Film Review: “In Old Chicago”

Time for us to delve back to 1937 for this disaster movie classic “In Old Chicago” where brotherly love is the last thing on the agenda and stalking is game of the day!

The Premise

The O’Leary family move to Chicago the 1850’s and proceed to rip the entire town to pieces with their family feuds and a dozy cow called Daisy that sets the whole place alight.

The Disasters Faced

The great Chicago fire of 1871, warring brothers, endless hammy musical numbers, a stampede (!), a lot of licking (!!!) and the O Leary’s having the polar opposite of a midas touch.

The Execution

It’s interesting to go back to 30’s cinema to see exactly what was acceptable and / or provocative in those days. Any chance for a lady to swoon for her man, sing a song and submit is used. Any excuse for a man to be flashy and loud is also used. The UK sadly only has the 91 minute edited version on release although if it were musical numbers that were cut, I’m none too fussed about losing those! What is here though is a 70 minute family feud between two brothers. One runs a popular “seedy” (read lady sings song and wiggles skirt) club called “The Patch”, the other is a respectable lawyer who becomes Major and wants said club removed. Tensions between them boil and when mummy dearest starts off the Chicago fire, the brothers clash thinking it was foul play and not an accident. The remaining 20 minutes follows the fire and we watch to see whom survives. Not a lot has changed in the genre in 80 years has it! In fact this film itself was said to be mimicking “San Francisco”, an earthquake movie released at the same time. Some of the best 30’s cinematography and effects are on view here and still hold up incredibly well in this day and age. While cultures and times have changed – the need for blowing things up has stayed true to the core. Go humans!

The Effects

Being filmed in black and white makes for more forgiving times for In Old Chicago on the special effects front. The town sets look very much like a backlot set by how squared everything is however the actual fire itself is still very impressive. The flames are real, buildings collapse, factories explode (albeit looking a bit polystyrene) and there’s some extremely impressive wide shots that I really didn’t believe were possible in that day. One particular scene sees a detonation of a line of buildings to stop the fire spreading further and this explodes out onto and kills two characters – it looks fantastic! You can tell the film took 22 months to make just by the sheer destruction in the last phase of the film.
I’d take that over some of the tv movie cgi hazards on our screens anyday!

Why It’s Worth Watching

It’s worth watching as a good family drama with a big budget ending. The fight scene with the two brothers is comic gold as the camera is undercranked and so the men fly across the room at high-speed! The romance between Tyrone Power and Alice Faye is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen. Watch as Power first throws money at her, then attacks her in her wagon, then breaks into her house and pins her to the floor and all but forces himself on her before he declares he’s only there to make money off her “talents”. Alice Faye suddenly smiles and kisses him!!! How about phoning the police and having him sectioned!!! Watch as the Swedish milk maid screams “Ya” through the entire movie. It’s dated approach is what endears it to us of times gone by where things are seen with rose tinted glasses. The fire itself is reason alone to watch too. Finally its also worth watching to see your reaction at the end of the movie when the mother declares that things are sent to try us and they have to start anew. Lady, its all your bloody fault! The family has a death wish.

Best Death

While I can think of three memorable deaths, the winner goes to Brian Donlevy who manages to escape the chicago fire, only to be killed in a stampede instead! It’s worse than when Slim Pickens survives the entire Poseidon Adventure films and then gets shot dead swimming to the rescue boat. Epic fail!

Favourite Character

Hattie (Madame Sultewae) is hilarious as the servant to Alice Faye. Managing to get away with the same awful joke twice and spending her entire on scream time running round screaming “help, police”. Very underrated and by the fact on imdb she has 52 credits to her name, yet the vast majority are uncredited is a shame to both her skill and black actors and actresses of that time.

Weirdest Moment

There are many but the best weirdest moments are those where instead of beating someone up, the word of the era was “licking”. Cue classic lines throughout the film such as one brother saying to another “I haven’t licked you since we got to Chicago! ad infinitum. You’d still be arrested for that interfamily act now boys…

Conclusion

Due for its 75th¬† anniversary very shortly, In Old Chicago may have some outdated language and social standards but it’s still a very enjoyable film. The special effects have held up surprisingly well and the fire is beautifully captured. If you can take your disaster with a large order of family drama and four musical numbers (thankfully in the first half) then this is your ideal movie. For everyone else, it’s a great introduction to early cinema.

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