On this very day in 1938, 75 years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences met for the 10th time to honor the films of 1937. There was still no television to compete with but that also meant no televised ceremony. Which is too bad really because how great would it be to see one of Oscar's very oddest anecdotes happening "live"? According to legends, though the legends conflict either an Alice Brady impostor or a impostor Brady representative accepted the trophy which was never recovered! Drama. What then? Either the statue was replaced 12 days later or the more dramatic the statue was never replaced. This much is true: Brady, the second winner of this then brand new category, died a year and a half later at only 47 years of age.
In Old Chicago
Alice Brady plays the matriarch of the O'Leary clan (anniversary aside, since we're approaching St. Patrick's Day, it felt like appropriate viewing). After the father dies in a dumb luck tragedy on the way to the big city in 1854, dragged to his death by runaway horses, widowed Brady raises her three sons alone in the rapidly rising city described in the title cards as "a fighting, laughing, aggressive American city". Within seconds of arriving she makes a name for herself as a talented laundry woman.
Two of her sons become major power players, one an honest crusading lawyer (Don Ameche), the other a charming playboy (gorgeous Tyrone Power) with a taste for money and women of questionable provenance.
Yes, by all means Tyrone, find a reason to get your shirt off...
Even if it involves stealing clean shirts from Mama O'Leary's clients, you selfish jerk.
I love to look at Tyrone Power (I'm only human!) surely one of the best looking movie stars of all time but this is the second consecutive Power movie I watched (remember Black Swan?) in which his courtship technique generally involves bullying his conquests. (When she says no, she really means yes!) From what I can tell this was a-ok with everyone in 30s and 40s because it's such a cinema staple but it sure makes for politically incorrect sexual combustion between moviebuff and movie. It's not that Tyrone doesn't have sexual sparks with his co-stars -- he absolutely does compounding the discomfort because these sparks leave burns. In one of this drama's repeated comic gags Tyrone physically restrains Alice Faye (whose appeal escapes me) until she kisses him or acquiesces to his demands, whatever they are. This happens three times in the picture and by the end he's still treating her like garbage, lying to her, using her, shoving her around; she falls hopelessly in love of course.
What a woman!"
In Old Chicago has an unusual Oscar record in that it won "Best Assistant Director" a category which ended right there at the 1938 Oscars. Did the Assistant Director get the credit for the movies insane recreation of one of the worst American tragedies of all time, the fire which wiped out Chicago and one member of this fictionalized family? The visual fx are impressive for their day and the disaster portion of the movie definitely has some alarming dramatic potency ...Chicago won six nominations: Picture, Assistant Director, Original Story, Supporting Actress, Sound Recording (later split into two categories) and Best Score.
When the final title card hit, just after Alice Brady's defiant wet-eyed ode to her family and her city's survival - very Scarlett O'Hara - it was easy to think of this Oscar winning role in its proper context, as one of the earliest examples of the martyr mom Oscar holds so dear.
It's gone and my boys gone with it but what he stood for will never die. It was a city of wood and now it's ashes. But out of the fire be coming steel. You didn't live to see it my lad, no more than your father before you...
If you hang all the kindly martyr moms (and their dark-mirror counterparts, the monster moms) on a timeline like drying shirts on a clothesline that'd be more laundry than even Mama O'Leary could handle! In Old Chicago is like that, too, in context. It's an early prototype for three commonplace types of (Oscar-bait) epics: disaster films, historical reenactments, and the multi-generational family saga. So, for me at least, it's a worthy sit despites its inarguable creaky aged joints.
Happy Oscar winning anniversary Mama O'Leary & In Old Chicago. You're part of a strange tribe.