Roxie Hart (William A Wellman, 1942)

This will just be a fairly quick posting, as I don’t seem to have much time at the moment, but want to keep my blog alive! One reason I have picked William A Wellman to write about so much is that I tend to find his films are enjoyable to watch time and again. This is certainly true of Roxie Hart, which was actually the second of three movie versions of the Chicago story, based on the stage play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Fans of the smash hit musical should be interested to see this earlier version of the same story, starring Ginger Rogers as showgirl turned celebrity criminal Roxie Hart. Interestingly it already feels like a musical, with a great scene where Rogers and the press corps tap dance around the prison.

There is some softening of the story because of the production code – in this version, Roxie is innocent, and just admits to murdering her lover for the sake of the publicity. In some ways, ironically, this watering down makes the film’s satire of celebrity culture even sharper, as the central character is willing to risk execution for the sake of getting her name in the papers. The script, adapted by Nunnally Johnson and an uncredited Ben Hecht, is very sharp with plenty of one-liners to relish.

I’ve become a definite fan of Rogers lately after watching all her musicals with Fred Astaire and several of her other  roles, including the wonderful Stage Door and endearing comedy-drama Bachelor Mother. She nearly always seems to play working-class heroines who have a great warmth to them – and she brings all that warmth to the character of Roxie in this, making her seem sweet and vulnerable even when it is only too clear from the plot that she is a calculating adventuress. I suppose this could mean that Rogers is playing the movie audience just as, within the story, Roxie is playing the jury – and playing the wider public through the newspaper stories which she serves up from her prison cell.

The film is only 75 minutes long and moves at a breathless pace, making it reminiscent of some of Wellman’s pre-Codes. He puts his stamp on it from the start, as George Montgomery, playing  journalist Homer Howard, staggers into a bar to escape from the torrential rain. I’ve  lost count of the number of rainstorms in Wellman films, but this is one of the most protracted – in fact it lasts for almost the whole film, as Homer tells the story of Roxie’s case, which unfolds in flashback. Every now and again we return to him in the bar, while the rain continues to lash against the windows. Homer is now a caricature of a journalist, hard-drinking  and full of wisecracks ( newspaper veteran Hecht presumably provided much of his dialogue), but in the flashbacks we see him as a tenderhearted young trainee.

Ginger Rogers as Roxie Hart

A gum-chewing Rogers is enchanting as Roxie, always playing to the gallery grabbing centre stage. Adolphe Menjou is equally great as lawyer Billy Flynn, a courtroom showman who doesn’t want to hear her protestations of innocence, since he can work up his case better if she admits killing the man but claims it was in self-defence. (“We both reached for the gun – then everything went purple!”) Made in 1942, the film has a nostalgic flavour to it, celebrating the 1920s’ fashions and music. I especially enjoyed the way a radio presenter often interrupts the court proceedings with his advertiser announcements – while newspaper cameramen also frequently rush in to stop the case so that they can get a photo of Roxie after a particularly sweet soundbite.

I had hoped to be able to compare the film with the earlier silent version, Chicago (1927), starring Phyllis Haver as Roxie, which was credited to little-known director Frank Urson but produced by Cecil B DeMille, who reportedly directed almost all of it himself. Unfortunately, however, the silent film is hard to get hold of, as it has only been released on a very expensive region 1 DVD from Flicker Alley, which, in fairness, is said to be beautifully presented and include a host of bonus materials. I have resisted buying this, but did see a long  clip from Chicago (1927) which has been posted at the TCM Classic Film Union site. It is clear from this that Haver’s version of Roxie is far less sympathetic than Rogers’ take on the character, and that in the silent version  her husband Amos is a sad, lovelorn figure, just as he is in the musical. By contrast, in the 1940s film, George Chandler makes Amos downright poisonous.

One thing which does strike a somewhat sour note in this film is the tagged-on “happy” ending, which sees Roxie married  to Homer and mother of an ever-growing brood of children. Up to that point, this is a film which enjoys its “bad girl” heroine and doesn’t feel the need to condemn her too strongly.

The Wellman film  is available on DVD in region 1 from Twentieth Century Fox, very cheaply – a basic release but with a high-quality print. You can also get it in region 1 in a box set released together with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz – I don’t know much about this set, but according to Amazon.com it does have an extra feature, Musical Moments.

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16 thoughts on “Roxie Hart (William A Wellman, 1942)

  1. Judy, this was definitely reminiscent of Pre-Code; the writers figured out that they could partly recreate the spirit simply by having someone pretend to be as amoral as Pre-Code characters often were. Rogers is likable in the role because she’s playing according to Pre-Code survival ethics without really hurting anyone. It helps that she’s willing to take her knocks in the knockabout scenes. I saw her fertile finish as a comical comeuppance condemning her to domesticity instead of fame, but it’s too fun to deem sour. I suppose this was a natural subject for the director of Nothing Sacred, and it certainly lives up to that standard, and I enjoyed your review, too.

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    • That’s an interesting thought about the resemblance to pre-Code, Samuel – I do think they get the spirit although, as you say, in this version Roxie isn’t really as amoral as those characters, though Flynn definitely is! I note that Amos does get his just deserts right at the end of the film – in a movie made under the code it’s rare for anyone to get away with murder. I’m interested that you liked the ending more than I did – to me it does feel rather tagged on, and I feel as if the Roxie we have seen through most of the film would probably have accepted the ride in the expensive car and said goodbye to Homer, but I do like your idea of her being condemned to domesticity instead of fame. Agree with you that there are many similarities with ‘Nothing Sacred’. Thanks very much for the thoughtful comment and the kind words on my review.

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  2. Judy: I own that Flicker Alley version of CHICAGO, so I will do for you what needs to done immediately. I smiled when you noted the rainstorm too, as I just saw the film a few weeks ago as the Wellman Festival was winding down on the Sunday afternoon before the evening Oscar telecast. Interestingly enough it was paired with LADY OF BURLESQUE with Barbara Stanwyck. Rain was admittedly a patented Wellman trademark. In any case this film does boast some buffo one-liners, and Ginger Rogers is irresistible in the role that was reprised in 2002 by Renee Zellweger. I agree with you too that there is a kind of musicality in this film that seemed to anticipate it’s metamorphosis into a musical decades later. Yes, I agree that Maenjou is splendid as Flynn, much as he was previously for Wellman as producer Oliver Niles in 1937’s A STAR IS BORN. I also concur the film has a distinct 20’s look and temper and that the Hecht script is brisk and economical. Surely a further example of Wellman’s supreme diversity.

    Wonderful review Judy!

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    • Thank you very much for all this, Sam! Yes, the rain gets everywhere in Wellman – I’ve just watched ‘The Story of GI Joe’ which is full of rainstorms too, adding to its powerful portrayal of the misery of war. At your wonderful festival, this must have made an interesting pairing with ‘Lady of Burlesque’, which is one I’m meaning to watch for a second time soon and of course has another showgirl at its centre. I often find that I appreciate Wellman’s movies more on repeat viewings.

      Menjou is just great in general, isn’t he – I also love him with Dietrich in ‘Morocco’, another one I’ve just seen recently, and with Pat O’Brien in the original version of ‘The Front Page’… and in ‘Stage Door’, with Rogers again. I gather most of his leading man roles were in silents which I haven’t seen, but he always adds so much class in support roles and frequently steals the show, as I think he does here in quite a few scenes.

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  3. Haven’t seen this in years Judy but I remember thinking it was pretty good. I certainly liked it a lot more than the Zeta Jones remake, which I thought was vastly overrated.

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    • Colin, I quite liked the remake as I am a fan of the musical, but must say I think it works better on stage – and I wasn’t very impressed by Richard Gere’s singing, even though I like him as an actor (and as a a trumpet player in The Cotton Club!) But anyway I enjoy Wellman’s ‘Roxie Hart’ more too!

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  5. Judy,
    I do agree with you and Samuel on the pre-code feel of this film. I have watched it a few times myself and never get tired of it. Was not aware of a third version of the story but I am a big fan of this film and the more recent musical (also saw the musical on Broadway a few years ago). Rogers and Menjou sparkle here. Rogers always amazes me with her versatility, musicals, of course, she terrific here and in comedy (The Major and the Minor) and in dramatic roles (Tight Spot).

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    • John, I agree this is one that is still enjoyable however many times you watch it.I also agree that Rogers is very versatile – haven’t yet watched ‘The Major and the Minor’, but I treated myself to the DVD recently so will watch it soon – and will also look out for ‘Tight Spot’. Thanks very much for the suggestions.

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  6. As good as Rogers is here (happily, she remembers her Warner golddigger parts well), she’s got a supporting cast that couldn’t have been better chosen, apart from George Montgomery (who I’ve never understood the appeal of except on a horse). Adolphe Menjou is as shady an operator as his Walter Burns. George Chandler gets out of the elevator (or taxicab) he seemed to operate in every other film he was in. Lynne Overman has a plum role in a big film, and Iris Adrian, Spring Byington, Phil Silvers, Sara Allgood, and William Frawley, all do wonderfully.

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    • I’m amused by that thought of Chandler escaping from the lift or taxi for a change! Great comments on the supporting cast – must agree that they all do wonderfully, and I also like your point about Rogers remembering her gold digger roles. I don’t think I’ve seen George Montgomery in many films – to me he is ok in this, but definitely outshone by Menjou.

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  7. Judy, I hope you can reach this NYRB review of a new book on Fred Astaire and Adele — whom Ginger Rogers substitutes for and than transformed the roles. A wonderful film of her as the warm-hearted ideal heroine is Tom, Dick and Harry. She narrates (quite ilke Beatrice in Dante).

    Rogers does often play the wholesome small town girl, one wittier than usual: the film _Tom Dick and Harry_

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    • Thanks, Ellen – I haven’t seen ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ as yet, but will watch out for it, as I’d definitely like to see more Ginger Rogers. I’d heard about the new book on Fred and Adele Astaire and hope to read it soon – I enjoyed Fred Astaire’s autobiography, which he wrote himself rather than using a ghostwriter so that his personality comes across, but he is quite cagey at times in it.

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  9. Excellent post on one of my favorite Wellman movies. I also enjoy the moment when everyone in the prison spontaneously break out tap-dancing – the sequence is so delightful you don’t even find yourself wondering why everyone is acting like this. The film is chock-full of great character actors such as Phil Silvers, Milton Parsons, Spring Byington, Iris Adrian, and William Frawley (for starters), I could watch it just for them. That said, I thought Menjou’s performance was one of his best – the timing of his scenes with Rogers crackles (and she keeps up with him). One thing Wellman manages to do in this post-Code film is slip in some double-entendre lines that may have whizzed by too fast for the censor to catch (my own favorite is the play on the word “banging” – whether it’s on the door or on the wife is kept ambiguous).

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    • Thanks very much for the kind comment, Grand Old Movies, much appreciated. I think some of those double entendres may have whizzed by too fast for me to catch them, but I’ll listen out next time I revisit the film. Agree on the character actors and also on Rogers and Menjou – they are all great!

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