Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

In Old Chicago


In Old Chicago (1937) Daryl Zanuck made this hoping to cash in on the success the previous year of San Francisco. Both films end in the destruction of a great American city. The Great Chicago Fire happened in 1871, but did you know that, on that same day, there were several other fires in the area? Two hundred and fifty miles north of Chicago, the Peshtigo Fire, unbelievably, was much, much more destructive in every way except property damage. It burned one and a half million acres, completely obliterated half a dozen towns, and killed somewhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people. No one knows for sure; the firestorm incinerated their corpses. But it was so far out in the boonies and all the news was about Chicago that even at the time, hardly anyone ever heard of it. It was the worst fire in American history.

When you think about it, you have to wonder why cities of the day didn’t burn down more often. San Francisco burned a half dozen times between the Gold Rush days and the Big One, the earthquake and fire of ‘06. The residents just shrugged, swept up, and started rebuilding. And in fact, many people credit the Great Fire in Chicago with revitalizing the town, giving it an advantage over the older, decaying cities around it. You have to figure there were many, many times when an event like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern happened, and any of them could have easily gotten out of hand with the primitive fire-fighting equipment of the times. (And, of course, almost all historians these days discredit that story entirely.)

Doesn’t really matter, since they made up almost the whole thing about the O’Leary family. Literally every detail was changed. So what we get here is a rather sloppy political story setting wheeling and dealing corrupt wanna-be power broker brother against straight-arrow lawyer and bamboozled mayoral candidate brother (Tyrone Power and Don Ameche), and against gangster Brian Donlevy in a fictional place called The Patch. Alice Faye is the romantic interest and the songbird, doing some period musical pieces in a saloon. Alice Brady is the hard-working laundress mother.

That story plays itself out after about ninety minutes, and then we get to the fun part. The sets are gigantic, as are the crowds of extras. There are also models that you can see are gigantic, as well. Then it’s all backdropped by special effects that were great, for that time. I can see that jaws must have dropped, and mine still drops, when I think about all the hard work and craft that went into it.