After Warner Bros. dropped the idea of turning the Chicago fire of 1871 into a big-budget venture, Fox – which was waiting for this moment – embarked on its own take on the event, rumoured to be the studio’s most expensive project to date. It went into production in the same year as another fire – in the Fox vault in Little Ferry, New Jersey – took away the life of one young man and many films.
Made during one of the most fertile periods of King’s career, this epic yet swift work was a return to the genre that King had partly invented: the disaster movie. Having previously created thrilling scenes of a volcanic eruption (The White Sister) and a flood (The Winning of Barbara Worth), King combined his mastery of directing calamitous scenes with a more light-hearted, fast-moving approach. The result – along with King’s other 1938 gem, the musical Alexander’s Ragtime Band – is probably his best work with Tyrone Power. Both films briskly alternate between characters and their milieu, in a nostalgic yet forward-looking manner. King loved to narrate the building of cities as a microcosm of America, but he also told the stories of their fall. As in The Song of Bernadette, the main event is a pretext for a study of politics and corruption in the city (or the village, in the case of Bernadette), as the site of opportunities, miracles and tragedies.
This is the complete version of the film, running some 20 minutes longer than the more commonly seen prints.
Despite claims to being historical, this two-million-dollar Fox epic – a quarter of whose budget went towards depicting the fire that had taken 300 lives and destroyed two million dollars’ worth of property – is fanciful about some of its facts. Henry King, as mythical about the Midwest as Ford was about the West and DeMille was about the Middle East, makes Chicago both a cauldron of corruption (the grandfather of Ben Hecht’s Chicago) and the site of his recurring theme – the coexistence of nihilism and decency, rebellion and domesticity. The latter is represented both by the Cain-and-Abel dialectic of the O’Leary brothers (Tyrone Power and Don Ameche) and the two women who lord it over them, a showgirl-capitalist (Alice Faye) and their prudish mother (Alice Brady), the latter of whom owns the recalcitrant cow who starts the fire of Chicago. Significantly, it’s the response of that cow to her obstreperous offspring that sets off the fire, just after the O’Leary boys belatedly come to blows. Hoping to top the climactic earthquake of the profitable San Francisco (1936), Fox even arranged for an intermission 80 minutes into the picture, just before the cow kicks over the lantern, getting the climactic half-hour of urban destruction to function like the second part of a double-bill, and resolving the moral crisis with a spectacle in the grand manner of D.W. Griffith.
If Chicago in this film initially figures as a Promised Land whose Moses-like father can’t enter, before it evolves into some version of Sodom and Gomorrah for his family, the same city would function years later as a tragically unreachable cultural oasis for the frustrated, Emma Bovary-like heroine of King’s Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952).
Cast and Credits
Sog.: Niven Busch. Scen.: Lamar Trotti, Sonya Levien. F.: J. Peverell Marley. M.: Barbara McLean. Scgf.: William S. Darling, Rudolph Sternad. Mus.: Cyril J. Mockridge. Int.: Tyrone Power (Dion O’Leary), Alice Faye (Belle Fawcett), Don Ameche (Jack O’Leary), Alice Brady (Molly O’Leary), Andy Devine (Pickle Bixby), Brian Donlevy (Gil Warren), Phyllis Brooks (Ann Colby), Tom Brown (Bob O’Leary), Sidney Blackmer (generale Phil Sheridan), Berton Churchill (senatore Colby). Prod.: Darryl F. Zanuck per Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.. 35mm. D.: 111’. Bn.
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