Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: IN OLD CHICAGO (1937)

Mrs. O'Leary and her troublesome cow make their obligatory appearance in this 20th Century Fox tale of urban disaster, which lets the viewer know up front that In Old Chicago (1937) is more a fable than a history lesson. Like the earlier San Francisco (1936), this picture sets a very personal story against the backdrop of a critical moment in American history, and it also sports an impressive round of special effects to demonstrate the scope of its climactic conflagration. Until the fire breaks out, however, there are plenty of fireworks between the stars to keep the audience watching, with Tyrone Power and Don Ameche as sparring siblings and Alice Faye as the love interest who may or may not be enough to make Power's opportunistic heel go in for reform.

Power plays Dion O'Leary, the son of Irish immigrants and a shrewd if unethical businessman. His brother, Jack (Ameche), is a straight arrow type who becomes a lawyer and eventually a politician, thanks largely to his scheming brother's secret efforts. In the sprawling, dangerous city of Chicago, the two represent starkly different visions of the city's future, although they unite in their love for their hard-working mother (Alice Brady) and affable baby brother (Tom Brown). Each is eager for the downfall of crooked Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), who runs the city as his personal domain. Dion also nurses a passion for his business partner and star singer, Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), but his unscrupulous methods constantly undermine their chance for romantic happiness.

Power, Ameche, and Faye were among Fox's most reliable stars, and the studio cast them in a variety of pictures in different combinations, but In Old Chicago offers an excellent opportunity to study the differences in the two leading men. Both charismatic, dark-haired, and talented, the two actors work in opposite directions as the clashing brothers. Power shows the darker side of his relentless energy, while Ameche's debonair persona inclines toward gentility. Faye, always compelling with either leading man, does her musical numbers with her usual charm but becomes most interesting when thrown into company with the disapproving Mrs. O'Leary, especially after the fire erupts and plunges the city into chaos. In a cast of first-rate players, Alice Brady stands out in the role of the Irish matriarch; she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, which combines all of the classic images of maternal strength and suffering, along with some adorable beer swilling and a fanatical devotion to her dead husband's portrait.

Two years before the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (1939), In Old Chicago offers a spectacular display of flaming ruin, which serves as the film's climax and thrusts our protagonists into life or death peril. Fox lavished money on the fire sequence, which includes enormous sets blazing and expansive views of people fleeing the disaster and then suffering through the smoke and misery of the aftermath. The Academy Awards didn't yet have a category for Special Effects; otherwise, In Old Chicago would certainly have been a strong contender. Still, as impressive as the effects are, they wouldn't have the same impact without our attachment to the terrified members of the O'Leary family, who find themselves separated and struggling to survive through the very worst moments of the fire.

Be sure to appreciate character actor Andy Devine in a supporting role as Dion's pal, Pickle. In Old Chicago earned six Oscar nominations and won two, including Brady's award for Best Supporting Actress. Director Henry King reunites with Power, Ameche, and Faye for Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), and his other pictures include the Power vehicles Jesse James (1939), The Black Swan (1942), and Captain from Castile (1947). Power and Faye also star together in Rose of Washington Square (1939), with Power once again playing the heel. Ameche stars with Faye in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Lillian Russell (1940), and the delightful comedy, That Night in Rio (1941). Alice Brady, sadly, was near the end of her career in 1937; she died in 1939 at the age of 46. See more of her in The Gay Divorcee (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and her final picture, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).