In the years preceding “In Old Chicago,” disaster movies were beginning to take a hold on Hollywood and the movie going audience. In 1936, a year before “In Old Chicago” debuted, Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tract starred in “San Francisco,” a family drama ending with the great earthquake that devastated the California town. “San Francisco” was an epic-drama-turned-disaster-film that many believe to be the father of the modern disaster film. Like the Hollywood of today, the land of dreams in its golden era sought to replicate the success of previous outings, and as a result, the lavishly produced “In Old Chicago” was born.
Beginning In the years leading up to, and ultimately culminating with, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s epic yarn “In Old Chicago,” tells a simple tale of stark morality and the divisive toll politics take on families.
Following the O’Leary clan as they arrive, and later struggle to survive, in Chicago, the film leaps through seventeen years of familial turmoil and success. While hardnosed Mother O’Leary tries to keep her family together, her sons Dion and Jack allow their political and social ambitions to form a rift between them.
Jack is an ambitious, fiercely moral up and coming lawyer who takes a firm stance against justice and smoking out those willing to break the law. Dion, however, finds himself on the opposite sides of the fence when he immerses himself in the seedy district of Chicago known as the Patch. Here gambling joints, loose women, and conmen rule the area, and Dion falls in quickly, falls in love with a cabaret singer, opens his own club, and betrays his associates.
But when Jack is elected mayor—unknowingly with the help of his younger brother—Dion’s empire faces extinction when Jack conceives a plan to rid Chicago of the Patch and its seedy underside.
Like any good disaster film, everything is leading up to the thrilling climax. While “In Old Chicago” presents itself as a family drama, we know that the third act is truly the star of this motion picture. And it does not disappoint. The fire breaks out amidst a climactic battle of wills between Jack and Dion, and they’re forced to choose sides while the city they love burns to the ground.
The greatest problem “In Old Chicago” faces is its shaky transition from drama to disaster movie. The human drama slips into the back seat when the film switches genre and, like movies today, the spectacle becomes the filmmaker’s first priority. The scale of the burning city simply overwhelmed the filmmaker’s, who awkwardly balance the drama with the spectacle. But the sequences in which the city burns are spectacular. The sheer scale of this film is impressive considering that it predates most legendary Hollywood epics such as “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” by two years. Still, “In Old Chicago” is a strong film, one that, when it hits the right notes, sings like few disaster movies before or since.