Darryl F. Zanuck’s spendy 1937 production In Old Chicago cribbed copiously from the laughably specific “love among the zesty saloon dwellers interrupted by landmark urban American disaster” blueprint established a year earlier with the smash-and-dash Clark Gable/Jeanette MacDonald vehicle San Francisco. That film was set on the eve of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and though it wasn’t completely clear if the trigger was due to a fracturing fault line stress point or the intense sonic pulsations emanating from MacDonald’s pronounced tremolo, In Old Chicago puts the infamous Mrs. O’Leary (and her sensitive-uddered cow) right in the thick of the film’s plot leading up to the climactic citywide fire of 1871.
And there’s a lot of plot surrounding them, even in the non-padded, non-epic-length 94-minute cut. As the film opens, the O’Leary tribe (their words, as the film’s mantra ad nauseum is “we O’Learys are a strange tribe…that’s the strength in us”) are traversing the countryside en route to the booming metropolis. When a train passes their carriage a few hours outside city limits, the family patriarch, drunk on immigrant pride, matches the city’s iron horse against his own dumpy rural bucks and is promptly launched from his seat on the buggy and dragged to his death with, as he moans, “the smell of Chicago in me nose.”
The newly-widowed Mrs. O’Leary (Alice Brady, in a performance with more than enough shrill, blarney-peddling dignity to net a slam-dunk Oscar) arrives in town and promptly launches a French laundry business out of her backyard. Her sons, or at least the two who aren’t that crybaby punk, are among the most successful of Chicago’s citizens, albeit in different sides of town. Dion (Tyrone Power, flashing his tanned, smooth chest in his very first scene, sending ‘30s vulvas aflutter, no doubt) wheels and deals among the town’s slummy gambling Patch district, working both the coppers as well as the tavern entrepreneurs (not to mention the hoity-toity hoofer played by Alice Faye, neither the singer nor, amazingly, the dancer MacDonald was), whereas his brother Jack (Don Ameche) is making his name on the up and up as a lawyer (apparently not meant to be taken as a punchline).
Like San Francisco, events sort of just happen and allegiances just sort of shift around to stall time before the grand finale. Dion gets Jack elected the Mayor of Chicago in a sham election with the hope that Jack’s position will give him leverage to further capitalize on the underground racket, but Jack turns around and makes urban revitalization his primary goal. Soon it’s brother against brother, with Faye acting as the whiplashed pawn between the two. Their rivalry comes to a head and their mom’s cow serves as taurus ex machina, allowing Zanuck to wrest the soap-western operatics away from utilitarian director Henry King’s control and stage the spectacle to end all spectacles. In the end, it doesn’t, and San Francisco still remains the class act of the era.