Is it really possible that just one major motion picture has ever been made about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871?
Hollywood loves disaster pics. But aside from 1937's "In Old Chicago" (from 20th Century Fox), it doesn't appear that any other studio tackled this mega-disaster.
It was a blockbuster when it came out, so it's not clear why "In Old Chicago" and star Tyrone Power (born 100 years ago this May) have faded from our collective pop cultural memory. Power was one of 20th Century Fox's top leading men of the 1930s and '40s. Try to imagine Leonardo DiCaprio as an obscurity 100 years from now, and you'll have a sense of why this non-legacy is so odd.
The DiCaprio comparison isn't that far off base; James Cameron's "Titanic" shares a narrative template with "In Old Chicago." Both begin as gung-ho stories of young, good-looking ambitious types locking lips and brokering their futures before all hell (and the special effects budget) breaks loose.
To celebrate Power's centennial, "In Old Chicago" will screen Thursday at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge on a double bill with the 1939 Western "Jesse James, " with Power in the title role alongside a mustachioed Henry Fonda as the outlaw's brother, Frank.
Not quite two decades after the release of both films, Power was dead of a heart attack at 44. His younger daughter, Taryn, was 3 when her parents split, 5 when her father died. Raised in Italy by her mother (the Mexico-born film actress Linda Christian), Power, 60, lives in La Crosse, Wis. She will be at the screenings next week, as will Power's godson Michael Butler (the Chicagoan who whose storied career includes bringing "Hair" to Broadway in 1968).
The two Power films on the lineup are directed by Henry King, one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of the era who had a way with big action sequences (the fires that consume the set are especially nutso considering the minimal safety codes of the day) but also quieter, stranger moments of romantic comedy, as well.
"In Old Chicago's" portrayal of the O'Leary family is almost entirely fictitious, down to the names and occupations of O'Leary's themselves. The real Mrs. O'Leary ran a dairy; in the film she is a laundress. Her adult sons drive the narrative; Power plays the charming-but-sleazy one; Don Ameche the straight shooter who becomes mayor.
Variety called the film "historically cockeyed in the placement of its main characters, and its story is mere rehash of corrupt political mismanagement of a growing American city." But: "As a film entertainment it is socko."
Chicago's reputation hasn't changed much in the nearly 80 years since the film's release: "A city of easy money, easy ways," are the words that appear on screen as the O'Learys first make their way into town. "Ugly, dirty, open night and day to newcomers from all parts of the world … a fighting, laughing, aggressive American city."
Power and Ameche were pals before they made the film, having originally met in Chicago. Power grew up in Los Angeles and headed east to pursue a career in acting after high school. "He stopped in Chicago," according to tyrone-power.com, "where his friend, Don Ameche, a radio personality, convinced him to stay awhile to work in radio." He didn't make many inroads, landing mostly bit parts. Radio's loss was Hollywood's gain; Power's face and physique demanded to be seen.
By appearance, he brings to mind Zac Efron crossed with Andrew Garfield, with a playful Paul Rudd smirk tossed in for good measure. He was lanky but buff (hey! a glimpse of that bare torso! Thank you, "In Old Chicago"). He had real acting chops. Charisma. And a serious way with massaging a sly bit of comedy. "Don't forget to sue the railroad for everything you've given!" he cheerily instructs a train load of passengers as he robs them in "Jesse James."
"In Old Chicago," on the other hand, includes a confounding scene that has him wrestling a nightclub singer (Alice Faye) to the floor as if he's fighting an alligator, only to tenderly kiss her on the cheek once, twice, before going in for a good one on the mouth (because a good-time gal from the saloon doesn't need to give consent?!?). You could devote an entire gender studies dissertation to that one scene alone. It should be creepy — it is creepy — but the way Power plays it, it works as something else. I don't know how he pulls it off, but that's some kind of on-screen alchemy.
"People are curious about what he was like on a personal level," his daughter, Tayrn, said when I reached her by phone.
Her lack of first-hand memories were bluntly pointed out in an old AP story: "She was born the daughter of a movie idol, and when she visited his Hollywood grave recently she tried to remember him. But Tayrn Power, now 21, cannot summon a single recollection of her father."
"My sister and I mostly heard our dad's voice dubbed (by someone else) in Italian because we grew up in Italy," she told me. "It wasn't until I was about 15 when I heard his voice on a record, of him reading Byron's poems.
"The good news is my sister, with about 20 years research, has written about who our father was, besides the star." Copies of that book, called "Searching For My Father, Tyrone Power," will be on sale at Thursday's screening.
"I think pop culture fixates on the ephemera while we collectively lose sight of people who really matter," said Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series programmer Matthew Hoffman. "I work full-time in circulation at the Park Ridge Public Library, and I see kids and adults who have never seen a Charlie Chaplin film or who have no interest in watching a black-and-white movie, while the latest Vince Vaughn comedy is 'in demand.' … The name Tyrone Power is one people should know."
"In Old Chicago" screens next week at Taryn's request.
"I was in Chicago once and ended up taking the architectural river cruise tour," she said. "The tour guide was very impressive, and she made reference to the Great Chicago Fire. Later I asked her, 'Are you familiar with the movie "In Old Chicago" with Tyrone Power?' And she went, 'Who?' And I was like, wait a minute, there's something wrong here!