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.
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.