An A team of acting and technical talent bring their A game to Roxie Hart, the tale of an innocent woman who pleads guilty to a murder in the hope that it’ll further her stage career.
The law as an extension of showbusiness, the corrupting effect of the media, never mind the 21st century, this was made in 1942, and retells the true story of murderous Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were renamed Roxie and Velma by journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins when she decided to turn some wildly successful newspaper reporting into a 1926 stage play called Chicago. And that’s the way Roxie and Velma remained, as the play became first a silent movie in 1927, before morphing into Roxie Hart, reverting back to Chicago when it became a smash-hit stage musical in 1975, which in turn went on to become an Oscar-winning film in 2002.
Though the story is told in flashback to the mid/late 1920s, the mood is 1930s screwball, the pre-Code 1930s of risqué material, crime going unpunished and sex on tap.
“This pictures is dedicated to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique,” a title card tells us right up front, before several newspaper front pages make clear that Chicago back in those days was the sort of town where a pretty girl was never found guilty of murder.
Enter goodtime girl Roxie Hart (Ginger Rogers), who may or may not have killed a man, but is persuaded by a newspaperman in search of a good story, and a shyster lawyer who specialises in high-profile cases, to say that she did. Meanwhile, as the media storm builds around her, Roxie’s meek, dim husband is spun this way and that by fast-moving events, events which don’t phase Roxie at all, who may be many things, but stupid isn’t one of them.
She goes to jail, where she is treated like royalty, meets Velma (Helene Reynolds), who is otherwise written out of this story, and ends up in court where, her legs flashing at the jury, she and lawyer Billy Flynn flip reality this way and that as the justice system tries to pick the truth from the web of lies that the two of them are spinning.
It’s not a musical but there are a couple of musical numbers, one an ensemble version of The Black Bottom, a popular 1920s tune, the other a showcase for Rogers’s tap-dancing skills, choreographed by Hermes Pan, who did all the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films as well.
As said, it’s an A team on their A game. Rogers twinkles away, chewing gum and a fair bit of the scenery in a larger than life role. Adolphe Menjou makes an excellently mendacious Billy Flynn, getting some of the film’s funniest laughs, while Lynne Overman also hits all the right notes as Jake Callahan, an old hack to his fingertips and a guy who’ll do anything for a good story.
It’s a really good cast all the way down – William Frawley (as a key jury member), Phil Silvers (as a newspaper photographer and already fully the ducking, diving, fast-talking Sergeant Bilko character he’d later play on TV), George Chandler as Roxie’s sad sack of a husband. Nigel Bruce as Roxie’s unscrupulous agent fares slightly less well, and George Montgomery comes out of it least well as the handsome, bland rookie journalist through whose eyes we see it all.
Former journalist Nunnally Johnson wrote the script fizzing with great lines – “sex appeal rises from him like a cloud of steam” says journo Jake about Billy Flynn at one point (Ben Hecht also made some uncredited additions, so that might be one of his). The versatile William Wellman directs with concision and the great cinematographer Leon Shamroy makes it look crisp and bright and full of life. The score is by Alfred Newman, who was nominated for Oscars 45 times in a long career which saw him win nine. (He also wrote that 20th Century Fox ident fanfare FYI.)
It is a classic of writing, craft and playing is what I’m trying to say. Hard to beat, and waaaaay ahead of 2002’s Chicago, which galumphs in comparison. And at only one hour 14 minutes long, it’s also a real wonder of fast and furious film-making. Watch it and marvel at how they all do it.
Roxie Hart – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2022