Monday, March 22, 2010

1937 - In Old Chicago

The poll to decide the next awards year to explore in Matt vs. the Academy is our closest one yet. Still a little time to have your say, so shift your eyes to the right and down a little bit and get clicking.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at another fine piece of cinema from 1937's list of Best Picture nominees...

In Old Chicago
Henry King
Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien
(based on a story by Niven Busch)
Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Alice Brady, Andy Devine
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Brady)

Iron-willed matriarch Mrs. O'Leary (Brady) has raised three boys after her husband was tragically killed on their way to settle in Chicago. Now, the two eldest sons have taken starkly different career paths. Jack (Ameche) is an overly honest lawyer, poised to be the next Mayor. Dion (Power), on the other hand, has used his entrepreneurial skills to make a name for himself in Chicago's sordid club scene. Understandably, this causes much friction in the family, but when Chicago is consumed by the Great Fire of 1871, they will need to forget their differences in order to survive.

A title card at the beginning of In Old Chicago expresses the film makers' gratitude towards the Chicago Historical Society for their assistance in the picture's historical accuracy. An odd sentiment considering the majority of the story is complete fiction. Minor details remain, but the much maligned Mrs. O'Leary - long stigmatised as being responsible for the devastating blaze, thanks to her dairy cow knocking a lantern over in the barn - most likely had nothing to do with it. Further, her real life counterpart's first name was Catherine, not Molly. And her husband was still alive. And she never ran a laundry business. And she only had two children, a son and a daughter, neither of which were Mayor. But she did live on De Koven Street - that much is true.

Of course, none of that really matters. For this film is less about the Great Fire than it is about the relationship between two brothers, one an upstanding moral citizen, the other a scheming rogue. The character of Dion, in particular, is a fascinating study. His brilliantly devious plans are presented with a fine sense of deliciousness and intrigue, portrayed with persuasive charm by Tyrone Power.

This compelling drama eventually gives way to a spectacularly riveting finale. The final twenty minutes of the film, in which the catastrophic conflagration occurs, has all the elements of a gripping disaster movie: action, panic, incidental characters succumbing to untimely and uniquely tragic deaths. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission (or cost of Netflix, as the case may be). However, the relatively abrupt ending, no doubt intended to be inspirational, is confusingly upbeat.

Almost fifty years before his Oscar win (and only nomination) for Cocoon, Don Ameche delivers a strong performance here as the principled Jack. Also of note is Alice Faye as the bad girl who is really a softie at heart. And one can't go past Andy Devine's distinctive voice as one of Dion's cronies. Alice Brady deservedly won Best Supporting Actress for playing the O'Leary matriarch, but due to an illness, she wasn't present at the ceremony to collect her award. No matter. An anonymous man jumped to the podium to collect it on her behalf and neither he nor the golden statuette has ever been seen since.

1 comment:

  1. I guess contemporary movies that are "inspired" by true stories should be cut some slack. So many of the historical or biographical movies of Hollywood's Golden Age must be taken with a grain of salt large enough to double one's blood pressure. That certainly was the case with "In Old Chicago" as you humorously pointed out, Matt. And yes, you can ignore all that and just enjoy it as escapist entertainment with some excellent production design.

    Despite the tragedy that surrounds The O'Leary's, they do manage to stay upbeat throughout the story. The Bad Hair Award that you gave to Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond, Matt can now go to Brian Donlevy for In Old Chicago. He looked downright silly. The bearded General Sheridan in the fire scenes was Sidney Blackmer. He would play the devil's disciple and Minnie's husband Roman Castevet 31 years later in Rosemary's Baby.