Appellate Judge Dan Mancini believes Mrs. O'Leary's cow was framed.
Jack: You elected me, but I'm mayor.
This semi-historical melodrama from director Henry King (The Song of Bernadette) blends corny humor and out-of-place '30s slang and musical numbers with excellent special effects and a serpentine plot whose focus on Chicago's famed political corruption is a whole lot of fun.
The story opens 1854 as young Jack and Dion O'Leary arrive in Chicago with their mother (Alice Brady, My Man Godfrey). Their pa—a simple man with big-city dreams for his family—died during the journey across the plains, but only after urging his boys to make the O'Leary name famous in their new home. Chicago is a teeming, bustling place, full of vice, and the boys grow up to be opposites: Jack an altruistic attorney with a heart for the downtrodden but little acumen for making money, and Dion a scoundrel and gambler for whom wealth is easy come, easy go.
After this prelude, the story jumps to the boys' adulthood on the cusp of the 1870s. Dion (Tyrone Power, Nightmare Alley) begins to establish himself by opening a saloon in the slum area known as the Patch, and by flirting with the idea of marrying a knockout chorus girl named Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye, Fallen Angel), of whom his mother disapproves. Meanwhile, Jack (Don Ameche, Cocoon) is elected mayor on the promise that he'll clean up corruption and vice in the city—starting with the Patch. The ensuing conflict between the brothers is complicated by the revelation that Dion used his unsavory connections in Chicago's slums to ensure his brother's election. Just as the intra-O'Leary war is reaching a fever-pitch, Mrs. O'Leary's cow, Daisy, kicks over a lamp in her stall and lights up Chicago's entire South Side, burning it to the ground.
In Old Chicago isn't good history—heck, it's not even all that good a movie—but it works well enough as escapist entertainment from Hollywood's Golden Era, provided you're willing to suffer through its first act. Its central strength, aside from a dazzling Great Chicago Fire set piece, is the movie star charm of Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and Alice Faye. Ameche's about as authentically Irish as Michael Flatley (Riverdance: The Show), but his brotherly rivalry with Power is well-acted by both and thoroughly enjoyable. Faye's romance with Power is underwritten (one wonders how such a nice woman ended up a chorus girl, and why she doesn't make a play for Ameche, who's more her speed), but she has beauty and poise enough to make the most of what's there. Add to that some cartoon villainy delivered with aplomb by Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty) and In Old Chicago becomes a reasonable attraction for its assemblage of quality studio players.
In Old Chicago is a mutt of a picture, though; its story odd and unbalanced. Each of its three acts has a distinctly different character. The sappy melodrama and insipid comedy of the first act is a poor setup for all that follows (although character actor Andy Devine, a kind of B-grade Walter Brennan who made a career of playing buffoonish sidekicks in Westerns, turns in some solid work as Dion's sidekick Pickles). The picture's second act, in which the political intrigue and conflict between Jack and Dion becomes the central focus is the most fully-realized section of the picture. Jack's double-bind of needing power in order to clean up the city but having to rely on his brother's shady influence in order to gain that power, is deliciously smart and true to life. The Great Chicago Fire set piece that comprises the climactic third act would reduce the whole show to the theater of the absurd if it was merely plot invention by screenwriters Sonya Levien (State Fair) and Lamar Trotti (The Razor's Edge) and not historical fact. As resolution to the political and familial turmoil that comes before, it feels arbitrary and overblown. That said, the special effects—which include some great matte shots, burning buildings, falling rubble, and refugees escaping the chaos in tiny boats—are epic and spectacular.
This DVD from Fox offers a fine transfer. There are only a couple brief spots with major damage, as well as some minor density problems here and there. Otherwise, the contrast is excellent, grain is controlled, and the image is sharp. Considering the age of the film, the transfer leaves nothing to complain about.
Audio is offered in a clean stereo remix that isn't much more dynamic than the original mono, which is also available on the disc in a two-channel mix.
In Old Chicago is number 33 in Fox's Studio Classics line of releases. The series' generic white-and-gold cover design belies the quality of the transfers and supplements inside. A flipper disc like the other Studio Classic titles, In Old Chicago offers two cuts of the film. Side A has the 95-minute theatrical cut, while Side B houses the 111-minute road show version. The longer cut fleshes out some scenes, but isn't substantively different than the theatrical version.
Don Ameche: Hollywood's Class Act is a 44-minute piece about the philanthropic actor from the Biography television series.
There are also four Movietone News segments: "Hollywood Spotlight 1," which features Daisy the Chicago-destroying cow; "Hollywood Spotlight 2," featuring Daryl Zanuck receiving the Irving Thalberg Award at the Oscars; "Along Broadway," spotlighting the film's premiere in New York; and "Chicago," which offers shots of the city in the 1930s. The segments run from around 30 seconds to two minutes in length, and the last has no audio.
In Old Chicago isn't a great movie, but those with a taste for classic Hollywood escapism should enjoy its blend of corny melodrama and epic spectacle.
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