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.
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: www.bullittpoints.com.
Also: Watch for the new Tom Logan mystery thriller published soon by Amazon!
Due out mid-2013!