Don Ameche

In Old Chicago 1937

In Old Chicago (1937)

While the O’Leary family is traveling to Chicago to find a new life, the family patriarch is killed in an accident, leaving his wife Molly (Alice Brady) to make the trip alone with her two young sons Jack (Don Ameche as an adult, Billy Watson as a child) and Dion (Tyrone Power as an adult, Gene Reynolds as a child). When the family finally arrives in Chicago, Molly starts building a reputation for being an excellent laundress right away. Her laundry business helps her provide a good life for her sons. Jack got a good education and becomes a lawyer. Dion, on the other hand, takes the less respectable route in life and becomes a gambler who falls in love with saloon singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), who his mother does not approve of.

Eventually, Jack sets his sights on having a career in politics and Dion has gotten involved with the unscrupulous politician Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy). Naturally, their different paths in lives cause a great deal of tension between the two brothers. All of their animosity comes to a head the night of the big Chicago fire of 1871. Jack, who has just been elected mayor of Chicago, is blamed by some of Dion’s cohorts who think Jack is trying to run them out of town and go after him. Meanwhile, Jack is trying to control the fire, only to have his efforts interrupted by Dion’s colleagues. But when Dion finds out what’s going on, can he save his brother?

I really wanted to like In Old Chicagmore than I did. Since I liked Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which also starred Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche, I had high hopes In Old Chicago, but I much preferred Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The cast wasn’t bad and its production values are very high, but the basic plot is nothing new and framing it around the great Chicago fire didn’t make it any more interesting for me. But the fire scenes were, indeed spectacular. Even with stars like Power, Faye, and Ameche, the real stars of In Old Chicago are the effects specialists who planned the fire scenes. On the whole, it’s not a terrible movie,  just one I was indifferent about except for the fire scenes.

Alice Faye Tyrone Power Alexander's Ragtime Band

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

Roger Grant (Tyrone Power) is a young musician with a lot of potential ahead of him. His aunt and professor both expect him to go on to become a fine musician, but secretly, the style of music Roger loves playing the most is not the most respectable of styles at the time. After playing a recital for a bunch of high society types, he and a bunch of fellow musicians head over to audition at a seedy saloon. The same night, Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) also comes to the saloon looking for work as a singer. As the band is getting ready to audition, they realize their sheet music has disappeared, so they end up auditioning with the same song Stella had brought to sing — “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” As the band plays, Stella seizes the opportunity and starts singing with the band and the audition is a big success and the bartender gives Roger the nickname of Alexander.

Stella isn’t fond of Roger and Roger isn’t fond of Stella, but their bandmate Charlie (Don Ameche) talks them into sticking together. The band starts performing under the name Alexander’s Ragtime Band and it isn’t long before they start becoming more and more popular. But behind the scenes, Charlie is falling in love with Stella while Stella and Roger have fallen in love with each other without even realizing it. Once they do realize how they feel about each other, Charlie steps aside and Roger and Stella continue seeing each other as their band grows in status.

Their happiness comes crashing down when Stella catches the eye of a prominent talent agent who wants to turn her into a star — but only her. Roger kicks her out of the band and Charlie leaves with her. While Roger goes into the military during World War I, Stella becomes a big star in her own right and marries Charlie. Roger is heartbroken when he hears the news, but tries to move on with Jerry (Ethel Merman), the new singer for his band. Jerry realizes he doesn’t love her and Charlie realizes Stella will always love Roger, but with years of bitterness between them, do Roger and Stella still have a chance?

Now, this is a movie with a whole lot of star power! Not only do you have Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, both on top of their games, there’s Don Ameche, Ethel Merman, Jack Haley, Jean Hersholt, and of course, a whole lot of Irving Berlin songs. The love triangle between Roger, Charlie, and Stella was pretty formulaic, but like I said yesterday when I wrote about The Bride Wore Red, a movie can be formulaic and still be worth watching if it’s produced effectively enough. The same holds true for Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It may not be anything mind blowing, but with a cast like that and all those Irving Berlin songs, it’s still good fun. This would be a kind of movie that I put on in the background while I’m busy doing other things because the music makes it nice just to listen to.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Heaven Can Wait PosterWhen Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) dies, he has no delusions about going to Heaven.  But before he can go anywhere, he has to explain to the devil why he belongs in Hell.  So he starts telling his life story, beginning with his privileged childhood spent living with his parents and doting grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a teenager, his family hires a maid and tutor who helps put him on the path to becoming a real playboy.  Just as Henry is about to turn 26, Henry meets Martha (Gene Tierney), the woman of his dreams.  The only problem is that she is already engaged to his cousin.  However, Martha is more interested in Henry so they elope.

Ten years later, on the morning of Henry’s 36th birthday, Martha tires of him stepping out on her so she leaves.  With encouragement from his grandfather, Henry patches things up with her and they elope all over again.  Another twenty-five years pass and Henry has settled down, but their son Jack (Tod Andrews) is behaving much like Henry had when he was younger.  On the night of their twenty-fifth anniversary, Henry notices Martha hasn’t been feeling well and she dies a short time later.

Without Martha in his life, 60-year-old Henry is back to staying out late and cavorting with women.  Jack, on the other hand, has settled down and become a responsible business man.  Henry lives to be 70 years old and dies in his bed, under the care of a beautiful nurse.  After hearing Henry’s life story, the devil decides that Henry does not belong in Hell, for he has made many people in his life happy.

Considering its cast and director, I went into Heaven Can Wait with very high expectations.  For me, this was an example of the adage, “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”  Heaven Can Wait isn’t one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, but I’m so fond of Lubitsch that even if one of his movies isn’t a favorite of mine, I still enjoy it very much.  Gene Tierney and Don Ameche made a wonderful couple and Charles Coburn was perfectly cast as Henry’s grandfather.  The story is very sweet and has a great deal of warmth to it.  However, I just didn’t feel like it was quite in the same league as some Lubitsch’s other films like Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, or The Shop Around the Corner.  But those are some very lofty standards to live up to and even if Heaven can Wait doesn’t quite reach them, it’s still a pleasure to watch.