Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 18, 2005)
For 1937’s In Old Chicago, we head back to 1854 and watch the O’Leary family as they make their way across the prairies to get to the Windy City. Due to reckless behavior, the father Patrick (J. Anthony Hughes) flies off the wagon, busts open his head and dies. He leaves behind three sons: Jack (Billy Watson), Dion (Gene Reynolds) and Bob (Bobs Watson). As his dying wish, he urges them to make their mark on Chicago.
From there we see how mother Molly (Alice Brady) takes the boys into the city and tries to get by. She succeeds with her own laundry and we shift forward to 1867. Bob (Tom Brown) dates laundress Gretchen (June Storey), while Jack (Don Ameche) works as an attorney who crusades to clean up the town. On the other hand, opportunistic Dion (Tyrone Power) looks to make a buck with all sorts of schemes in the growing city.
Dion’s heart conflicts with his business sense when he meets cabaret singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), the apparent occupant of a street corner he desires to own. However, Dion immediately falls for her, though she initially resists his charms. In the meantime, Bob and Gretchen agree to marry, and Jack finally wins his first case.
Eventually Dion wins over Belle, and the pair go into business together. They bribe themselves into the position to open “The Senate”, their new saloon. Competitor Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy) agrees to bow out if Dion supports him in a race for mayor. He gladly goes along with this since it’ll be for his own financial good. Belle objects to this since Gil’s always acted against them, but Dion convinces her he knows what he’s doing.
Dion takes his double-dealing even farther when he pushes Jack to run for mayor against Gil. Obviously he figures that this will mean an easy road for him in the future, but he thinks incorrectly. Jack immediately declares war on “The Patch”, the scummy area where Dion runs his business. This sets up the brothers as foes, and the rest of the movie follows their battles.
Given that my only prior experience with the team of Power, Ameche and Faye came from the dreadful Alexander’s Ragtime Band, I didn’t have high hopes for Chicago. I’m happy to report that Chicago betters that awful musical, though it doesn’t ever maintain great success.
The film fictionalizes the rise of the town’s politics, and it uses a flimsy base for that. Everyone knows the legend that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Fire of 1871 – there doesn’t seem to be much truth in that, but the concept endures. Chicago takes it one step further and turns a made-up version of the O’Leary family into movers and shakers.
That’s fine, I suppose, though it does create a confusing sense of history. Most people know nothing about the Fire beyond the cow legend, so they’ll likely come away from this movie with a mistaken belief that the O’Learys were a strong force in the city. Of course, lots of folks probably think Jack and Rose were on the Titanic, so this is nothing new.
At least the movie creates a reasonably entertaining fable, albeit a somewhat disjointed one. One problem comes from the erratic focus. At times Chicago aspires to be a musical, and we get production numbers mostly from Belle on stage. The flick doesn’t give us nearly as many of these as does Ragtime, but they feel more out of place. They come across as sop to add some razzmatazz to the production, but they distract from the story and seem unnecessary.
Speaking of unnecessary, I could never figure out what purpose the Bob character filled. He pops up infrequently and adds nothing to the story. Maggie also doesn’t show up all that often, but at least she has a more concrete role to fill. Bob and Gretchen are pointless additions to the film and the tale could lose them without any negative impact.
On the positive side, the film gives us a good look at the differences between Dion and Jack, the main brothers. Power seems well-suited for this role. I recently saw him as a more philosophical personality in The Razor’s Edge and thought he was badly miscast; Power lacked the depth to pull off such a role.
On the other hand, he works very well as this charming rogue. Dion becomes a remarkably unsympathetic character; eventually he marries Belle essentially just to ensure she can’t testify against him. Power doesn’t downplay Dion’s unsavory tendencies, but he demonstrates the character’s charisma and charm to make him surprisingly three-dimensional. It’d be easy for Dion to go down either as a lovable rogue or as a dirty sleaze, but Power straddles the two sides.
The other actors get less dimensional parts but they do just fine in them as well. I’m surprised that Brady won an Oscar as Maggie, especially since the character doesn’t make much of a dent. Ameche’s earnest turn as Jack would have made more sense.
Perhaps Brady got the Oscar because the movie gave her its big ending speech – a sappy one at that. The film’s third act is an odd beast. When the fire starts, Chicago quickly shifts from character drama to disaster flick. This change in tone doesn’t go smoothly. Granted, the depiction of the fire works well. Of course, some of the effects don’t hold up well, but the movie makes matters look appropriately immense and harrowing.
It just all comes as such an abrupt change. While a similar shift occurs in 1970’s Airport, at least the story leads us to it. Here it comes out of nowhere. One could argue that this is reality – it’s not like any of the characters could foresee the fire. It still feels artificial and awkward, though, and it doesn’t mesh well with the preceding parts of the flick.
I must admit some mixed feelings toward In Old Chicago. On one hand, I liked it more than I expected, mostly because I so strongly disliked Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and also because of some good performances. On the other hand, the movie suffers from erratic storytelling and some awkward components. It adds up to a watchable movie but not a special one.