Saturday, June 8, 2013

In Old Chicago (20th Century-Fox, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was In Old Chicago, one of the legendary blockbuster hits of the 1930’s and one I hadn’t caught up with until now. It was inspired by the success of MGM’s San Francisco from 1936, a story of graft and lawlessness on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast that ended with a spectacular depiction of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Fox production head Darryl F. Zanuck budgeted $2 million for this film (though he actually brought it in at $1.8 million, $200,000 under budget — at the time the most expensive movie ever made, at $2.5 million, was Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, which wasn’t surpassed until Gone with the Wind came in at $4.25 million) and cut a loan-out deal with MGM by which Clark Gable and Jean Harlow would star in In Old Chicago in exchange for Shirley Temple going to MGM to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Then Harlow died, and Zanuck refused to accept any other MGM female star; instead, he called the deal off, Judy Garland got to play Dorothy, and Zanuck made In Old Chicago with his own contract players, Tyrone Power and Alice Faye. (Ironically, this was just months after Zanuck had told Faye to darken her hair and change her eyebrows so she wouldn’t look so much like Harlow, which Zanuck felt was holding her career back!) The result was a blockbuster hit at the time and a fascinating movie today, one which works brilliantly on its own terms despite the sheer preposterousness of the story, which not surprisingly took the legend that the 1871 Chicago fire was started by a cow in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn kicking over a lantern and ran with it.

This one has been pretty well debunked by more recent historians of the fire, but Zanuck and his writers — Niven Busch, story; Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien, script — not only depicted it but made the O’Leary family the central characters of his film. Molly O’Leary (Alice Brady, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film — probably because she plays the role with quiet dignity and strength and no doubt astonished Academy voters by showing she could do other things than the marvelous comic ditz she’d been in The Gay Divorcée!), her husband and their three boys Dion (Gene Reynolds), Jack (Billy Watson) and Bob (Bobby Watson) are shown in a covered wagon in 1854, heading west to settle in the new city of Chicago and build new lives there. Only hubby decides to see if his wagon can outrun a train that’s passing by, loses, gets catapulted from the wagon and dies, though not before a drawn-out dying speech that made me joke, “He’s a movie Irishman! He can’t shut up!” Molly tries for a job as a showgirl and is horrified at what she’s being asked to do (and how little she’s expected to wear while she’s doing it); her boys are helping some of the entertainers into the saloon in question when at the sight of their mom they drop one of the women and soil her dress; Molly offers to wash it, and thus she starts a thriving business as a laundress. A series of soap bubbles with dates on them advance the story from 1854 to 1867 (a montage transition that totally ignores the Civil War, even though during the bubble sequence the O’Leary boys have grown to military age and would therefore have been confronted with the draft — the only hint of the war comes later when the villain turns out to be an ex-slaverunner).

The O’Learys have settled in The Patch, Chicago’s poorest and seediest area, and Dion, Jack and Bob have grown up to be Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and Tom Brown, respectively. Bob is the comic-relief brother — he flirts with, and ultimately marries, mom’s German maid Gretchen (June Storey) after the infamous cow literally kicks them into an embrace. Jack is an aspiring attorney and Dion is a gambler who runs afoul of saloon owner Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy, the villain of the piece) when he makes a play for Gil’s star entertainer, Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye). Dion and his brothers stumble on a plan Gil Warren and his political machine have hatched to re-route the streetcar line so it passes property they own when they see the plan literally mapped out on a tablecloth from Warren’s saloon he’s sent to Mrs. O’Leary for laundering (the sign on her delivery truck identifies her business as “Mrs. O’Leary’s French Laundry,” which Charles pointed out was 19th century-speak for a dry cleaner; at the time the solvent dry cleaners generally used was gasoline, which certainly makes it believable that a catastrophic fire could start on her premises). With financial backing from a U.S. Senator who is a regular at Warren’s place but wants to get out from under his thumb, Dion (whose name is pronounced “DYE-on,” by the way, instead of the more normal “DEE-on”) starts his own saloon with Belle as his star attraction, after he’s got her to fall in love with him literally by wrestling her to the ground (there’s an oddly kinky hit of S/M about virtually all the male-female relationships in this film, and Darryl F. Zanuck was enough of a man of the world he was probably well aware of what he was getting by the naïfs at the Production Code Administration; oddly, the one bit of grief Zanuck did get from censor Joseph Breen was a demand that he rewrite the script to eliminate any hint that Alice Faye’s character was a prostitute). With his own saloon as a base, Dion works on building up his own political machine, and the film builds up to the 1870 election for Mayor of Chicago. Gil Warren is running himself, and the “reform” element (who, as in such noir classics as Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, are really just as corrupt as the people they’re trying to displace) nominate, of all people, Dion’s brother Jack to run against him.

Dion ostensibly supports Warren but secretly pulls strings, getting all Warren’s corrupt vote-getters arrested on election eve and held without bail for 24 hours, so his brother will win — only to find that his brother actually means to keep his campaign promise to tear down the entire Patch and put up new, safer brick buildings in place of the old wooden ones. Only he doesn’t have to do that because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks over that lantern and the Patch, and later much of the rest of Chicago, burns down in the 1871 fire (which in real life killed 300 people, rendered 100,000 homeless and caused $2 million in property damage). While the city is burning a riot starts in the Patch after Warren spreads the news that Jack O’Leary (like Nero) deliberately set the fire to facilitate his plan to destroy the Patch, and Jack is shot and actually killed by Warren’s bodyguard (Rondo Hatton; he’s listed in the credits simply as “Body Guard” — two words — but he’s actually addressed as “Rondo” on screen), while Warren is trampled by a herd of cattle fleeing the fire (the only intimation we’ve got in the whole movie of Chicago’s importance as a meat-packing center) and Dion and Belle are reunited at the end, pledging to realize Jack’s dream of a cleaner, more durably built Chicago of the future. Wisely Zanuck and his director, Henry King — an odd choice for a spectacular film like this because his great strength was getting quiet, understated performances from his actors, but this is the sort of story where you want to see the leads ham it up, but he’d directed Power in his star-making film, Lloyd’s of London, and obviously Zanuck was counting on the magic happening again — avoided copying the famous shot at the end of San Francisco in which the ruined city dissolved into a shot of the modern city as of the time the film was made. (Zanuck would do that idea three years later at the end of Brigham Young, in which the devastated Mormon settlement dissolves into Salt Lake City as it appeared in 1940.)

 In Old Chicago is an odd movie, and some of the issues it raises — notably the desire of a city’s “respectable” corporate elite to use a disaster to accomplish a major urban renewal project and upscale a city by driving out its poor people — play quite differently in the post-Katrina era than they no doubt did in 1937, when the audience’s sympathies were definitely supposed to be with the modernizers destroying the rambunctious Patch and replacing it with newer, presumably cleaner and safer workers’ housing and morally “safe” businesses. At the same time one could readily imagine a more rambunctious, more exciting movie being made on the same plot — at one point I found myself thinking Darryl Zanuck had gone to the wrong studio for the loan-outs he originally wanted and should have gone to his old stomping grounds, Warner Bros., for James Cagney and Bette Davis instead (though Davis would have needed a voice double for the music-hall songs Faye performs with her adequate foghorn of a voice). Not that Tyrone Power is wrong; he’s quite capable as the gambler who’s mastered the veneer of sophistication to disguise his lower-class origins — but there are some scenes in which one aches for the energy (and the authentic Irishness — the Powers were also of Irish ancestry but they didn’t wear it on their sleeves the way Cagney did) Cagney could have brought to the role (and he’d have been a lot more believable than Power as a man who literally has to beat the woman he wants as his girlfriend into submission!). Still, In Old Chicago is a movie that works brilliantly on its own terms; one can readily see what attracted 1937 audiences to it in droves, and it still holds up as good entertainment today — and the disaster sequences (credited to H. Bruce Humberstone as second-unit director) also hold up, particularly the scenes (making the San Francisco inspiration especially obvious) in which the burning buildings literally collapse towards the audience.