In Old Chicago ★★★

Brassy, slick, crass Fox variation on (read: ripoff of) the MGM classic San Francisco, combined with shots of The Iron Horse, Manhattan Melodrama and various Edna Ferber novels, tells a whopper of a story about the Great Chicago Fire that has a fully mythologized Mrs. O'Leary (Alice Brady) mothering three sons, one of whom is a nefarious gangster (true) and another the Mayor of Chicago (lolz), plus of course a mischievous cow. If you've seen San Francisco (and, for that matter, Fox's later Titanic) you know how this works: an hour and a half of petty infighting and buildup, here revolving around both the law vs. order conflict between the brothers and on Tyrone Power's rather creepy romantic attachment to dancer and businesswoman Alice Faye, followed by a climax filled with eye-popping, remarkable and fully convincing special effects, these supervised by H. Bruce Humberstone. Henry King's compositions and camera movements are fancier, thus more engrossing, than in his later films for Zanuck et al., but he's working against a turgid and silly script whose insistence on using real events as a framework for conventional, violent soap operatics is both too troubling to work as camp and too fussy and self-important to take seriously. The film feels like it's going to be a great-looking blast in its opening half-hour, which hilariously opens with a man who lets his kids talk him into trying to race a train on his horse-drawn carriage (!?) then immediately gets killed; but it only lives up to this potential in its admittedly incredible closing sequences, which nearly justify the dull morality play that occupies the midsection. The very strange cast also includes Don Ameche, Paul Hurst and Madame Sul-Te-Wan.

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