Overture/All That Jazz
Darling Readers, Liz from Now Voyaging is hosting a blogathon celebrating William Wellman, a great American Director! Visit Liz’s blog, and read all the other great entries!
Prior to this event, I had not seen Roxie Hart. While I love Chicago (this film’s musical adaptation), I cannot imagine Ginger Rogers as Roxie Hart. All I could picture was Ginger Rogers with a gun and Ann Reinking’s raspy voice, “Don’t Sweetheart me, you son of a b****!” Ginger Rogers can play many roles, but a pistol-packing adulterer isn’t the first that comes to mind.
So with trepidation, I watched the film and was pleasantly surprised. I did not expect a light, sparkly slapstick comedy tinged with biting satire, but the film certainly delivered! While Roxie Hart lacks Chicago‘s sultry jazz mood, it is corny, campy and enjoyable!
On a dark rainy night Homer Howard, reporter (George Montgomery), arrives at a bar and reminisces about, “Roxie Hart the prettiest woman ever tried for murder in Cook County”. When a talent agent, Fred Casely, is found dead in Amos (George Chandler) and Roxie Hart’s apartment, Amos confesses. Casely’s partner Benham (Nigel Bruce) convinces Roxie the publicity will do wonders for her dance career if she takes the rap for the murder. Hot-shot defense attorney Billy Flynn (Menjou) coaches and defends Roxie. Roxie enjoys notoriety’s limelight until a new inmate arrives.
Meanwhile, Cook County is clamoring for equality for both sexes, including equal sentencing, and has secured a hanging judge for her trial. Roxie hatches a scheme, telling the press she’s pregnant and regaining the press’s attention. Through Flynn’s cunning Roxie is exonerated. Eventually, Roxie settles down and marries Homer.
(Not So) Funny Honey
Cell Block Tango
Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote the stage play Chicago in 1926. In 1927, the first film version Chicago was made. Bob Fosse directed the Kander & Ebb musical Chicago in 1975, starring Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach. Fosse’s experiences during the production inspired his 1979 film All That Jazz. In 1996, it was revived on Broadway with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, and Joel Grey and the production with a rotating cast has run for the past 19 years. In 2002, it was re-adapted with Rob Marshall’s 2002 film Chicago. Suffice to say, this story is one that has been around the block, a few times.
When You’re Good to Mama
In New Masses, critic Joy Davidman describes the film as “the fantastic twenties at their funniest”. Later she describes the film, “Brilliant use has been made of understatement and suggestion, too; the actors begin gestures which the spectator’s mind completes; you are never told anything which you can guess. The film respects the intelligence of its audience, and is thus enabled never to waste a moment. Perhaps the cutting room, an essential part of film-making too often overlooked in reviews, deserves special credit for the smoothness and suspense of Roxie Hart.”
All I Care About
New York Times Critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “this is a most unsuitable time to be calling to mind the follies, the court-room circuses and vulgarities of this brashly eccentric nation”.
An unsuitable time indeed, Roxie Hart opened on February 20, 1942. A mere ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. On February 19th, the day before the film opened, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 forcing the relocation of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast into internment camps.
Roxie Hart‘s nostalgia for “real” murder with lines like, “we haven’t had a real good juicy murder story in this town since the Democrats got hold of the country” is ill-timed when real tragedies happen daily.
Consider the film in comparison to other films from 1942: For Me and My Gal, Mrs. Miniver, Yankee Doodle Dandy, March On, America!, Salute John Citizen. Hollywood supported the war effort making patriotic films and films extolling American values. Roxie Hart is out of place.
A Little Bit of Good
But it was clear the studio was mindful of current events and sought to correct the picture. AFI’s website states, the film went “back into production for a new ending. According to the news item, producer Nunnally Johnson ‘decided on a different tag after seeing the rough cut.’ Rogers and George Montgomery were to be included in the different ending. It has not been determined what the original ending was.”
On YouTube, there is a video of Rogers performing the Charleston for a well-dressed crowd. It is a scene removed from the film Roxie Hart.
Roxie’s dress resembles the dresses Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger wore in the finale of Rob Marshall’s 2002 Chicago.
I imagine in the original ending, Roxie capitalized on her notoriety and became famous. And Homer merely sees Roxie from afar. It is the only ending that makes sense.
Press Conference Rag (We Both Reached for the Gun)
Roxie’s press conference is enjoyable, as she demonstrates her “Black Bottom” dance and the press join in.
Here is a blurry clip:
Ginger Rogers does an excellent job as Roxie Hart. She’s a fast-talking, gum chewing, headbutting firecracker!
I Can’t Do It Alone
The film features several brilliant character actors, a strong ensemble cast including Willian Frawley (O’Malley), Phil Silvers (Babe) and Spring Byington (Mary Sunshine). Sadly, Matron Mama Morton’s role is reduced to an apathetic featured extra in this version.
My Own Best Friend
But where the heck is Velma Kelly (aka the best character in Chicago)? In this version, Velma Wall (Helene Reynolds) is Roxie’s prison rival. Reynolds is fabulous in her one and only scene.
She and Roxie have a cat fight complete with cat sounds!
The scene is silly, but I love it.
I Know a Girl
As it turns out, Iris played over 160 roles in television and film. She was a great ‘Two-Gun’ Gertie, in the future, I will watch for her!
Me and My Baby
Adding the character Homer as a love interest for Roxie no doubt whitewashed a lurid story to pass the Hays Code. In my opinion, the adding a love interest lessens Roxie’s morality. Now Roxie willingly confesses to murder, solely for publicity. She has no desire to see Amos while in prison, therefore no part of her actions are motivated by love for Amos. While she quickly falls in love with Homer when the press loses interest in her story, later after she is found innocent, she quickly drops Homer for an elderly man with a Packard!
The film ends with her married to Homer. She symbolically embraces the American idealized life the film so blatantly snubs. The new ending softened the film’s cynicism for 1942 audiences. This journey is confusing. Celebrity is not her motivator. Her unclear motives in Wellman’s film leave the character grasping at any form of attention at any cost.
In other adaptations, Amos is the moral character, a nice guy, and a good husband in a bad situation. In Wellman’s film, Amos kills Casley and stands aside while his wife goes to prison for his murder. Now, he is no better than Roxie. Amos is still nice, and we still feel sorry for him, but only just a little bit.
According to the book Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel, George Chandler worked in twenty-two of Wellman’s films!
When Velma Roxie Takes the Stand
The court is mayhem, an utter circus! The press stops proceedings for photo-ops, the judge leaves the bench to get in the photo, Billy Flynn mouths Roxie’s testimony, radio advertisements occur between testimony, and Roxie controls the jury with her hemline.
ROXIE. You said slump, didn’t you?
FLYNN. But gently, delicately, like a lady. You were going on like a sea lion.
Excerpt from the American Film Institute, “When the studio sent its 19 Jul 1941 version of the script, entitled Chicago Gal*, to the PCA**, the PCA rejected the script because ‘the story seems to be a travesty on the administration of justice and on the courts in this country which would undoubtedly tend to weaken respect for law and order generally.’ The PCA objected to the characters, notably ‘Roxie Hart’ and ‘Billy Flynn,’ committing perjury and subornation of perjury; the script ‘condoning, if not glorifying, female murderesses, and of minimizing the seriousness of the crime of homicide’; and wondered ‘whether this picture will not be considered an attack on American institutions and way of life, and, if so taken, will not inevitably call down condemnation on the whole motion picture industry.’ Subsequent versions of the script were approved by the PCA, although the studio was repeatedly cautioned not to make the judge and court process in general objects of ridicule.”
The courtroom scene is comic chaos, clearly, Wellman’s film ignored the PCA’s warning.
*The original working title.
**PCA- Production Code Administration.
Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag
While the film’s content is dated, it’s basic messages are as relevant today as they were in 1942. The media continues to confuse fame with notoriety, media consumers still want a juicy story, a scandal, and journalists tweak a story or lead with attention-getting titles. These things still have not changed about American society, if you doubt me I have only one word for you, Kardashian. What has this family done to become a household name? Roxie Hart resonates with audiences perhaps better today than during the culturally sensitive 1942 because we are un-phased by notorious people grasping at fame.
Roxie Hart is ideal for our era, a jaded and cynical story about an attention starved starlet is a better choice for a world flooded with reality television “stars”.
Stanley Kubrick lists Roxie Hart in his top ten favorite films (his other films include Citizen Kane, City Lights and The Treasure of Sierra Madre).
Finale/All That Jazz (Reprise)
I take no credit for this post’s organization. I grabbed my Chicago Soundtrack CD flipped it over and let the song titles organize this post.
You can watch Roxie Hart online here!
Ciao for now my darlings!
Wellman, William, Jr. Wild Bill Wellman: An American Rebel. Pantheon Books, New York. 2015. Print.