Wednesday March 15, 2023
Movie Review: Chicago (1927)
To the obvious question: How does it differ from the musical?
For one, Velma Kelly (Julia Faye) is barely in it—maybe five minutes. She calls Roxie “Peroxide” and the two get into a catfight until the female jailkeeper finally pulls them apart with a good line: “This is a decent jail—you can’t act here the way you do at home!” And that’s pretty much it for Velma. No second act. No “All That Jazz” or “Nowadays.”
Meanwhile, Amos Hart (Victor Varconi), Mr. Cellophane, might have a bigger part than Roxie herself. He’s the film’s sad-eyed moral authority.
But I’d say the biggest difference is this: We never really root for Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver). She’s just too awful.
Last year’s hat
Why? Why do we root for Roxie in the longrunning Broadway musical, and in the 2002 best picture winner, but not here?
“Chicago” is based on a real incident—the murder of Harry Kalstedt by Beulah Annan in 1924. They were lovers, he was leaving her, so Beulah shot him in the back and then listened to a phonograph record, “Hula Lou,” for several hours before phoning her hapless husband, Albert, and crying burglar/rape. With the help of a high-priced lawyer, paid for by Amos, and a yellow press touting her as the most beautiful murderess in America, she was acquitted. Immediately afterwards, she dumped Amos and married another guy. A few years later, age 28, she died of tuberculosis.
In 1926, Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered the trial for The Chicago Tribune, turned the story into a play, “Chicago,” and Beulah became Roxie Hart. Much of Watkins' drama played out as in life. She got away with it, she wasn’t sorry, justice didn’t prevail.
This 1927 silent film toes that line except she’s made to pay a little.
It opens on the Harts’ bedroom with its separate beds. I’m curious if this was a Production Code thing—fairly toothless in the 1920s—or a comment on their hapless marriage. Either way, Amos rises, looks lovingly at Roxie, then notices the underwear and high heels strewn on the floor. He gives a loving “Oh, you” look before picking things up. In the kitchen, he sees all the dirty dishes in the sink, shakes his head (it’s less “Oh, you” now), but still rolls up his sleeves. Then he serves Roxie breakfast in bed before going off to work.
Roxie can't stand him.
In real life, the man was a mechanic; here he runs a tobacco shop. One customer, an Al Capone-looking mug named Rodney Casley (the gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette, our future Friar Tuck), says he’s going to give his girl “the air”—i.e., dump her—and hey, he just happens to have the same kind of garter-with-a-bell-attached that Roxie wears. Does Casley know he’s talking to the man he’s cuckolding? I didn’t get that sense. It’s just happenstance. Either way, Casley visits Roxie, they fight over her spendthrift ways, he’s about to leave her, blam blam. And the player piano plays on.
When she calls Amos home, he recognizes his former customer, and, despite her line about a burglar/would-be rapist, begins to suspect her of both infidelity and murder. At the same time, he’s still willing to take the fall. When the law comes, he says he did it. Except the DA is suspicious, gets them in separate rooms, and he tells Roxie her husband pinned the blame on her. She runs into the next room and berates him: “You swore you’d stick!” A second later, she realizes she’s been had. “You couldn’t even trust the man who loves you,” sad-faced Amos tells her.
How scared is Roxie at this point? Not as scared as Renee Zellwegger would be in 2002. Mostly, she's just excited seeing her name in headlines.
Amos: Do you realize that you just killed a man? Are you even sorry?
Roxie: You’re just sore ‘cause I’m getting all the publicity!
Much of the middle of the movie is taken up by Billy Flynn (Robert Edeson): How to get him, how to pay for him, his efforts to keep Roxie in line. He has a good early line when she tries to bullshit him: “I’m not your husband—I’m your lawyer!” But he costs 5,000 smackers. In advance. So Amos: 1) empties his savings; 2) takes a loan on his life insurance; 3) pawns his valuables. That’s $2,500. Flynn refuses it. “Installments?” he says. “You must think you’re buying a Ford!” So Amos turns to crime. He smears grease on his face and robs ... Billy Flynn.
At trial, Flynn dresses up Roxie as an innocent and keeps reminding her to droop. Amos kills it on the stand:
DA: [brandishing negligee] Do you consider this proper attire for a married woman receiving a man visitor?
Amos: [after long pause] I consider as proof that his call was unexpected and unwelcome!
The jury takes four hours to acquit her. She’s free … and famous! Ah, but then the comeuppance. Almost immediately “Two-Gun Rosie” starts shooting up a different courtroom and all the attention goes to her. When Roxie complains, a reporter tells her, “Sister, you’re yesterday’s news and that’s deader than last year’s hat!”
Life sure moved fast 100 years ago.
Oh right, the subplot.
Two mugs show up looking for the money Amos stole from Flynn and accidentally knock over the potted plant where the rest of it—$2,500—has been stashed. But a nice maid, Katie (Virginia Bradford), to whom Amos had shown kindness, finds it and hides it. When they try to shake down Amos, wondering where his Ingersoll watch is—though what this proves I don’t know—she comes to the rescue, pretending her Ingersoll (which she got with coupons he provided) is his. And the men leave scratching their heads.
So there’s karma in this version. Amos’ good deed with the maid saves him. And Roxie’s wicked ways with everyone doom her. She winds up in the rain, where the headlines about her—the thing she cares most about in the world—are literally washed away into a storm drain.
I’d like to read the original play someday. The mass-media age was just beginning, but fame was already this huge lure, and there were plenty of moths. The play nails that—that fear that you don’t exist unless you exist in the public sphere. You could almost draw a straight line between Roxie and the various influencers and Kardashians today.
Anyway, to the question I asked at the top: Why do we root for Roxie in the musical but not here?
It’s partly when the stories were crafted. In the musical, created in aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, you’re either on the make (Roxie, etc.) or being made (Amos), and who wouldn’t rather be the former? It was the age of antiheroes. Life’s a great gag, baby, get everything out of it you can. Plus the deck is already stacked against women. Men? They had it coming. I think that’s part of it.
There’s also proximity to the original awful crime. The further away we are from it, the more we can fictionalize it, the less it matters.
But I think the biggest reason may be this: The 1975 musical and 2002 film were written by men (Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb; Bill Condon), while the 1926 play and the 1927 movie were written by women (Watkins; Lenore J. Coffee). And women know how awful women can be. Why, given a chance, they could be almost as bad as men.
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