The case of Chicago's merry murderess comes up before Judge Amanda DeWees. Will Roxie be able to tap-dance her way to a "not guilty" verdict?
"The prettiest woman ever tried for murder in Cook County!"
Decades before John Kander and Fred Ebb created their "musical vaudeville" from the same material, Maurine Watkins's fact-based play "Chicago" formed the basis for this peppy Ginger Rogers vehicle. In some ways the direct ancestor of the 2003 hit Chicago, it contains dialogue, jokes, and entire scenes that would appear in almost identical form in the Rob Marshall film. Nevertheless, Roxie Hart has a number of surprises up its sleeve for those only familiar with the recent film musical, and it's hugely entertaining in its own right.
Facts of the Case
Chicago, 1942. Rain pelts the umbrellas of spectators as police remove a corpse from a crime scene. Veteran newspaper man Homer Howard (George Montgomery) ducks into a bar to call in the story, such as it is: "They don't seem to have the murders these days like they used to," he sighs. Whiskey and nostalgia turn his thoughts back to the grand old days 16 years before, when a long-legged gal named Roxie Hart made headlines…and won his heart.
Chicago, 1926. Sad-sack Amos Hart (George Chandler) has just confessed to shooting an intruder. The cops are delighted to wrap up the case so quickly, but shrewd old journalist Jake Callahan (Lynne Overman) senses that there's more to the story when Hart's wife, Roxie (Rogers), comes sneaking in via the fire escape. When he and theatrical agent E. Clay Benham (Nigel Bruce, Rebecca) describe the boost that a murder trial could give to her aspirations for a job in show business (not to mention their own careers), Roxie claims credit for the shooting.
In a giddy whirl of publicity, abetted by her wily lawyer, Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou, Little Miss Marker), Roxie becomes Chicago's latest celebrity. But the fun takes a darker turn when it begins to look as if Roxie may actually be convicted and hanged—and Roxie realizes that being innocent may be the biggest liability of all.
After winning the Oscar for best actress in 1940 for Kitty Foyle, Ginger Rogers no doubt felt she had proved herself as a serious actress and could move on to lighter fare. Roxie Hart is about as far away as one can get from the earnest soap operatics of Kitty Foyle. Its opening moments establish its tongue-in-cheek tone, with the film's dedication "to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique." Broadly comic, almost freewheeling in its energy and its sometimes over-the-top storytelling style, Roxie Hart is a highly enjoyable retelling of a tale that has become quite familiar to filmgoers since Rob Marshall's recent triumph. Clocking in at a compact 74 minutes, this version leaves out the character of Velma almost entirely, although Roxie engages in a catfight (complete with yowling sound effects) with an unnamed inmate who may be the "Velma Wall" mentioned in the end credits. This version of the story is not a musical, although director William Wellman wisely takes advantage of his star's prowess as a dancer to stop the action for two dance numbers. The first takes place when a member of the press urges Roxie to demonstrate the "Black Bottom" and quickly becomes a giddy ensemble expression of Roaring Twenties energy. Although it takes the movie completely out of the sphere of reality, it's both funny and infectious. Likewise, when Roxie later improvises a tap number on a jailhouse staircase, it's a purely spontaneous outpouring of her buoyant spirit. The witty script by Nunnally Johnson (How to Marry a Millionaire) makes the most of the comic possibilities of the story, packing the fast-paced dialogue with zinger after zinger.
As you will have gathered by now, this is no hard-hitting, gritty take on the real-life crimes that inspired the play "Chicago." Actually, on reflection I'm surprised that no one made this film 10 years earlier, before the Hays Code forced Hollywood to start censoring itself and pretty much obliterated the potential for complexity in films dealing with crime. Before the Code was enforced, films explored criminal behavior in shades of gray, and the guilty parties weren't necessarily brought to justice or even condemned for their actions. After the Code, a movie heroine like Roxie Hart would have to be innocent—as here—or punished for her crime. I was concerned that this film, made under the reactionary auspices of Code requirements, would tame Roxie thoroughly, but the character retains a wonderfully brassy, common demeanor to the end. Her ultimate fate, which I won't disclose here, does attempt to domesticate her, but Roxie never has to apologize for her self-absorption and ambition. Moreover, the fact of Roxie's innocence endows the plot with levels of irony unavailable to more faithful renderings of the source story: Roxie's innocence is not merely irrelevant, but an inconvenience. She and Flynn have to manipulate the system by claiming a guilt that isn't hers. It's a terrific slap at the legal system as well as at the nature of publicity and journalism, but the film is able to get away with it by placing the story in flashback and setting it in "the bad old days." The implication is that things are different now, but the audience knows better.
The satire may not be as stinging as in the recent musical, but it's painted in such broad strokes that I found myself laughing as much in disbelief at the film's audacity as at its (considerable) humor. During the trial, the photographers bring the wheels of so-called justice to a screeching halt every time they see a photo opportunity, charging the witness stand with cameras to capture Roxie's ever-ready smile. The judge, instead of protesting, leaps up to get into the shot with Roxie. As for the jury, all they're interested in is an uninterrupted view of the defendant; I haven't seen such a reaction to a woman's crossing her legs since Basic Instinct. The radio correspondent intones advertising slogans during even the tensest moments. And no matter what else may be happening, Roxie never, ever forgets to make sure the jury can see her knees. Subtle it ain't, folks. But I can't remember the last time a movie made me laugh out loud as often.
As our gum-cracking heroine, Ginger Rogers is ideal. Rogers had a superb gift for playing smart, wisecracking women; see especially her work in the classic ensemble dramedy Stage Door (1937), which also paired her with Adolphe Menjou. Here she plays a surprising variation on that wordly-wise persona: Although Roxie is a bubblehead in many ways, Rogers nevertheless invests her with the sass and survival instinct of her smarter roles. She inhabits Roxie's skin with utter ease. Indeed, although this may sound unkind, the flashy, brassy Roxie, with too much lipstick and too-long fingernails, reminds me a bit of the persona Rogers herself presented in interviews as she aged. There's more to Roxie than flash, though; there is a kind of innocence in her untroubled delight in the perks of her new celebrity, and she can also stop on a dime the moment she senses she should tone down the brass and play the sweet innocent. She may not have made it into show business, but this woman can definitely read an audience. In fact, Roxie's showbiz aspirations aren't the subject of mockery, as we would expect them to be. With Rogers in the role, it comes as no surprise that Roxie is a terrific dancer, even if she lacks class. (It's no accident that our introduction to her character is a shot of those fabulous gams, and the film takes every opportunity to show them off.) Roxie's never going to be a towering intellect, but she's one fun dame. It's easy to understand why Montgomery's character is smitten with her, even though he has no idea what her real agenda is.
Montgomery is perhaps the least charismatic member of the cast, even when he's doing his best Clark Gable impression in the present-day scenes that frame the main story. In flashbacks he is hampered with the unhappy task of being the innocent amid these connivers, but a stronger actor might have been able to make naïveté more interesting. The other members of the ensemble are seasoned movie veterans that the viewer will probably recognize. As Mary Sunshine, Spring Byington is perfectly cast, and Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley) takes a break from dramatic roles in a fun cameo as the prison matron, Mrs. Morton. In her finest moment, she breaks up a catfight between inmates with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency—so that she can get back to reading her newspaper. In the major role of Billy Flynn, Menjou, who played a smooth operator before in Stage Door, is a solid choice. When we first meet the lawyer, we recognize him as a familiar type: Pompous, both eyes on his fee, he likes to hear himself talk. But, as with Roxie, there's more to him than the first impression would suggest. This is a showman who loves the performance for its own sake, not just for the status this case will bring him. In one of a multitude of throwaway moments that enhance the film, Flynn makes sure his hair is artfully mussed before going on stage—er, that is, into the courtroom. There doesn't seem to be any malice in him, even when he is ruthlessly manipulating everyone around him. He and Roxie make a natural team; when she is stricken with terror at the prospect of taking the stand, he knows just what magic word will ease her fear: Ziegfeld. The last time we see him in the film, he is approaching his next client, and the appropriateness of his choice is nothing short of delicious.
Disc extras are quite slim, although it's nice to see not just one but two original trailers. Otherwise, we get a selection of trailers promoting other Fox movies. However, I can't really complain about the lack of goodies when the film itself looks and sounds so terrific. This print must have undergone restoration, although the case insert makes no mention of it. The black-and-white image is simply beautiful, with deep, velvety blacks, a rich range of grays, and exquisite definition. I doubt it looked better on the day it was released. It was also considerate of Fox to offer us both mono and stereo sound, and both options are clear, with no distortion or hiss; the stereo track sounds entirely natural, even though I expected to find it distracting. A lot of love must have gone into the making of this disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There aren't many minuses to this film, but I'll appease my conscience by mentioning a few. Before it finds its footing and attains a nice zippy pace, the story gets off to a creaky start, with initial scenes sometimes going on too long. Roxie's introduction, in particular, is awkward, carrying a wrestling match long past the point of being amusing. Additionally, moviegoers who prefer their satire to resemble the cut of a rapier may find this film's modus operandi closer to a pie in the face. And the ending—well, you'll have to judge for yourself, but I don't think it's consistent with the Roxie we've come to know.
I'm sure Fox released this title ahead of better-known classic movies in an effort to capitalize on the success of Rob Marshall's Chicago. Good for them! Anything that will result in the release of more Ginger Rogers films on DVD is fine by me, especially when the film is as lively and enjoyable as this one. Until we're treated to DVD releases of Bachelor Mother and The Major and the Minor, fans of Rogers as a comedienne can satisfy their cravings with Roxie Hart. Those poor deprived souls who only know Rogers for her dancing partnership with Fred Astaire are in for a treat when they see her as Roxie.
Cook County never sends women to the gallows, so Roxie Hart is emphatically not guilty. However, the court has enjoyed trying her case so much that it hopes she will plug some other poor sap so that it will have the pleasure of trying her again.
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