Alice Brady received her second Oscar nomination and only Oscar win for her performance as Mrs. Molly O'Leary in Henry King's In Old Chicago. The film itself is right up the Academy's alley, and follows the O'Leary family in the 1800s climaxing in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It's got elaborate set pieces, extravagant costumes, and the final scene depicting the fire is a stunner. Still, the film drags its feet and numerous points, and Tyrone Power has the displeasure of playing one of the least likable leads in any film I've seen. Brady plays the mother of three sons whose father dies in the opening sequence, and the rest of the film is peculiarly focused on two of the sons, leaving the final son with barely a scene centered solely around him. Her performance is dependable, determined, and perfectly adequate but just didn't ignite feelings one way or another either for or against. That said, I don't have a whole lot to say about it.
Don't get me wrong, the performance is not a bad one by any means but rather one that I found too limited to warrant serious awards attention except for in one scene. Before I touch on that, I suppose I should say a few things about the rest of the performance. Her character is one that we've seen quite possibly a million times in film, the strong-willed, stable, tough, and overly protective mother who is set in her ways and serves as the heart of the film. You can tell that Molly O'Leary truly loves her sons and wants the best for them, and Brady balances the warmth of the character with her toughness well. A majority of her scenes are her fussing over her sons while offering stern advice and handling her laundry business, and Brady does that well and possibly the best an actress could with the role. Still, all these scenes are good and Brady is fine but what it comes down to is that the role itself is not an Oscar-level one, not the actress.
Her crowning moment is when she is playing the piano with all her sons and gets drunk. What Brady does is underplay the drunk aspect of the scene and instead makes her character loosen up a whole lot and become more introspective and nostalgic. You still get the feeling that Mrs. O'Leary is drunk, but in a more realistic manner than most other actors would have played the scene. The affection she feels for her family and her deceased husband is palpable in her tone and facial expressions. Perhaps the most revealing scene in the entire film is right after the drunken scene where she goes on a ride with her son and finds herself face to face with his girlfriend, a lounge singer named Belle, who she does not approve of. It's a moment that we see in many films, but is nonetheless just as effective here.
In conclusion, Alice Brady's performance in In Old Chicago is capable and well-done but is never an Academy Award worthy performance. She does all that is asked of her, but the role itself is the main problem, and Molly O'Leary is not an Oscar-level character. Putting a ranking to this performance was tough because it wasn't bad but also not great, but I eventually went for 3/5 Thelmas.