundry and settling her family in the slum area known as "the Patch." Moving forward, Molly's boys grow into handsome young men: Jack (Don Ameche), a crusading attorney who's later elected mayor of Chicago; Bob (Tom Brown), the youngest who earns a living driving the family laundry wagon and marrying Gretchen (June Storey), one of his mother's helpers; and Dion (Tyrone Power), a gambler and saloon keeper whose ambitious ways leads him to corruption. Of Molly's three sons, Dion is her biggest concern. She disapproves of his love for Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), a cabaret singer ("what a woman!") whose involved with Gil Warren (Brain Donlevy), a corrupt political boss who rivals Dion. Situations become complex after Jack learns how his smooth operating brother got him into office but determined to make good at his job, and Dion's methods in using Belle for his own ambitious ways.
With the story of secondary importance and the Chicago fire the main event, the added attraction of musical numbers featured include: "I've Taken a Fancy to You" (sung by chorus) by Sidney Clare and Lew Pollack; "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (sung by Alice Faye) by James A. Bland; "In Old Chicago" (sung by Faye) by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel; "I'll Never Let You" (sung by Faye); and "Take a Dip in the Sea" (sung by Tyler Brooke).
Theatrically released at close to two hours (112 minutes), IN OLD CHICAGO was a top-grossing film of the day, and it shows. It's popularity lead to a 1943 reissue cut down by twenty minutes. Since then, the 94 minute edition became the one available to commercial and later cable television markets (American Movie Classics and Fox Movie Channel), as well as video cassette in the 1990s, with the missing material believed to be lost and gone forever. Then around 2002, those missing scenes lifted from IN OLD CHICAGO were discovered and restored to now close to its original play length onto DVD in 2005. The restoration consists the O'Leary family gathered together and praying over the father's grave before continuing on their journey to Chicago; a lengthy courtroom sequence of Jack's first case as a lawyer defending a man (Paul Hurst) with a woman (Thelma Manning) on the witness stand who turns out to be his wife, thus having the judge dismissing the case on the grounds that "a wife cannot testify against her husband," followed by Dion introducing Belle to Jack as they exit the courthouse. The DVD package also features the abridged version on the flip side that had been overexposed on television for decades. In the 1950s, IN OLD CHICAGO was televised as the basis of a one hour show "City in Flames" from "20th Century Fox Hour" (1957), an episode that premiered on the Fox Movie Channel in 2002.
Andy Devine, Sidney Blackmer, Phyllis Brooks and Berton Churchill take part in a long list of supporting players. Any similarity between SAN FRANCISCO and IN OLD CHICAGO is purely intentional. The disastrous climax lasts about 20 minutes; the characters of Clark Gable and Tyrone Power are ambitious and loved by singers (Jeanette MacDonald and Alice Faye); both have a third party who takes an interest in the couple (priest Spencer Tracy and brother Don Ameche); and following the natural disaster, both leading men are seen roaming around with a steak of blood down his face. Regardless of similarities, both films became blockbuster hits.
Did Mrs. O'Leary's cow actually start the Chicago fire? One thing for certain, the Chicago disaster of 1871 is as part of American history as the motion picture itself, fact or fiction, being associated with cinema history. Now fully restored, IN OLD CHICAGO can be seen and appreciated in its entirety, thanks to film historians and their effort in putting the missing pieces back together again, and Turner Classic Movies for premiering the movie in its long unseen entirety May 29, 2013. (***1/2)
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