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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » In Old Chicago
In Old Chicago
Fox // Unrated // August 9, 2005
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 25, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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A big round of applause to the folks at Fox Home Entertainment for releasing to DVD both the roadshow and general release versions of In Old Chicago (1938), a classy epic climaxing with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The single double-sided disc is a real bargain at just $14.98 (SRP), and includes a couple of nice supplements. This is definitely a title fans of classic Hollywood cinema will not want to pass up.

Fox closely adhered to the template established by MGM with San Francisco (1936), which climaxed with that city's 1906 earthquake. In that film Clark Gable played a ne'er-do-well saloon owner / land baron in the rough-and-tumble Nob Hill section of San Francisco. He's attracted to pretty singer Jeanette MacDonald while childhood friend-turned-priest Spencer Tracy tries to steer his old chum back on a righteous path. In Old Chicago casts Tyrone Power a ne'er-do-well saloon owner / land baron in the rough-and-tumble section of Chicago known as "The Patch." He's attracted to pretty singer Alice Faye while attorney-turned-mayor Don Ameche tries to steer his wayward younger brother back on a righteous path. Put diplomatically, In Old Chicago most sincerely flatters San Francisco's screenplay.

There are, of course, some differences. Where Jeannette MacDonald's was sweet and virginal, Alice Faye's Belle Fawcett is a no-nonsense businesswoman who holds her own in her relationship with breezy heel Tyrone Power, as Dion O'Leary. Where Spencer Tracy's priest was an inch away from beating religion into Gable's saloon owner, Don Ameche's lawyer, Jack, has a warm relationship with his younger brother, though the scripts strains credibility here. Dion, who controls his empire bribing politicians and committing massive voter fraud, never seems terribly concerned that Jack intends to purge the city of its cancer-like corruption, nor does Jack realize that his own brother is a big part of the very problem he's fighting.

Movies about 19th century American life favored the Old West. When they were set in big eastern and midwestern cities like New York and Chicago they rarely attempted something on this scale, usually opting for a matte painting to establish the locale, then limit the geography to a few blocks on the studio backlot. In Old Chicago, in contrast, boldly shows a bustling, dirty Chicago on a grand scale similar to Martin Scorsese's recent Gangs of New York (2002). The climatic fire is similarly awesome and compares favorably with the incredible earthquake finale in San Francisco, featuring elaborate traveling mattes, miniatures, paintings, etc., along with much full-scale destruction and what look like forced perspective backgrounds. The impressive sequence is credited to second unit/effects director H. Bruce Humberstone, DP Daniel B. Clark, and a staff including Ralph Hammeras, Fred Sersen, and Louis J. White.

Though historically accurate in some respects, the basic storyline and characters are pure fiction. Dion and Jack's mother, Molly O'Leary (Alice Brady, in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance), is the owner of the infamous milk cow that allegedly started the blaze. Dion conveniently owns half the slum neighborhood that goes up like a tinderbox, while as newly-elected Chicago mayor Jack personally leads the troops fighting the inferno. Nevertheless, the natural charisma of Power, Ameche, and Brady make such hokum palatable, and early scenes of the Irish immigrant family making their way across the wilderness to that "bit of heaven in the middle west," and their struggles upon arriving are directed by Henry King with surprising naturalism. King and Humberstone's fiery climax is tense viewing, even today. Wisely devoid of underscoring, they opt instead for the persistent blaring of steam whistles (from the various fire brigades and from ships on the lake) and crackling of the flames.

The supporting cast is unusually good. Brian Donlevy plays Dion's slimy rival (who proudly spent the war "rounding up runaway slaves") and his bodyguard, Rondo, is none other than Hollywood's favorite acromegalic, Rondo Hatton. Andy Devine, Tom Brown, and Sidney Blackmer round out the cast.

Video & Audio

This reviewer watched the roadshow version (which runs 110 minutes and has no overture, intermission, entr'acte, or exit music), and scanned various scenes in the general release version. The image in both versions is good but not outstanding, and there was no obvious loss of quality in scenes cut or deleted for the general release version. Both versions offer standard English mono and faux stereo tracks, as well as optional English and Spanish subtitles. Oddly, the special features are all contained on the same side as the longer roadshow side, rather than accompanying the 96-minute general release version.

Extra Features

There's no trailer but supplements include four short Fox Movietone excerpts. Hollywood Spotlight 1 features Power and Daisy, the milk cow that literally kicks off the conflagration. Hollywood Spotlight 2 features a surprisingly aged-looking Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., presenting the Irving Thalberg Award to producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Along Broadway offers footage of the New York premiere, where Alice Faye looks genuinely terrified of the mob swarming her, while Chicago, the only clip lacking audio, includes a shot of Mrs. O'Leary's real-life home and the Chicago premiere. Also included is an A&E Biography show, Don Ameche: Hollywood's Class Act, an informative and touching program featuring interviews with Ron Howard (Cocoon), John Landis (Trading Places), Alice Faye, Fayard Nicholas (of the Nicholas Bros.), and the late Frances Langford, Ameche's "Bickersons" co-star on radio.

Parting Thoughts

In Old Chicago is a real epic, and Fox's excellent DVD is up to the high standards of the film. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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