“In Old Chicago” (1937) re-ignites the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and illustrates American History as part legend, part wish fulfillment, and mainly the extraordinary ability to cope.
The first news of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow was reported in the Chicago Tribute at the time of the fire, and later was found to have been completely made up to sell papers. Such a tragedy needed a scapegoat, and in those days of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment, what better scapegoat than a poor, ignorant, slovenly, comic old Irish crone and her stupid, silly cow?
Except that Mrs. O’Leary was not ignorant, slovenly, nor a crone. She was in her late ‘40s when the incident occurred, hardworking, married, a mother (with a son and a daughter, not three sons), and had the great misfortunate to be only two of the accusations against her: poor, and Irish.
website for more information.
John Wallace is the actor who plays this man in the movie “In Old Chicago”, and I would assume wore a prosthetic leg in real life, because he played so-called “peg-leg” characters in at least six other films.
The truth about the cause of the fire aside, “In Old Chicago”, has a charm and vigor that is perhaps due to this leaning on American legend rather than fact. It tells the story with a wink and a smile. It attempts to entertain with a tale we think we already know, rather than enlighten us on what we do not know.
I wonder, though, if younger, modern, audiences are even aware of the Mrs. O’Leary legend? To 1937 audiences, this tale was familiar, homespun, and as part of Americana as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. They may have accepted it as legend and not truth, but the legend was like a souvenir of an era. A snow globe you bring home from the fair. It’s not real either, but you like to shake it once in a while and watch it “storm”.
Going down our checklist, most of the characters in the movie: the three sons, the rival politician, the saloon singer, are all fictional. In the movie, Patrick O’Leary dies in the first few minutes. In real life, he was still alive at the time of the fire. In the movie, Mrs. O’Leary’s first name is Molly. In real life, it was Catherine. Come to think of it, the only factual character was Daisy the cow.
She had a small, but pivotal role.
What the movie lacks in historical accuracy (at least as far as characters are concerned; the sets, costumes, and the fire special effects are pretty good), it makes up for in some stunning visual images.
Patrick O’Leary, played by J. Anthony Hughes says his dying speech, and his widow and sons go on to Chicago.
In such a dirty place, Widow O’Leary starts a laundry business. Another great visual is a panning shot of Alice Brady wrestling clothes from a network of lines in her backyard into a basket.
We meet her first singing a bluesy tune, admiring herself in the mirror wearing one of Alice Faye’s wraps. She comically covets her employer’s things and helps herself to them. When Alice Faye wants her to keep out admirers or manage her affairs, Madame Sul-Te-Wan replies, “I done told him that ‘til I’m black in the face.” She says it lighting quick, under her breath, as if we are not supposed to hear it. She’s a scene stealer.
When she’s off to drag a cop back, Power has wrestled Faye to the floor for a kiss, another great visual. Here Faye’s furious, arms pined back, panting from exertion and frustration. Director Henry King just leaves them wordless for a moment and all we hear is Alice Faye’s heavy breathing. Erotic slapstick.
Another good scene is when Alice Brady, her boys, and daughter-in-law dance a jig in the parlor and finishing off a bucket of beer.
Well, then Daisy kicks over the lantern and you know what happened next. The special effects guys take over.
And “San Francisco” didn’t have a cattle stampede.
The impressive amount of mud gives way to an impressive amount of extras all running as fast as they can to get to Lake Michigan to escape the flames.
Alice Brady, standing up in a cart half-submerged in the Lake, looks back on the flaming city and remarks, “It was a city of wood, and now it’s ashes.” But, she tells us that Chicago will be reborn and gives us hope for the future.
The Water Tower - one of the few structures to have survived the fire. J. T. Lynch photo.
Chicago was reborn, and that story perhaps is the one that should really be told, for in a generation it became the city of stone and steel that Don Ameche wanted, once again the Queen of the Middle West. City of the Broad Shoulders, Hog Butcher to the World…you know.
In 1997, Chicago passed a resolution exonerating Mrs. O’Leary, and Daisy, from any blame for the Great Chicago Fire. The Mayor offered an apology to her great-grandchildren.
Here is a plaque that stands on the spot on De Koven Street where the O’Leary home stood.
Back up a bit, and you see the memorial to the Great Chicago Fire, a bronze sculpture, “Pillar of Fire” by sculptor Egon Weiner, which was placed here in 1961.
Behind it, is the Chicago Fire Academy, where firefighters are trained.
For more on the Great Chicago Fire, have a look at this website.