In Old Chicago (1937): Henry King’s Tale Starring Alice Brady in Oscar (Supporting) Performance

After the huge commercial success of MGM’s San Francisco, Fox, headed by the ambitious Darryl F. Zanuck, decided to make it own version of a big sweeping disaster picture.

Indeed, a big budget ($2 million), a huge ensemble of stars, and accomplished production values mark the Oscar-nominated “In Old Chicago,” which was short on historical accuracy but long in schlocky entertainment values.

A proficient craftsman, director Henry King might not have been the right choice for this kind of spectacle, but he was assisted with a workable script by Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien (based on Niven Bush’s original story, “We the O’Learys”).

The saga centers on Molly O’Leary (Alice Brady, who won Best Supporting Actress Oscar), a young widow and good mother, who was allegedly responsible for the big fire, when one of her cows makes the wrong move.

The colorful cast includes Tyrone Power as Dion O’Leary, the handsome, political schemer son; Don Ameche as Jack O’Leary, his crusading brother-lawyer; and Alice Faye as Belle Fawcette, the saloon singer, who gets to deliver some melodic tunes.

By standards of the time, the set-pieces of panicking crowds, teaming saloons in which brawls are a daily occurrence, police trying to disperse hysterical riots, and stampeding cattle were considered to be impressive.

Of the cycle of disaster movies in the late 1930s, “San Francisco” and especially John Ford’s “The Hurricane,” made in the same year, are more entertaining.

Oscar Nominations: 6
Best Picture, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and Kenneth MacGowan
Original Story: Niven Busch
Supporting Actress: Alice Brady
Assistant Director: Robert Webb
Sound Recording: E. H. Hansen
Score: Louis Silvers, head of Fox Music Department

Oscar Awards: 2
Supporting Actress
Assistant Director

Oscar Context
In 1937, nine other movies competed with “In Old Chicago” for Best Picture, including Warner’s biopic, “The Life of Emile Zola,” which won, Leo McCarey’s marital comedy “The Awful Truth” with six nominations, and Gregory La Cava’s backstage drama, “Stage Door,” with four. The other nominees were: William Wyler’s social drama set in a New York City slum, “Dead End,” Frank Capra’s utopian comedy “Lost Horizon,” and Henry King’s adventure “In Old Chicago,” The first version of “A Star Is Born,” “The Good Earth,” “In Old Chicago,” and the Deana Durbin vehicle, “One Hundred Men and a Girl.”

Next to “Life of Emile Zola,” the most-nominated films were Fox’s adventure “In Old Chicago” and “A Star Is Born.” Only one of the ten nominated pictures was a comedy, Leo McCarey’s sublime screwball, “The Awful Truth,” co-starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne at their very best.

The Oscars were spread among eight films; the only two pictures that didn’t win any award were “Dead End” and “Stage Door.”

The Original Story Oscar was won by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson for “A Star Is Born,” the Sound Award by Thomas Moulton for “The Hurricane,” and the Score Oscar by Charles Previn for “One Hundred Men and a Girl.”