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In Old Chicago,In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago

With its large-scale spectacle, glamorous stars, and slick production values, In Old Chicago (1937) represents the formulas, systems, and practices of Golden Age Hollywood. The film followed the conventions of the disaster genre of the 1930s, plus it benefitted from strategies employed in the star system. A big-budget production for Twentieth Century Fox, In Old Chicago promised state-of-the-art mechanical and special effects to lure audiences into the theater.

Produced and previewed in 1937 but released in January 1938, In Old Chicago is a fictionalization of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which 3.3 square miles were destroyed in the heart of the city. Legend has it that Mrs. O'Leary's cow started the fire by kicking over a lantern, though an imaginative journalist later admitted that he had invented the story. In Old Chicago not only features the notorious bovine executing her famous kick but also expands on the fiction by depicting the exploits of the entire O'Leary family. In the year 1854, Mrs. O'Leary, played as a determined matriarch by Alice Brady, arrives in a backward but bustling Chicago with her three sons. She opens a laundry service, while her sons grow up to follow three different paths. Jack, portrayed by Don Ameche, becomes a hard-working lawyer who is eager to clean up corrupt Chicago, while little brother Bob, played by Tom Brown, prefers the quiet family life with his Scandinavian wife, Gretchen. Tyrone Power costars as Dion O'Leary, who gambles, drinks, and chases women--most notably, singer Belle Fawcett, played by Alice Faye. Dion takes advantage of the wide, open corruption in Chicago to gain control of politicians and to make his fortune in the Patch, the city's saloon-filled slum. After Jack is elected mayor on the reform ticket, the two brothers square off for control of the city. Little do they know that the city's destiny is about to be determined by the family cow.

Twentieth Century Fox was grooming Power to be a major star when they cast him as the unscrupulous Dion O'Leary. Power's break-through film, Lloyd's of London, had been released in 1936, but his star image had not yet been constructed. Previous roles exploited his handsome good looks but little else. Playing Dion, the scoundrel who is redeemed in the last reel, added a roguish dimension to his star image that was later exploited in films such as Jesse James (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Black Swan (1942). For the immediate future, his association with In Old Chicago seemed to target him as the star of disaster films; he also appeared in Suez (1938) and The Rains Came (1939). Studios were always looking for compatible actresses and male costars to play opposite new leading men, and so Alice Faye and Don Ameche were cast as the love interest and the opposing brother. Because Power was so attractive, the studio took care that Power not overwhelm the leading lady. Faye's soft blonde beauty and full figure balanced Power's dark looks and tall frame; she would play opposite Power in three films. The amiable Ameche ended up as Power's costar in four films. The repeated casting of Power with Faye and with Ameche reveals that the studio had a strategy in developing the stars' personas and careers.

In Old Chicago fits neatly into the disaster genre, which gained popularity in the late 1930s. During this era of the genre, the films took place in historical or exotic settings, with the main disaster unfolding in the final sequence. The enormous success of MGM's San Francisco (1936) launched this phase, which also included The Hurricane (1937), Suez, and The Rains Came. Twentieth Century Fox's strategy for In Old Chicago was to closely follow the structure and storyline of San Francisco. In that film, Clark Gable stars as a ne'er-do-well saloon owner in the rough area of San Francisco called Nob Hill. He gives singer Jeanette MacDonald a job in his saloon. Though he is attracted to her, he does not treat her with respect. Gable's close friend is a priest played by Spencer Tracy, who wants to clean up Nob Hill, which eventually pits him against his long-time friend. The famous earthquake of 1906, which concludes the film, changes the destiny of all their lives. The similarities between the films are obvious, though the scale of the sets and the disaster that destroyed them is more impressive in In Old Chicago.

The disaster genre tends to emerge when there is a need to validate faith in America's social institutions and traditional values. During the Depression, families were ripped apart by economic disaster, while social institutions such as religion and education offered little help. The average American tended to blame the government for unemployment as well as the breakdown of social order. The disaster genre soothed doubts and fears regarding social institutions by depicting them as serving society. For example, characters representing institutions--firemen, priests, doctors, political leaders--commit heroic deeds, thereby validating such institutions as law and order, religion, the medical community, or the government. This certainly holds true in In Old Chicago. For much of the film, the city thrives on corruption because it is run by gamblers and saloon owners, like Dion O'Leary. But, in the climactic fire, Mayor Jack O'Leary commits a heroic act for the greater good, while Mother O'Leary strives to keep her family intact. Police and fire crews work tirelessly to corral residents and contain the fire. Thus, the social institutions of government, family, and law and order come through for the community.

Within the course of a disaster film, the hallmarks of civilization--from moral codes to personal relationships to social institutions--are sorely tested. And yet, moral responsibility and sacrifice, combined with healthy social institutions, are the reasons the community ultimately survives. Subsequently, those who make their way out of the rubble often declare a renewed appreciation for traditional values and ideals, as when the O'Leary family promises to stick around and help rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire.

Large-scale special effects are also a convention of the disaster genre. Sometimes, easily recognizable landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building are destroyed as part of the catastrophe, signaling that our culture and traditions are under siege. However, in the disaster drama of the Depression era, the catastrophes consisted of the whole-scale destruction of historic cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Ranchipur. The demolition of a major city became the anticipated part of these historical disaster dramas, and audiences anxiously awaited the spectacle, eager to judge how realistic it all was. The hellish fire that concludes In Old Chicago takes up most of the third act, making the film one of the most expensive to that date. A variety of mattes, miniatures, full-scale sets, and forced perspective backgrounds were seamlessly integrated to suggest the scope and breadth of the disaster. The terror created by the visual effects was enhanced by the sound effects, which director Henry King wisely chose over a heavily orchestrated score. Robert Webb won an Oscar for his work as assistant director, which marked the last time this award was given out. The effects work was ably handled by H. Bruce Humberstone.

In Old Chicago was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In addition to Webb, Alice Brady won as Best Supporting Actress. The appeal of In Old Chicago then--as now--was the spectacle. Audiences were caught up in the spectacle, astonished and humbled by the destruction that Mother Nature can bring in the blink of an eye, and grateful that they themselves escaped such a fate. That might be the fundamental appeal of watching disaster films in any era.

By Susan Doll

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck and Kenneth Macgowan for Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Henry King
Assistant Director: Robert Webb
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien from a story by Niven Busch
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley
Editor: Barbara McLean
Special Effects Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Music: Louis Silvers
Art Directors: William S. Darling and Rudolph Sternad
Costumes: Royer
Sound: Edmund H. Hansen

Cast: Dion O'Leary (Tyrone Power), Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), Jack O'Leary (Don Ameche), Molly O'Leary (Alice Brady), Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), Pickle Bixby (Andy Devine), Ann Colby (Phyllis Brooks), Bob O'Leary (Tom Brown), General Philip Sheridan (Sidney Blackmer), Senator Colby (Berton Churchill), Gretchen (June Storey), Patrick O'Leary (J. Anthony Hughes), Hattie (Madame Sultewan), Rondo (Rondo Hattan)

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