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September 03, 2010

In Old Chicago

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Henry King - 1938
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

First, the history: There is a city called Chicago. There was a massive fire in Chicago in 1871. Otherwise, In Old Chicago is pure blarney. Even with credit to the Chicago Historical Society, Henry King's film is as factual as Fargo or The Blair Witch Project.

The first two-thirds or so makes for a fairly entertaining mix of comedy and drama with some musical numbers thrown in. Most notably, the film was the first to have three relatively fresh actors, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche in one film, and at under two million dollars, an expensive film at that. The three became top stars at the then new 20th Century-Fox. In contemporary terms, it's somewhat similar to two young actors who had made names for themselves in independent films heading the cast for James Cameron's Titanic. The main difference between Titanic and In Old Chicago is that Alice Faye shows off less skin than Kate Winslet, but she gets to perform a furious can-can.

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The first part of the film is mostly about the O'Leary family, widow Molly, and sons Jack, Dion and Bob. And indeed, there was a family name O'Leary, and the film has the right address, but again, history ends there. Mostly the film centers on Dion (Tyrone Power), the rogue who takes advantage of others to make as much money as possible with the least effort, and the upstanding Jack (Don Ameche), the original pro bono lawyer. Alice Faye plays a popular showgirl, whom Power woos first as a business partner, and later wife, owning the biggest bar in town. Unfortunately, the bar is in the bad part of town, with high crime, and old wooden buildings that newly elected Mayor Jack mentions could easily catch fire. Mother O'Leary also owns a cow named Daisy that has a big kick.

Those most studious of American history will remember that, once upon a time, Chicago represented the western part of the United States. There is Northwestern University in nearby Evanston. For those who forgot that there was a pre-continental U.S. of A., Chicago will always be part of the midwest. In any case, the operative word here is west. Until the conflagration, In Old Chicago is actually a western with fewer guns and more top hats. That point should be made clear by one of the the musical numbers, with a chorus line in oversized cowboy hats. Entertainment trumps history with some very contemporary songs and the chorus girls in majorette uniforms. What attention was paid to historical accuracy is lost to anachronisms personified by Alice Faye and her legs. Of additional entertainment value is the inclusion of Andy Devine as Power's tagalong pal, Pickle, and Rondo Hatton as the bodyguard to Brian Donlevy's villain of the piece.

As for the fire, what may be the most amazing part might be the logistics involved in the filming. Journeyman director H. Bruce Humberstone was responsible for the special effects, but most of what is on screen is real fire with stunt men and crowds, filmed in a forty acre area not far from Beverly Hills. Credit should be given also to Oscar winning Assistant Director Robert Webb, the one primarily responsible for the second unit work. There's a trick to organizing chaos, with the extended ladder of a fire truck knocking down a wagon, making its way through a jam of vehicles and people trying to escape the blaze. Shots of stampeding cattle from a nearby pen almost serves as a parody of the scenes of people forcing their way through the streets. It's easy, almost habitual, to feel blase about Hollywood magic, even that from the days before computer generated effects. As a person somewhat more knowledgeable about the filmmaking process, I am awed by the work that must have been involved. Considering the state of fire fighting in 1871, it's a wonder not more of Chicago was burned down.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 3, 2010 12:52 AM