A Hollywood retelling of the great Chicago fire – Chicago Magazine

At the beginning of In old Chicago, Darryl F. Zanuck’s 1938 disaster epic about the Great Fire of Chicago, this message flashes across the screen: “WE APPRECIATE THE SUPPORT OF THE CHICAGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN PREPARING THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND FOR THIS PRODUCTION.”

That was a nice greeting to a local institution, however In old ChicagoThe history of Chicago in 1871 is correct in only one way: a number of buildings burned down. As it turned out, that was all it took to wow the cinema audience.

At the beginning of the film, the O’Leary family of “Molly” (the mother’s name was actually Kate), her husband Patrick and their sons Jack and Dian drive a covered wagon through the prairie to Chicago on the last leg of their journey. the up-and-coming metropolis where they will all win their fortunes. Suddenly Patrick is pulled from the driver’s seat and dragged to his death by a team. (In fact, Patrick survived the trip to Chicago.) Widow O’Leary (Alice Brady in an Oscar-winning performance) settles in The Patch, a ravaged lot of ramshackle houses southwest of downtown, where she makes a living with the laundry.

A second message to viewers describes the Chicago of 1854 in faux sandburgeese as “A city of easy money, easy ways, ugly, dirty, open day and night to newcomers from all over the world … a struggling, laughing, aggressive American city “. . “(This is mostly still true.)

In this crude but exciting town, Mrs. O’Leary’s sons become civil greats and develop a Cain-and-Abel / Goofus-and-Gallant relationship on the side. Jack played by a young Don Ameche – half a century ago cocoon – is a sincere lawyer who fights against election fraud and is elected mayor on a platform to purge The Patch: “Everything rotten in Chicago comes from The Patch,” he explains. (Most politicians of the 1870s had more facial hair than Ameche’s cheap mustache. Roswell B. Mason, Chicago’s actual mayor from 1871, grew a chest-length beard.)

Jack’s younger brother Dion (a dashing Tyrone Power) sets out to become the most successful and well-connected saloon keeper in town. At dinner at Palmer House, he offers a meat-chopped senator $ 1,000 a month for political and financial support of a saloon in “the busiest corner of town” with his lover, choir girl Belle Fawcett (played by Alice Faye) as the main attraction . It’s in the Senator’s interest because the saloon will allow Dion to control the votes in The Patch.

It wouldn’t be a Chicago movie without a subplot about shady politics. Dion accepts $ 10,000 to aid a rival pub owner as mayor – and then plans to take his brother Jack to City Hall instead, despite their differences over reforming The Patch.

“You took his money,” protests Belle as Dion reveals his duplicity.

“Sure, and I’ll choose it myself if I need to – but I didn’t say how The Patch would vote,” says Dion.

“Why is this?”

“Politics. He would stab me if he could and I just want to beat him.”

“Well, you dirty dog.”

You really won’t be missing out on much if you skip the first hour and a half In old Chicago and just look at the last 24 minutes. In old Chicago was one of Hollywood’s original disaster films. Zanuck was inspired by the success of MGM’s San Francisco, a film about the 1906 earthquake. The studio spent $ 500,000 of the film’s $ 2 million budget to build an 1854 replica of Chicago, then build another 1871 replica of Chicago and them Burn to the ground. After a 1937 tribune Articles about the production:

The Palmer House Headquarters, Field, Head & Co. Store, Chicago Tribune, Old Rice Theater, Mansion, City Hall, Adams Express Company, Illinois Central, Goodrich Shipping Company, Nineteenth Regiment Armory , Benziger’s bookstore – all of this and hundreds of other buildings that defined Chicago in 1871 have been remodeled or rebuilt. The town hall was made of stone.

The fire scenes are gripping cinema. Naturally the fire starts when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern after being choked to death by a nursing cow. This is hollywood. Frightened mobs race through the streets. Fire trucks drawn by horses race against the flames. On General Philip Sheridan’s orders, buildings collapse or are blown up to create a firebreak. On the run from the flames, citizens ride their horses or row boats into Lake Michigan (also recreated on Hollywood property). At the slaughterhouses, frightened cattle break into fences and storm the streets. (That didn’t actually happen. The stockyards were far from the epicenter of the fire.)

The scenes would be even more impressive if they had been shot in color. But this is probably the only Great Chicago Fire movie we’ll get. In 1938 the fire was still vividly remembered, and survivors were even invited to a world premiere. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was just as much a part of American folklore as Johnny Appleseed or Barbara Fritchie. Just as fire has disappeared from the nation’s consciousness, so it is In old Chicago faded from the Hollywood canon. But since this week marks the 100th anniversary of fire, you can watch it for free on YouTube.

And if you go straight to 1:26:36, an exciting (if a little inaccurate) time awaits you.

About Stephanie McGehee

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