After having lost the first Supporting Actress Oscar ever given to Gale Sondergaard, Alice Brady was back the next year and won for her portrayal of Mrs. O’Leary, the woman whose cow caused the big fire of Chicago. While My Man Godfrey the year before showed us Alice Brady’s wonderful talents for comedy, In Old Chicago allowed her to display a very captivating combination of comedy and drama.
Particularly right at the beginning when her husband dies during their journey to Chicago. Alice Brady is very moving at the funeral, when she tells her husband ‘Goodbye, Pat. Someday I’ll be sending the priest. To speak the proper words.’ Mrs. O’Leary now has to take care of her three sons by herself and soon she is the best wash-woman in Chicago.
She also has a great chemistry with all the actors playing her sons, making the O’Learys a believable family (as Mrs. O’Leary puts it ‘The O’Learys against the world!’). This is neither a very complex character nor a deep characterization but Alice Brady still constructed a very original and charming character in which she is able to take everything that could make Mrs. O’Leary an unlikable person (like her stubbornness) and uses it for the opposite. She is a breath of fresh air in In Old Chicago and constantly able to put a lot comedy into her work.
Her later dramatic work during the Great Fire is also very impressive but unfortunately she is also given what must be one of the worst moments in any movie ever nominated for Best Picture – the final monologue in which Mrs. O’Leary talks about how her family will go on after she basically burned down the entire city. It’s a scene that is almost shocking in its weirdness and Alice Brady also visible struggled to get though it.
But this final moment is not enough to destroy what is an overall great and captivating performance!