Directed by Henry King
Chicago politics. The Chicago Fire of 1871. Close brothers who become rivals. With all of these elements, what could go wrong? A lot, actually. While there were some exciting scenes, In Old Chicago left much to be desired.
So what’s the story? The O’Leary brothers are polar opposites. Straight-arrow Jack is an attorney who always fights for the underdog. Charmingly roguish Dion runs a saloon, but he has bigger plans. He will use anyone and anything to get what he wants. Jack and Dion’s ideals will be tested for once and all on the night of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The Good: There was some good acting. Alice Brady stole the show as Mrs. O’Leary (yes, THAT Mrs. O’Leary). Don Ameche is strong as Jack, and Alice Faye makes a wonderful singer/saloon owner/woman in love with Dion. Dion’s character is a little inconsistent, but Tyrone Power does an excellent job with what he’s given.
The production design was impressive. There is a huge contrast in all the buildings, from the opulence of the saloons to the humble O’Leary home to the elegance of the Mayor’s office. It brought to life the different factions of Chicago society. Also, the streets were disgustingly muddy. Historical films don’t always remember to put in small details like that. I loved it.
I wasn’t going to be impressed with the actual fire scenes; it was 1937. How convincing could it be? That was a bad call on my part. The fire is amazing, possibly even better than the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind two years later. It was just…wow.
The Bad: While I acknowledge that several scenes take place in saloons and that the producers were trying to showcase Alice Faye’s famous voice, there were too many musical numbers. They slowed down the conniving and the action, and they weren’t particularly entertaining.
While In Old Chicago has a good story with lots of potential drama, the movie felt really shallow. The screenplay left the characters feeling flat and uninteresting, except for Dion. He has the opposite problem. His character changes at the drop of a hat. One minute he’s a rogue with a twinkle in his eye, the next he’s completely evil. Then suddenly, he remembers how much he loves his brother and is perfectly good. It’s just not believable.
The Ugly: Rape isn’t a joke, although they play attempted rape as funny twice. Forcing a girl to kiss you and then threatening to rape her will not get you a business partner or a loving wife. Not cool, 1937.
Oscars Won: Best actress in a supporting role (Alice Brady); best assistant director.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, original story; best sound, recording; best music, score.