Paul Muni didn't win a second Oscar, but The Life of Emile Zola did win Best Picture in 1937

The 10th Academy Awards for the year 1937.    The nominations were announced on February 6, 1938 and the awards were held on March 10, 1938.

Best Picture:  The Life of Emile Zola

  • A Star is Born
  • The Awful Truth
  • Stage Door
  • Lost Horizon
  • Dead End
  • 100 Men and a Girl
  • The Good Earth
  • Captains Courageous
  • In Old Chicago

Most Surprising Omission:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  You Only Live Once

Rank  (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #73

The Race: By 1937, four the five major studios and even two of the three major-minor studios had won Best Picture.  Yet, Warner Bros. was still empty-handed.  It had never even earned a nomination for Best Director (the major-minor that yet to win was United Artists).  For 1937, Warners prestige picture was The Life of Emile Zola, re-uniting the team of William Dieterle directing Paul Muni in another biopic, which the year before had earned Muni the Oscar.  It quickly became Warners top money-maker of the year.  Muni was also over at MGM on the last film Irving Thalberg had worked on before dying, The Good Earth, at $2.8 million, the most expensive film ever made.  Also at MGM was Captains Courageous, their big money-maker of the year with Spencer Tracy.  At Columbia, Leo McCarey was given free reign by Harry Cohn because Frank Capra was mad at him, so Cohn provided Cary Grant and Irene Dunne to McCarey and out came The Awful Truth, which immediately opened to rave reviews and big box office.  But Capra was also in the mix with Lost Horizon, his big picture based on the James Hilton novel.

When the National Board of Review started things off at the end of December they gave their award to Night Must Fall, a suspense film with Robert Montgomery, though Zola, Earth, and Captains were in their top 10 along with A Star is Born, Camille and Stage Door.  That same day, the New York Film Critics made Zola their top film of the year and Muni their Best Actor, also giving awards to Stage Door (Best Director), and Camille (Greta Garbo for Best Actress).

The late potential surprise was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  It opened at Christmas to huge box office, soon becoming the biggest film of all-time.  But could the first full-length U.S. Animated film find a way into the Best Picture race?

The Results: Disney was out of luck as Snow White only earned a nomination for Best Score.  Also, for the first time in 4 years, the Academy ignored the winner of the NBR and Night Must Fall was out in the cold.  Camille was also left out, though Garbo did manage a nomination.  Instead, joining Zola (which also earned Warners its first Best Director nomination), Earth, Captains, Truth, Horizon, Stage Door and A Star is Born were Dead End, In Old Chicago (the first of consecutive nominations for a Tyrone Power / Don Ameche film) and 100 Men and a Girl (the second of consecutive nominations for a Deanna Durbin film).  This time, Warner Bros. finally broke through, and while they would still have to wait another 6 years for a Best Director win, it finally took home Best Picture.  It would have to rest on those laurels for a while as it would take 6 more years before it would win again and wouldn’t win its third until 1964.

The Life of Emile Zola was the second straight biopic to win Best Picture, but it wouldn't happen again until 1962.

The Life of Emile Zola

  • Director:  William Dieterle
  • Writer:  Norman Reilly Raine  /  Heinz Herald  /  Geza Herczeg
  • Producer:  Henry Blanke
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Original Story, Actor (Muni), Supporting Actor (Schildkraut), Score, Sound, Interior Decoration, Assistant Director
  • Oscar Records:  Most Nominations (10) – broken in 1939,  Most Points (445) – broken in 1939
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • Release Date:  2 October 1937
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #11 (year)  /  #296 (nominees)  /  #65 (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Actor (Muni), Supporting Actor (Schildkraut), Supporting Actress (Sondergaard), Costume Design

The Film:  I suppose it’s not surprising that Paul Muni didn’t win a second consecutive Oscar.  After all, in some ways, his role is pretty much the same as his role the year before in The Story of Louis Pasteur.  He’s a French hero, a person nearly worshiped in his native ground.  He fights to succeed against all odds and against the popular views of France at the time, but eventually he is proven to be correct.  He storms when he’s on screen (and by the way, looks nothing like that poster on the right), gives a very solid performance (so much better than the actual Oscar-winning performance from Spencer Tracy).  He is self-righteous and smart and noble in the kind of ways that only Paul Muni could be.  He had lost some of the edge that he had in roles like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Scarface, but he was still a major star.

Then there is the film itself.  A winner of Best Picture and the first film to ever reach the double-digit mark in Oscar nominations.  Does it really earn that position?  Well, in a word, no.  It’s a good film, almost reaching the very good level.  It speaks strongly to me because the Dreyfus Affair is close to my heart, both because I have written papers about it, but also because a family friend wrote an entire book about it.  I don’t mind that they play with the history a bit to make film scenes work (Dreyfus was rehabilitated two years before Zola died).  It only matters if the scenes work.  They do, after a fashion.  Muni is good and Schildkraut is also good.  Then there is poor Gale Sondergaard, who, a decade later, would find her career brutalized and destroyed in much the same way that Drefyus’ was.  But as a film, it never quite rises above, never really earns its Best Picture win.  It’s still just a standard biopic, a good film, but not a great one.  It’s so hard to really make a great biopic, even when the performances are good.

The original 1937 version of A Star is Born is still the best

A Star is Born

  • Director:  William Wellman
  • Writer:  Dorothy Parker  /  Robert Carson  /  Alan Campbell  (from the screen story by William Wellman  /  Robert Carson)
  • Producer:  David O. Selznick
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Frederic March  /  Janet Gaynor  /  Adolph Menjou  /  Andy Devine  /  Lionel Stander
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Original Story, Actor (March), Actress (Gaynor), Assistant Director
  • Oscar Note:  The first color film to be nominated for Best Picture
  • Length:  111 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  27 April 1937
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1 (year)  /  #103 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (March), Actress (Gaynor), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Art Direction

The Film:  I have always loved the movies.  As a result, I have always loved films about Hollywood and making movies.  The best era for these films was in the early fifties, where in a few years we got Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful and Singin in the Rain.  But long before those came A Star is Born, a film that seems to get pushed to the sideline when people talk about great Hollywood productions.  But here we have an amazing film, anchored by two phenomenal performances (easily better than either of the Oscar winning performances), with an incisive and insightful script (co-written by Dorothy Parker) that somehow never gets talked about on the lists of great all-time films.  It didn’t appear on either AFI Top 100 American film lists and doesn’t appear in the Top 1000.

I can’t understand that at all.  It’s a brilliant film.  It perfectly captures the inner workings of Hollywood, from the name changes (a nice touch that the judge uses their actual names in the ceremony) to the publicity to the Oscar ceremony itself (the Oscar Janet Gaynor wins in the film is her actual Oscar won at the first Academy Awards ceremony).  It’s definitely got the personalities down correctly and to support that, we get two brilliant performances.  Frederic March plays Norman Maine, the drunken actor headed straight down in the community and in the public eye.  He gives us some of the most convincing drunk scenes to date, manages to evoke our sympathy in spite of the horrible things that he does, and gives perhaps the best performance of a remarkable career.  To counter him we have Janet Gaynor.  After winning the first award for Best Actress, Gaynor didn’t get much attention for the next decade (except for State Fair, which is hard to find now).  She received a nomination here but sadly lost to Luise Rainer (who wasn’t nearly as good).  She plays Vicki Lester, the young star who meets Maine at a party, falls in love, and has a career rising that will crisscross with her husband on his way down.

The climax, of course, is the Oscar ceremony where Vicki wins the Oscar and Norman gives a disgraceful drunken speech at the microphone.  This scene is heartbreaking from both ends and we can see the inevitable death of Norman Maine lurking right around the corner.  It is well written, won a special award for its color cinematography, earned nominations all around (winning the Oscar for Original Story, which is ironic, since the idea is inspired considerably by the film What Price Hollywood), yet seems mostly forgotten today, skipped over for the re-makes (the 1954 version, not nominated, is also amazing with fantastic performances from Judy Garland and James Mason, while the 1976 version won 5 Golden Globes in spite of rarely rising above mediocre) and there is even talk of a new version.  Why bother?  They got it right the first time.  See this film.

Poor Cary Grant never could get Oscar nominated for great Comedy films like The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth

  • Director:  Leo McCarey
  • Writer:  Viña Delmar  (from the play by Arthur Richman)
  • Producer:  Leo McCarey  /  Everett Riskin
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Dunne), Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Editing
  • Length:  91 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Screwball)
  • Box Office Gross:
  • Release Date:  21 October 1937
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3 (year)  /  #204 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Grant), Actress (Dunne), Supporting Actor (Bellamy)

The Film:  The great screwball comedies, films like The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby all had an amazing gift and it often had to do with Cary Grant.  Grant is so charming, so wonderful, so witty and quick on his feet that he actually makes me care about these characters.  And for the most part, these characters are the idle rich.  And I have nothing but incredible disdain for the upper class, most especially the idle rich.  Yet, I love these films.  They make me laugh as hard as any other type of film and I never stop to think about how much I would hate these people were I to actually meet any of them.

But look at the wit of these people.  Look at how much they enjoy being with each other, how quickly they react.  When Leo McCarey won the Oscar for this film, he commented that they had given it to him for the wrong one (he meant his drama Make Way for Tomorrow), but this film is wonderfully directed, with great comic timing, especially involving their dog.   It’s weird to take a peak at the quotable lines on the IMDb and realize that it’s not full of great lines, not nearly as instinctively funny, the way His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story is.  It depends much more on those performances.  The Academy only nominated Cary Grant twice – both times for dramatic roles.  They just never realized how hard it was to be such a brilliant comic actor.

Stage Door (1937): the blueprint for Altman?

Stage Door

  • Director:  Gregory La Cava
  • Writer:  Morrie Ryskind  /  Anthony Veiller  (from the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman)
  • Producer:  Pandro S. Berman
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Lucille Ball, Andrea Leeds
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Leeds)
  • Length:  92 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  8 October 1937
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #5 (year)  /  #252 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Hepburn), Actress (Rogers), Supporting Actress (Leeds), Art Direction

The Film:  It’s almost like watching Robert Altman.  During those opening scenes, with all the girls going back and forth, dialogue flying everywhere, almost impossible to keep track of any particular conversation.  Yet, you can somehow pick things up, realize the ebb and flow of the room and you can see where Altman might have gotten the idea for how to run his scenes, those kind of scenes where producers would try to fire him, saying that films weren’t made like that.  Yet Stage Door is exactly made like that.  Yes, there are stars, like Hepburn and Roger.  There are featured supporting players like Lucille Ball and Andrea Leeds.  And there are numerous smaller parts.  But they all blend together in that room and they all become part of one large working ensemble.

It is well written and well directed.  In spite of La Cava’s success with My Man Godfrey, his career never rose very high and watching this film, I forget that he directed it and think it’s a film by George Cukor, who was always so wonderful with actresses and dialogue.  This is one of Rogers’ better dramatic performances, certainly better than her actual Oscar-winning performance, Hepburn is quite good and Andrea Leeds, whose career in film only lasted a few years, is marvelous as the poor, doomed Kaye.  But then there is Adolphe Menjou, who always seems to play the same kind of smarmy role as the sophisticate that you wouldn’t ever want to know in real life.  Then there is the ending, that same kind of scene as the opening, as the characters drift in and out, the dialogue overlaps, they all seem like one large ensemble and we get a beautiful bookend to the film.  A perfect moment to go out on.

Sidney and McCrea were the stars but Bogart's on the poster of Dead End (1937)

Dead End

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Lillian Hellman  (from the play by Sidney Kingsley)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn  /  Merritt Hulbert
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actress (Trevor), Cinematography, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  93 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • Release Date:  27 August 1937
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #7 (year)  /  #265 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Trevor), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction

The Film:  Doesn’t this just seem like it should be a Warner Bros. film?  It’s got Bogart, one of their main stars (though he had not achieved stardom at Warners).  It’s a social drama, but with gangster elements, essentially combining their two biggest kinds of films: the biopics that always seemed to have a social message and the gangster films that made them a money-making force to be reckoned with.  It was even directed by William Wyler, who directed so many great Bette Davis films over the years.

But it isn’t a Warners film.  It’s a Samuel Goldwyn production that was released through United Artists.  That gives it a bit more of an independent feel.  It somehow feels dirtier, more grimy around the edges.  Part of that might be the film itself.  It’s got Claire Trevor in a small part as the girl who was left behind who’s gone to the bad, a small part that nonetheless managed to score her an Oscar nomination (a worthy one at that).  It’s got the Dead End Boys, who aren’t much in the way of acting, but feel more authentic than the children actors kicking around on studio lots.

There’s an amazing shot to open the film.  It starts with an odd building that is clearly too tall, then pans down to the dead end street that comes down to the water, through the tenements, in the shadow of the glorious architecture of the rich.  It seemed so much like a studio shot, with a matte painting, that I then spent most of the first part of the film thinking it was filmed on sets.  But then it began to seem too real.  The buildings worked too well together.  The trash and dirt and pain of the slums seemed so real, I figured it couldn’t be a set.  That first shot must have been a set shot but it must have been filmed on location.  Turns out I was right the first time.  It is all a set, a magnificently recreated New York slum in the back lots of Hollywood.  It looked so real, so amazing.  This is the kind of set that deserves an Oscar.

As for the film itself?  Well it was much stronger than I had remembered.  McCrea is quite good, Trevor is fantastic in her small role, the writing seems real, the social drama of it all seems real.  Of course even the look of it seems real.  What higher compliment can you pay a film like this?

A rather odd poster for Lost Horizon (1937)

Lost Horizon

  • Director:  Frank Capra
  • Writer:  Robert Riskin  (from the novel by James Hilton)
  • Producer:  Frank Capra
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, H.B. Warner
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Warner), Editing, Score, Sound, Interior Decoration, Assistant Director
  • Length:  132 min  (original)  /  118 min  (general release)
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  1 September 1937
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #13 (year)  /  #298 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Warner), Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  Capra did it right.  If you watch the DVD you can see the alternate ending that Harry Cohn insisted be filmed.  You can see Jane Wyatt waving from the balcony and Robert Conway clearly reaches Shangri-La and gets his happy ending.  But the ending that Capra made for the film is more true.  It is more ambiguous.  Sure, you get that look on his face and you see the bells and if you want to believe, you can believe he has a happy ending.  Or you can believe that this is all in his end and he dies there in the snow.  It allows for that possibility, that’s what’s so brilliant about it.

It’s actually a more brilliant ending than the film itself has earned.  The film itself is okay.  Sure, it has Ronald Colman and Colman can always be counted on to give a good performance.  And H.B. Warner managed to score an Oscar nomination, but he really wasn’t all that great.  And does anyone ever talk about the acting ability of Jane Wyatt?  Even Horton and Mitchell, normally so good, are a bit lifeless here.  Perhaps it’s the novel that’s the problem.  How do you really show a society that seems so perfect that you never age.  And why would people want to leave?  Certainly it is well made enough and well directed enough, but something seems to be missing, even when you do get to see the extra footage that was pulled out over the years, even with all those details added in.  Perhaps that’s why it’s the only one of the six Capra Best Picture nominees in the 1930’s not to earn him a nomination for Best Director.  They looked at the production and marveled at what they saw on screen, but something didn’t quite seem to be there and that was chalked up to Capra.

More Deanna Durbin in 100 Men and a Girl (sighing, shaking head)

100 Men and a Girl

  • Director:  Henry Koster
  • Writer:  Hans Kraly  /  Bruce Manning  /  Charles Kenyon  /  James Mulhauser
  • Producer:  Charles R. Rogers  /  Joe Pasternak
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Deanna Durbin, Adolphe Menjou, Alice Brady
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Story, Editing, Score, Sound
  • Length:  84 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Box Office Gross:  $2.27 mil
  • Release Date:  5 September 1937
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #36 (year)  /  #421 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I suppose it’s good to go back and re-watch all of these films before I write these reviews, because every Deanna Durbin film runs together in my brain.  It seems like she is always perky, always has some family troubles, always bursts into operatic arias and is generally annoying.  Of course that’s because she is always perky, always has family troubles, always bursts into operatic arias and is incredibly annoying.  The films blend together because they’re all pretty much the same film.  And unlike the Rogers / Astaire films, which are also basically the same film made over and over again, she is not charming, she is not much of an actress and I can’t stand her songs.

So what is the story this time?  Her father is flat broke because he can’t catch a break at the orchestra he feels he should be playing in.  Through a run of circumstances, Durbin ends up singing, being a smash hit and by the end of the film, there she is singing another of her songs that would scare the cats if we still had any cats and her father is playing in the orchestra, smiling, and we all have a happy ending.  So Universal wanted to make the same film over and over again.  Apparently people were willing to pay for it, because that gross equates to $74 million today, a nice solid hit for this kind of film.  But to nominate it for Best Picture?  Especially after the previous year’s Three Smart Girls?  Was that really necessary?  Because then I just have to watch it.  And I’m tired of watching Deanna Durbin.

Pulitzer Prize winning novel! Oscar winning film! Both are boring! The Good Earth (1937)

The Good Earth

  • Director:  Sidney Franklin
  • Writer:  Talbot Jennings  /  Tess Slesinger  /  Claudine West  (from the novel by Pearl S. Buck)
  • Producer:  Irving Thalberg  /  Albert Lewin
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Paul Muni, Luise Rainer
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (Rainer), Editing, Cinematography
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  6 August 1937
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #42 (year)  /  #433 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Rainer)

The Film:  Here we have the final film of Irving Thalberg’s amazing career.  A giant production starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, the two reigning Oscar winners.  Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Pearl S. Buck.  What could go wrong?

Well, a lot could go wrong.  First of all, the book is vastly over-rated.  It is extremely dull for very long stretches and while Buck might have known China very well, I never thought she was much for developing characters.  Her story is fairly weak and her characters are even weaker.  It only gets worse when put on-screen and even worse when seen today, looking back at the ridiculous stereotypes that we had of life in China.  Then there is Thalberg.  Yes, he was an amazing producer and he had phenomenal success, but not everything was gold.  He was concerned about size and impact rather than art and many of the films that he made don’t hold up well today.  Then there is Muni, who is forced into extreme over-acting as the Chinese farmer.  Rainer somehow managed to win a second straight Oscar, but it is one of the most widely ridiculed Oscars today and she was out of the film industry within a few years.

There just isn’t enough to this story, certainly not enough to stretch it out to 138 minutes.  Yes, we have some exciting scenes, very well-done scenes like the rain scene when the farmers must desperately get the wheat in, or the plague of locusts towards the end of the film.  That was money well spent and it shows on-screen.  But it’s not enough to overcome long stretches of boredom, or Muni mugging and Rainer bowing her head and looking pathetic.  In a year with Captains Courageous and In Old Chicago it’s not the worst of the nominees, but it is certainly a bad choice.

If you can watch it and not root for Freddie Bartholomew to drown you have more patience than I do

Captains Courageous

  • Director:  Victor Fleming
  • Writer:  John Lee Mahin  /  Marc Connelly  /  Dale Van Every  (from the novel by Rudyard Kipling)
  • Producer:  Louis D. Lighton
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Actor (Tracy), Editing
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  25 June 1937
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #45 (year)  /  #446 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  There are two competing views of Rudyard Kipling.  The first is that he deserved to be the first English language writer to win the Nobel Prize, that his stories are magnificent and his books the epitome of high adventure.  The other is that he is an unashamed apologist and supporter of imperialism and that he has dated very badly.  I fall into the middle.  I recognize the power of his gift of language and the magnificence of his stories, while refusing to fall prey to his view that the British were the right people to run the world. (If you want another version of Kipling, watch the magnificent BBC version of My Boy Jack).  But either way, Captains Courageous is weak Kipling by any means.  It does not do justice to his gift for writing and is fairly uninteresting and uninspiring.

So what to think of the film?  To be frank, I try not to.  For one thing, the star of the film is Freddie Bartholomew, possibly the most annoying child actor who ever lived.  It doesn’t help that the character he plays, Harvey Cheyne, starts out as an insufferable little stuck-up brat, stays that way far too long, and even when he finally learns some compassion, doesn’t get any less annoying.  For another thing, this film won Spencer Tracy the Academy Award for his ridiculous performance as the Portuguese sailor, Manuel.  His accent is atrocious, his performance is weak and to win the Oscar over Frederic March is obscene.  Most of the film is taken up with interactions between Bartholomew and Tracy and I spent the entire time thinking, please let it end.  After all, when Mickey Rooney is by far the most restrained actor in the cast, you know you’re in trouble.

In Old Chicago (1937) - not much to say, is there?

In Old Chicago

  • Director:  Henry King
  • Writer:  Lamar Trotti  /  Sonya Levien  /  Niven Busch
  • Producer:  Darryl F. Zanuck  /  Kenneth MacGowan
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Alice Brady
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Story, Supporting Actress (Brady), Score, Sound, Assistant Director
  • Length:  95 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  6 January 1938
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #48 (year)  /  #456 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (Brady), Score, Visual Effects

The Film:  I can’t really complain too much.  After all, Tyrone Power is simply part of a long line of stars who were good looking, had various amounts of charisma, and really weren’t much when it came to acting ability.  This was, after all, the same era that produced Robert Taylor and Van Johnson.  Power was by no means the worst of these actors and occasionally he was even good.  But here he is all about being a good looking young guy at the center of the story.  It’s not really his fault that the story is so stupid, so cliched, so boring.

What we have here is a fictionalized account of how the Great Chicago Fire came to be.  Of course, there isn’t anything to the story except for a couple of characters who were known to exist at the time.  They just used the fire as a framework to build their story around about two brothers, one rather free-living and wild, one devoted to justice who ends up becoming mayor.  Power is the cad of course (Ameche is the mayor).  The one good performance in the film comes from Alice Brady as their hard-working, devoted mother who has kept her family together after the father was killed in the journey to Chicago.  Technically, the film isn’t bad.  For 1937, the special effects look pretty good and you really believe that all these buildings are burning.  But as a good time at the movies?  Well, it’s a film that you can skip.  One good performance and some good technical aspects just aren’t enough to recommend a film.