Friday, July 11, 2003


An early "disaster" film from Fox about the infamous O'Leary family whose cow supposedly started the great Chicago fire. I doubt that much, if any, of the movie is based on truth, but that never bothers Hollywood (or its audiences). The film opens with the family traveling across the plains to Chicago; the father dies after being dragged by his runaway horses during a playful race, leaving Mrs. O'Leary (Alice Brady) to raise her three sons. One becomes Tyrone Power, a handsome scoundrel; though he has plenty of surface charm, he winds up becoming an 1870's version of a gangster who runs activities in the Patch, an old and rickety part of the city, known for its saloons and gambling dens. Another son is Don Ameche, not quite as charming or slick as Power; he works hard to become a lawyer who eventually becomes mayor (partly due to some shady deals done by Power, unknown to Ameche). The third son is Tom Brown, a bland fellow with a wife and kids who is shunted off to the background most of the time. Alice Faye is Belle, a singer who is courted by both Power and Ameche, but who succumbs to Power even though she knows about his rougish ways. In Power's meanest deed, he marries Faye only to stop her from testifying against him in a court of law.

Various melodramatic plot threads come together in the last third of the movie when Mrs. O'Leary's cow finally kicks over the lantern in the barn, which starts the huge fire, this event being rather clumsily foreshadowed early on. The effects during the 20 minute fire sequence are pretty good for their time. In a rather predictable ending, one brother dies and one brother learns a tough lesson; no one really cares what happens to the third brother! Faye seems uncomfortable all the way through, though she is lovely. Power's character is the most interesting; even when he's being thoroughly nasty and seems fully irredeemable, he manages to be mostly charming (and quite the looker!). This is certainly one of his best performances. Ameche is fine, as usual. Madame Sul-Te-Wan plays Faye's maid and manages to come off in a much less subservient way than most black maids of 30's Hollywood. Also with Andy Devine & Brian Donleavy. Rondo Hatton has a small role as a bodyguard, and he's called Rondo at least once in the movie. Most tediously repeated line: "We O'Leary's are a strange tribe." Worth watching.

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