I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.
Nearly eighty years later, In Old Chicago reads as representative of the film industry working many kinks out. For one, movies strove (and maybe still strive) to find the very difference between stage and screen, mostly with obvious differences to do with scale, scope and budget. For another, cinematographers, directors, producers and actors needed to work within technology available: gel film, mechanical cameras, low-light projectors, etc, etc.
The fact that any film existed before a majority of modern technology was commercially feasible is incredible, and we should watch older movies with such-colored glasses. In Old Chicago followed San Francisco as a quasi-blockbuster to feature a miniaturized disaster as precursor to modern computer generated images. To compare, performing in front of a live audience a stage troupe would never be able to convince an audience that a 1:100 scale of anything was supposed to represent “real,” and the choice of medium should be clear. Yet in the case of older film, predating digital film (surely), but also larger and more specific budgets, the cast and crew usually could muster perhaps two chances for the expensive, but visually stunning scenery and subsequent destruction. Make fun of the primitive at will and watch a modern post-produced action film with awe, but respect the vision and execution of the original action sequence for its vision.
In order to justify a chaotic climax In Old Chicago needed to successfully simplify a story using as many contemporary tropes and archetypes as possible. Irish immigrants; check! Manifest destiny; check! Election hijinks; check! Two brothers with diametrically opposed but definable personalities; check! Nostalgia or false-nostalgia; check (made in 1937, but whose history would fit in the timeline of someone born in the 1850s or ’60s)! That the story jumps in chronology rather haphazardly helps neither characterization or plot. Relationships are built too much on the motif of ‘family’ or ‘status-quo’ and lose some credibility for the sake of simplicity. Characters (one who dies quickly) seem extraneous without development or constant recall, so while In Old Chicago works off the premise of story austerity, it is unsuccessful in leaving its gaps easily and logically fillable. Much like San Francisco, In Old Chicago would have been more successful had the film itself acknowledged its raison d’être – to showcase a clever filmmaking technique – the reader might have been spared the confusing tale, whose bittersweet ending shivers of anxiety to its illogical endpoint. At least San Francisco somewhat acknowledged its mawkishness through the use of musical theater.
But In Old Chicago achieves success in blending qualities of historical fiction with a certainty that film had earned some off its footholds. It proves that a) disasters on-screen are sustainable and reproducible, b) that an audience existed for these kinds of films that could pass for narrative but really were a vehicle for technology and c) the film industry could tolerate iterative development of clever craftsmanship for years to come. So while, In Old Chicago will forever be remembered as a cog rather than the machine, its worth is duly remembered with a couple of lesser Oscar wins (Best Supporting Actress and Assistant Director) and a nomination for, at the time aptly named, Outstanding Production.
In Old Chicago and The Life of Emile Zola are nearly incomparable as narrative substance but if the merit for Best Picture was innovation and technology alone, In Old Chicago might have been remembered something different.