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To escape sinful impulses, Ben Harvey, a callow youth, leaves his small town for Chicago in 1910. A pickpocket promptly relieves him of his money, and he nearly starves before Queen Lil takes him under her wing, gives him a room in her high-class bordello, and gets him a job at a newspaper. He's so sweet and dumb, he thinks Lil's is a boarding house. He's soon caught up in an electoral struggle between a secretly corrupt reformer and an openly corrupt councilman. Can Ben expose corruption or will he be caught up in allure of power? An alcoholic investigative reporter and the bordello's ingénue try to help him grow up. Written by
The first 15 minutes or so are wonderful, a rose-colored reminiscence of small-town America at the turn of the last century that suggests "Ah, Wilderness!" Then the Ben Hecht prototype, played by Beau Bridges with such innocence as to border on retardation, lights out for Chicago, and the narrative loses traction. It's quite a gorgeous, expensive production, and Melina Mercouri helps out as the madam who takes him under her wing (this was right toward the end of the movie era when prostitutes and bordellos were considered automatically titillating and hilarious, hence neither Mercouri nor any of her girls are fleshed out as characters). The always-good Brian Keith is Ben's alcoholic newspaper mentor, and other good actors mill about (Hume Cronyn, George Kennedy), but it's all color and very little forward thrust. Chicago 1910 had to be more interesting than this, and there must be more compelling stories to tell about it.
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