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Sunday
Mar102013

75th Anniversary: In Old Chicago's Stolen Oscar!

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.

Tyrone woos Alice... by pinning her down and nuzzling.

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.

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Reader Comments (20)

How funny that in only its second year of handing out supporting prizes they were already giving consolation prizes. Alice Brady was a fine actress and she's as good as the part allows here but she really should have won the previous year for her classic work in My Man Godfrey. I've never seen Dame May Whitty in Night Must Fall but her other three competitors, Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas, Andrea Leeds in Stage Door and Claire Trevor in Dead End, all had better parts and add more to their films than Alice did but she was a venerated stage actress and prestige is always a big selling point with the academy.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6 -- i can't remember who Andrea Leeds was in STAGE DOOR. I saw that movie twice but both times in the late 80s on vhs and never have seen it since.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Brady absolutely deserved it, give or take Trevor (and I've actually seen all five!).

That said, EVERY single other thing about this movie pisses me off. No one else in the cast is even tolerable, and its complete raping of history is beyond frustrating and even negligent; it's using a real woman everyone decided to destroy just because she was Irish (the 19th century sure was fun), giving her made-up douchebags for sons, and even ADDING to the bullshit legends of what happened. Everything producton-wise was just trying to top MGM's San Francisco, and no one used any rationality at any point, I think. Just complete claptrap.

Also, I don't get to say claptrap enough, so yay.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.D.

Yet another film to add to the pile!

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

The appeal of Alice Faye escapes you? Have you never heard the lady sing?

She was one of my mom's favorite film stars, and that voice! Her voice, the New York Times wrote in her obituary, was "inviting." Irving Berlin was once quoted as saying that he would choose Faye over any other singer to introduce his songs, and George Gershwin and Cole Porter called her the "best female singer in Hollywood". During her years as a musical superstar, Alice Faye managed to introduce twenty-three songs to the hit parade, more than any other female Hollywood movie star. During her peak years, she was often considered the female equivalent to Bing Crosby.

Even now, in my head, I can hear her warbling "You'll Never Know" from "Hello, Frisco, Hello" (1943). I doubt "In Old Chicago" is the best introduction to Faye. Much better to see her in one of her more streamlined modern roles, as a tough(ish) girl from Hell's Kitchen (which she was in real life) in "On the Avenue" (1937)

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFunbud

Rewatch STAGE DOOR immediately!

Leeds plays Kay, the well-liked actor trying for the part Hepburn's character wants. Her arc is significantly tragic, which always makes me wonder if that's an added reason in a generally large ensemble she's the single one who earned an Oscar nomination - the character arc is way sympathetic.

Aside: In addition to knowing the trivia of IN OLD CHICAGO, I remember it most for the lies Martha tells us in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF. Remember how she tells George at the beginning that "Chicago was a 30s musical starring little Ms. Alice Fay"? That egregious error and her inaccurate description of the set of the "What a dump scene?" were always proof that Martha was not a movie gal, and thus truly a monster as George said.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Andrew K -- love!

Funbud -- but i did hear her sing. Three times n the picture. I guess I can't love every musical star ;)

JD -- it's a good word, true.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Great story about the Alice Brady double, but is this another Oscar myth? Wasn't it the same year that best actor winner Spencer Tracy was allegedly handed the award with the name'Dick Tracy' written on it?

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe U.K.

Alice Brady is the subject of one of the craziest 'blind items' I've ever read. No idea of it's true, but it's all about how her father found a female impersonator who filled in for her when she was too sick. http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/15641590.html

It's all ridiculous, but it's funny to think that maybe that's the guy who accepted her Oscar for her.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWill h

According to Damien Bona's INSIDE OSCAR book, it was a man who picked up Alice Brady's Oscar, not an Alice Brady double: "Alice Brady, the Best Supporting Actress winner for IN OLD CHICAGO, was not there. She stayed home with her broken ankle. An unidentified gentleman accepted for her and left with her Oscar. He was never heard from again. Brady said she didn't send any representative and she had not received her Oscar. When the Academy couldn't find the impostor, they gave Brady another Oscar at an informal ceremony twelve days after the Awards."

As for the Spencer Tracy Oscar for BOY'S TOWN, which happened a year later than the Brady mishap: "Tracy also found that winning an Oscar could spell trouble. For starters, the Academy made a mistake inscribing his trophy and sent it to him marked DICK TRACY. He sent it back to have the name fixed..."

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert A.

Robert A -- hmmmm. wikipedia has two competing pages on this myth. I should've pulled out my inside oscar book but it's mysteriously not where i usually keep it. BOo.

March 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

but nevertheless i've fixed the post.

March 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Why let a few facts get in the way of a good story!

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe U.K.

print the legend

March 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ellen Burstyn's character's younger self mentions Alice Faye at the start of ADLHA after she sings You'll Never Know.

Joel, I love Dame May Whitty and I've been dying to see NMF. Mr. Finney starred in a remake after Tom Jones that's also hard to find.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Personally, I have no problem with her Oscar win and it's a great performance but I haven't seen her comptetition. That said, she should totally have won for My Man Godfrey.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFritz

Massive respect for Andrew K following his comment on Liz Taylor's monstrous Martha! Ha!

March 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

Count me in as one of those who are horrified! over the dismissal of Alice Faye. ;-) I have many of her songs on my ipod and listen to her probably once a month. I think her recording career was hindered by the fact that Fox wouldn't allow Alice to be recorded outside of her movies so that's all we have. I find her to be sort of a sweeter version of Jean Harlow but yet very "modern" for the era. She somewhat predates Ginger Rogers but had sort of the same appeal. It wasn't Alice's fault she was stuck playing Shirley Temple's mother over and over again or had to emote against the fairly wooden (albeit utterly dreamy) Tyrone Power. Are we allowed to link?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXv9yderPxc

March 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I definitely don't know about the Oscar wins, but this is a fun movie. I like how you picked up on just how horrible Tyrone Power is to Alice Faye here. In my mind it gets away with it because it repeats that one scene where she's hurling all the stuff at him and they end up making out just as the black housemaid in hysterics brings the cop. I wrote a little piece at my site if you care to check it out. http://brianwelk.com/2013/04/25/rapid-response-in-old-chicago/

April 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian W.

Brian -- thanks. I read your piece. i LOVE when people comment on older posts. It makes me feel like blogposts never truly die ;)

April 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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