“In Old Chicago,” a film released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1937, contains all the elements of an early blockbuster, including an enormous and very effective rendition of the Great Chicago Fire that’s a marvel of special effects staging. The film stars Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Brian Donlevy and Alice Brady. Power plays Dion O’Leary, a gambler and hustler who becomes a significant power broker through the use of bribes and coercion. Ameche plays Dion’s brother, Jack O’Leary, a straight-laced lawyer determined to rid Chicago of all forms of vice and corruption.
The film begins on the Illinois prairie in the 1850s as the O’Leary family, complete with 3 young boys including Dion and Jack, heads to Chicago in their two-horse carriage to make a living. Patrick O’Leary, the boys’ father, speeds the horses to race a locomotive, which causes a terrible accident that leaves him dead. This compels Mother Molly O’Leary (Alice Brady) to make an extra effort to succeed in the big city of Chicago, and drives her to never quit working hard to help her family. She soon arrives in Chicago and starts a successful business washing clothes, which allows her to run a farm and fund the boys’ education. Years pass and Dion plays the man about town while Jack strives to win court cases.
Things change drastically for Dion when he meets showgirl Belle Fawcett (Faye), the talented and beautiful headliner in Gil Warren’s saloon. He falls in love with her immediately and stalks her constantly. She wants no part of him, but it’s a joy to see Power and Faye play out their romance. Belle is extremely feisty and goes to great lengths to push Dion away, but he eventually charms her into falling into his arms. Dion is a bit of a cad, but the chemistry between Faye and Power is undeniable and it’s believable that they could be in love. Ameche, as he’s proven in so many films, provides charm as well, although he doesn’t get a chance to try it out much in this film.
The family scenes with the O’Leary family play out so well that it felt like I was watching a John Ford film, especially when compared with similar scenes in Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley (1941).” Alice Brady performs an acceptable Irish accent for the movie, and plays Molly O’Leary so well she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Of course, the viewer waits for the moment Molly’s cow kicks over the lantern so the conflagration can start. That occurrence and the spectacular fire prove well worth the wait. The fire is realistic and particularly horrifying, and like everything else in this movie, very entertaining.