Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1937. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Darryl F. Zanuck Productions. Story by Niven Busch, Screenplay by Lamar Trotti, Sonya Levien. Cinematography by J. Peverell Marley. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Music by Cyril J. Mockridge. Production Design by William S. Darling, Rudolph Sternad. Costume Design by Royer. Film Editing by Barbara McLean.
The old tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which devastated more than half of the city, was actually a lie that spread easily thanks to anti-Irish sentiment of the time but is the basis of this exciting and exceptionally well directed, if sometimes maudlin, drama. A young family looking for a better life take their covered wagon and head for the Windy City, their father dying along the way and leaving mother Molly (Alice Brady in an Oscar-winning performance) to raise three small children. She runs a highly successful laundry business that allows her boys to become successes in their own right: Don Ameche is the straight-arrow lawyer, Tyrone Power is the saloon-owning rascal, and youngest son Tom Brown loves working in the barn and has the hots for the Swedish lass who milks their cows. When Ameche goes for political advancement as the city’s mayor, it puts him at a crossroads with brother Power, who is looking to take over the city’s crime-ridden slums as its kingpin. Alice Faye is wonderful as the beautiful singer that Power loves, their dramatic love affair and the brother against brother story reaching a wipeout of a climax when the famed disaster occurs (which, thanks to a crack team in the special effects department, is presented quite effectively). There’s a lot of corny manipulation here, Brady is particularly strong in a ridiculously written role (for goodness’ sake, the city is burned to the ground and you still can’t be nice to your son’s girlfriend), but Henry King masterfully keeps it on point and the photography is stunning.
Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady); Best Assistant Director (Robert Webb)
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Original Story; Best Sound Recording; Best Scoring