Sunday, May 15, 2011

Movie Review: In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago (1937)
directed by Henry King, starring Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Alice Faye 

The widowed Mrs. O'Leary (Alice Brady) and her three sons come to the city of Chicago in 1854, determined to fulfill the hopes and dreams of the late Mr. O'Leary (J. Anthony Hughes). With a little effort and ingenuity, they become modestly successful and Chicago thrives along with them. The youngest one, Bob (Tom Brown), is content to just help his mother milk the cow and while away his spare time flirting with the pretty Swedish servant Gretchen (June Storey). But the older boys have much grander ambitions. 

The eldest, Jack (Don Ameche), is an idealistic, fervently reformist lawyer, who dreams of someday wiping out the corruption in the town. Starting with "The Patch," where Chicago's morally unencumbered citizens go to get some cheap fun and booze. The middle brother, Dion (Tyrone Power), has no problem whatsoever with dens of sin and sets himself up as a saloon owner in the Patch, with the assistance of singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), who becomes his business partner and lover. Dion also has no moral qualms in dirtying his fingers with a little political corruption and pulls a few strings to get Jack elected Mayor of Chicago. But Jack will not be deterred in his quest to destroy the Patch. And the former big man of Chicago, Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), is out to ruin the brothers. Everything comes to a head on the night that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicks over a lantern...

In Old Chicago is definitely a product of Hollywood's "Me-Too" Syndrome. It's so obviously copycatting the previous year's San Francisco (beautiful female singer, a saloon keeper, a moral crusader, and a natural disaster that will redeem them all) that if you squint, you can almost see the actors hitting the same chalk marks. Not that Darryl F. Zanuck was even trying to be subtle about this. He originally planned to swipe Clark Gable, in a reprise of his San Francisco role, and Gable's frequent costar Jean Harlow as the leads. Harlow's untimely death would derail those plans. Instead, the film went ahead with a trio of stars that would become Twentieth-Century Fox's front line: Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, and Alice Faye. This was only Power's second leading role (after Lloyds of London) and it would be a big leap forward for Alice Faye as her persona shifted from knock-off Jean Harlow to warm, mellow-voiced lady of song. 

By today's standards, In Old Chicago barely qualifies as a disaster film. It's roughly seventy-five minutes of romance, family drama, and Alice Faye's singing; the grand spectacle of the 1871 Chicago Fire is all crammed into the last twenty minutes. The heart of the story is not the fire, but Chicago itself, split between high ideals and a down and dirty good time. The film isn't at all subtle in trying to portray this conflict, as personified by its Cain and Abel protagonists. The O'Leary brothers constantly flip-flop between being allies and rivals, sometimes within the same scene. Jack vows to destroy the Patch and its saloons and proudly tells Dion so to his face. Dion, in his turn, shovels some political dirt in order to get his brother elected mayor with apparently no awareness that his brother might have a problem with that. "Well," says pretty near every character in the movie, "we O'Learys are a strange tribe" (after about thirty repetitions of this catchphrase I wanted to take it outside and beat it with a stick). 

And yet, I found myself enjoying In Old Chicago quite a bit, and much more than I thought I would. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with the charm and sweetness of its principal cast and the smooth direction of Henry King. King, Ameche, Power, and Faye would go on to make Alexander's Ragtime Band the following year and you can see why the studio liked to team them up. Together they keep the film running along quite pleasantly, so that you can enjoy the character's drama without waiting impatiently for the fire to start. Although the film does provide us with a villain in the form of Brian Donlevy and he does get a spectacular death scene in the film's final minutes, there is really no cynicism to In Old Chicago. Even the back-door politics end not in recrimination or ruin, but in balletic fistfights.

In its opening stretches, In Old Chicago fooled me into thinking this was going to be a self-important slog. It begins with the death of Jack and Dion's father, the very Irish Mr. O'Leary, who falls prey to the worst sickness of Hollywood historical epics: prophesying. Just take a look at his dying speech after being dragged by a horse: "'Tis a grand new place this Chicago...It'll be rich and strong like I was always minding to be. 'Tis a boom and you'll boom with it. Someday you'll be fine, big men. A credit to me name. And everybody speaking with respect of the O'Learys. And how they grew up with the city. And put their mark on it...Just bury me here and let Chicago come to me. I couldn't come to it." Thankfully, he expires before he can go on to predict the World Fair, the White Sox, and Bob Fosse.

Once he's out of the way, the story really gets going, as Jack and Dion grow up to be friends and rivals. Tyrone Power and Don Ameche had great chemistry together; they feel believable as brothers which smooths over some of the inconsistencies in their characters. There's a scene where Dion is watching Jack prosecute one of Dion's cronies, and even when he's supposed to be on the other side, Dion's eyes follow his speechifying brother with amazement and glee. That's his big brother up there after all. Watching the two of them play pool together or dress side by side or break out into spontaneous Irish dancing, you feel like there's history there. In real life, Ameche and Power were great friends and Ameche would be best man at Power's wedding to the actress Annabella. On the Fox lot, Ameche often played second fiddle to Power as his friend soared to matinee idol status, but the two easygoing actors didn't let it bother them.

Tyrone Power was all of twenty-three when he made this picture. There isn't a great deal of depth to Dion, but Power has the right amount of boyish charm and exuberance to keep the character likable. Otherwise, he's kind of a jerk. Making dirty political deals, double-crossing people, proudly telling his brother that the only reason he became mayor was through Dion's chicanery, proudly telling his new wife that now she can't testify against him...the list goes on. And yet, Tyrone Power brings an innocence to the character that Clark Gable couldn't have. There's a kind of "Ha-ha-ain't I clever" quality to Dion's dealings. He's just a kid seeing how much he can get away with. And he has a kid's expectations of how things turn out right; there's a scene where he literally hurls his mother and his lover Belle into the same carriage so they can start getting along. Dion spends most of the movie getting away with nearly everything he attempts, thus setting up for the climax of the film, in which his callowness must be burned away by the Great Chicago Fire.

Don Ameche is stuck playing the role of the good brother Jack, the one whose moral crusade slams right into his brother's high life. While the movie ostensibly sides with Jack on the questions of morality, the heart of In Old Chicago is really with Dion and Belle and the raucous saloons of the Patch. Fortunately for the character and the movie, Ameche doesn't play Jack as the pompous killjoy. He's just a little stiff-necked. And when the time comes for him to punch his brother, Dion has definitely deserved it. I have to admit I have a soft spot for Don Ameche (and secretly enjoy him more than I do Power), even though he has a reputation as a lightweight. Although is it just me or does the famous Ameche grin get a little frightening when he bares it full force? Power, too.

I have to slip in a side note that a lot of reviews of In Old Chicago claim that there's a love triangle between Jack, Dion, and Belle. Even the usually reliable TCM website says so. Well, there isn't. Not even so much as a hint. The romance is all between Dion and Belle. Jack doesn't meet her until halfway through the film and is nothing less than pleased as punch that his brother's marrying such a nice girl. That's it. No longing looks, no attempts to flirt with her, no last-minute confessions. Maybe people are mixing it up with Alexander's Ragtime Band? In any case, I'm glad that In Old Chicago didn't go for the obvious tack of making the brothers rivals in love as well as everything else.

This was my first encounter with Alice Faye, once one of Fox's crown jewels and now known only to movie buffs. David Shipman's description of her in The Great Movie Stars was my introduction to her: "She was blonde, cuddly, shapely and kind--almost bovine. When men crossed her, she didn't start throwing things...but quietly left the room, her eyes welling with tears....she was no great shakes as an actress but hers is the supreme example of an amiable temperament caught by the camera." Can you see why I didn't exactly rush to the video store for Alice Faye movies? 

But Shipman was only half right. Faye is blonde and cute and likable on screen. But she also gets to be smart and snappy and, in a running gag, does throw quite a lot of things at Tyrone Power. Her character Belle is a showgirl, but she's also a savvy woman who takes Dion as a business partner and lover in that order. There's a nice moment where Dion and Belle are planning some election day shenanigans during a dance and Belle slips him the A-OK signal without missing a beat. Faye was known for her singing and she gets to show off her warm contralto several times. Though I do have to wonder if the movie finds any irony in having Faye sing a loving rendition of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" while its main villain reminisces fondly about his slave-catching days a few scenes later. Faye's performance is one of the things that weights the movie towards the "sinners" more than the "saints" since Belle is an independent, fun-loving and sympathetic woman. Far more interesting in fact than the O'Leary's very Irish Mother though for some reason, Alice Brady won an Oscar for her work here. Possibly it was a compensation Oscar for last year's My Man Godfrey?

The Great Chicago Fire, as reproduced by Fox, is one hell of a way to end a movie and the special effects here still hold up after nearly seventy-five years. With no help from computer graphics, the Fox Team created a stunning set piece of fire and smoke and controlled chaos. At the time, this was one of the most expensive films ever made and watching these last scenes, you can't help but be awed by the effort that went into them. There's a beautiful tracking shot of Tyrone Power walking through the dazed, dirty crowd huddled in the water as the flames and smoke rise above them. It's like he's literally walking through Hell.

In Old Chicago isn't about historical accuracy. It's about our idea of what this history was and how it was made. The movie makes the point that a city needs someone like Jack, someone with ideals, who can clean things up and make them safe and lawful. But then, would someone like Jack ever get elected without the help of someone like Dion? The film doesn't go far enough or deep enough with its ideas, but where it does go, it's entertaining and goodhearted. And unlike many disaster movies, you don't walk out of it feeling dumber. All in all, this was a great movie to watch on my birthday.

Favorite Quote: 

"You may be mayor, but I'm Chicago."

Favorite Scene: 

My vote would have to go for Dion and Belle's first kiss. He has been following her around, determined to win away a piece of land she owns. And possibly her heart into the bargain since he likes what he sees of her. To that end, he's been pursuing her, declaring mad passionate love and getting nowhere. Finally, he barges into her lacy, overstuffed bedroom. Belle, fed up with this nineteenth-century stalking, starts throwing vases, pillows, and knickknacks in his direction, yelling for him to get out. He tries to calm her and they end up tussling, with him holding her arms and pleading. Thanks to one clumsy kick, both of their legs go out from under them and they end up sprawled on the floor. The maid finds them and runs away screaming for the police. Dion leans over to Belle and they sink into a kiss. Opening her eyes, Belle asks calmly, "Now, won't you tell me what this is all about?" Dion insists that he loves her. "I mean, really," Belle says. "Well, you have a piece of property on Randolph Street and I thought that if you and I were to put up a place like Warren's, only better, more class, we could make a lot of money. But I really meant that about being crazy about you." Belle laughs and looks over at him. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? I'm a businesswoman. I'd have listened to any proposition without all this foolishness." Her wonderful, matter-of-fact smile clinches the scene.

Final Six Words: 

A fun, fictional, fiery good time


  1. Excellent post on a fun film - I particularly liked your diagnosis of poor Mr O'Leary's fatal illness! I'm not an Alice Faye fan, but, like you, I do like Don Ameche, big grin and all. The ending of this film, showing the fire, is terrific special FX - shows what you could do w/o cgi!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it. Yeah, Ameche usually gets a shrug and he doesn't get loads to do here, but he was great fun in Midnight and Heaven Can Wait. The ending was well worth the wait.

  3. Belated happy birthday. I haven't seen In Old Chicago in (mumble, mumble) years, but I remember the fire sequence vividly. It's an awesome production.

  4. Thanks for the comment and the good wishes. Yeah, I'm trying to imagine any studio nowadays putting money behind a disaster movie where the disaster is squeezed into the last 20 minutes. Of course, I also laugh at the way In Old Chicago keeps cutting to meaningful closeups of the O'Leary cow. Ameche and Power talk, there's the cow, Irish dancing, cow, Alice Faye singing, back to the cow. Off the top of my head, this is the only movie I know where shots of a cow are supposed to instill you with a mounting sense of dread.

  5. I may be late to the party but...I like very much your take on "In Old Chicago," a film I've only recently reacquainted myself with after (mumble mumble) years since I last watched it. You nail many points and I think you are exactly right on why Tyrone Power was a better fit in the role of Dion than Clark Gable ever could have been.

  6. The Lady Eve: I love it when people comment on old reviews. You reminded me that I really enjoyed this film and I think it's a nice example of a brisk, fun disaster film that doesn't outstay its welcome or try to be too serious.

  7. Comedy, drama, music, special effects and Tyrone Power - who could ask for anything more?