In Old Chicago (1937): Hollywood History Vs. Fact


Poster - In Old Chicago_02


My wife’s great, great grandmother was Mrs. O’Leary of the Chicago fire fame. This is no “coming over on the Mayflower” legend of the family, but a documented fact. One of the O’Leary daughters married a Cooke…the same Cooke family that spawned the silent movie actor and actress I mentioned in an earlier blog- see:

TCM recently aired “In Old Chicago” (1937) starring  Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche, and familiar with her family’s history, my wife was curious how historically accurate the film would be.


Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and Alice Faye

The Film story: Mrs. O’Leary’s two sons – Jack (Don Ameche) was an ethical lawyer and his brother Dion (Tyrone Power), a dishonest politician. Both become powerful men, and subsequently bitter rivals in old Chicago on the night of the Great Fire.


Tyrone Power (Dion) and  Alice Brady (Mrs. (Molly?) O’Leary)

Here’s her findings regarding Hollywood vs. fact:

First the errors:

1) Mrs. O’Leary was not a widow. Her husband did not die on the wagon train heading for Chicago.

2) Her husband fought in the civil war and returned safely home.

3) There were eight children, not just three brothers as portrayed in the film.

4) She did not run a French Laundry, it was a small dairy.

5) Their house wasn’t so grand. They were poor.

6) As far as we know, none of the O’Leary boys were involved in politics or the law.

7) Her name was Catherine O’Leary not Molly (Hence, the “?” in the earlier caption).


Phyllis Brooks (Ann Colby) and Tyrone Power

Now the fact:

1) Her cow knocked over a lantern and started the Chicago fire on Oct. 8, 1871.


10-08--In Old Chicago02

The real villain of the story

Seems screenwriters:  Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien ( from a story by Niven Busch) had their work cut out for them!


Family Research Fact:

When approached by officials after the fire, Mrs O’Leary was in tears…because she’d lost her cow in the barn fire. The family moved from Chicago because of the incident.


Conclusion: In Old Chicago is an extremely entertaining film classic. Director Henry King created a wonderful set piece, showcasing some great actors, but if you’re looking for facts, you’d better switch to the History Channel, or e-mail my wife.


 Trivia: In Chicago was one of the most expensive films of its time: 1.8 million. The special effects are extremely good, even by today’s standards.

Alice Faye was not the first choice for the lead role of Belle Fawcett. It was supposed to be Jean Harlow, but she died before production. The irony of this, is that early in Faye’s career, Darryl Zannuck saw her on the studio lot and told her she should change her image, that she looked too much like another of their stars- Jean Harlow!

“Rondo” Hatton ( the Creeper. Sherlock Holmes and The Pearl of Death (1945)) can be seen as a thug in the film. His strange features was due to a condition called acromegaly. This came about after being gassed in World War 1.

Clark Gable was slated to play the role of Dion O’Leary. Gable lost it to Power because there was a problem with him being lent out to another studio.

Alice Faye was married to bandleader/ comedian Phil Harris. They had a popular radio comedy that ran on NBC from 1946-1948. In some ways it was an extension of The Jack Benny Program.

Andy Devine (Pickle Bixby) had a supporting role in the film. He would be seen in many westerns over the years, usually in comedic/ sidekick  roles. As an aside, I saw him live at Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA., in a solo performance during the 1960s. The audience loved him.

Brian Donlevy (Gil Warren) was the perfect villain- dishonest banker, politician, ranch owner, etc.- in westerns or crime noir features and television productions throughout his career.

Alice Brady won an Oscar at the Academy Awards  for Best Supporting Actress in this film, and the man who received it for her, stole it.


Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel, “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” was released early 2012 and is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.  His non-fiction e-book “Bullitt Points” is an in depth look at the making of “Bullitt” from a person who was there. Look for it where fine books are sold, or at the link posted below. All profits go to the Boys Republic charity:

Also: Watch for the new Tom Logan mystery thriller published soon by Amazon!

Due out mid-2013!






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3 Responses to “In Old Chicago (1937): Hollywood History Vs. Fact”

  1. Kathleen Fahmy says:

    Hi Tony

    I really enjoyed reading your blog regarding the Chicago Fire movie. It is amusing how historical facts do become a bit distorted at times in a movie about an historical event. However, entertaining the viewers is the primary objective for many movie studios and producers and showing Mrs.O’leary tending to her few diary cows in the poorer outskirts of Chicago would not be Hollywood block buster material. Thank you for your fact versus movie comparison regarding this topic.


    Kathleen Fahmy

    • tonypiazza says:

      Thank you, Kathleen for your help in providing the historical background information regarding the O’Learys for this story. I guess- historical accuracy aside- it isn’t all that bad having Don Ameche and Tyrone Power as family members. I appreciate also, you taking the time to comment.

  2. Barry M Hall says:

    The Great Chicago Fire is of great personal interest to me as is the Great Peshtigo Fire that started at what appears to be the same time almost as if Mother Nature Coordinated it.

    I am bewildered by this statement from above.

    Now the fact:

    1) Her cow knocked over a lantern and started the Chicago fire on Oct. 8, 1871

    When you look at history from a forensic economist point of view you will begin to see historical events fit a pattern in which the official story is almost always proven to be impossible, much less true and the alternative theory that fits a historical pattern almost always fits ALL the facts.

    The propaganda put forth in 1871 is exactly the same BS we see today because the media of today is controlled by a small group of 5-6 corporations instead of a small group of powerful individuals back in 1871. The first mayor of Chicago’s brother Mahlon D Ogden owned the only house that did not burn down in the path of the fire, almost as if he was prepared for that fire. (He was also in the insurance business where many of his competitors went out of business and he and his brother BUILT the city of Peshtigo – The Peshtigo Compay) The other house that did not burn down (but all his papers destroyed) was Gen Sheridan (Famous for his fiery destruction under Gen W T Sherman) who took control of Chicago under martial law. Ogden’s son in law also served under Sherman ran the Ogden’s Peshtigo interests and thanks his foresight to have all of the insurance and cooked books in a fire proof safe (Gen William E Strong) Current British PM David Camerons ancestor Alexander Geddes also made his fortune thanks to a fire proof safe and teh insurance contracts and grain futures he had the foresight to purchase which is similar to people betting airline stocks would tank prior to 9/11. Get my drift? Another that served under Sheridan when he burned the Shenandoya Valley was Russell A Algers who was a LUMBER baron whose lumber company profited greatly AFTER miraculously not losing his operation to the same Great Fire of 10/8/1871. It was Sheridan who suggested blowing up the buildings in Chicago and I suggest to you that these synchronized fires that destroyed Chicago and Peshtigo and parts of MI were in no way the result of the dry summer and high winds or a COW. It is amazing how many memorials and monuments etc exist to “honor” a heavy drinking gambler whose terroristic tactics created a windfall of profits for certain people and bankers. Barry M Hall Forensic economist shedding light on the lies of history

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