Roxie the First: Chicago in the Roaring Twenties

Chicago (1927) (Flicker Alley) is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille’s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.

Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart
Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart

Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone else—from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.—simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.

Equal parts salacious sex comedy, broad social satire and snappy indictment of tabloid reporting and the public fascinated by such sideshow attractions, this production harkens back to the sophisticated sex comedies that DeMille specialized in from the late teens to the early twenties. Apart from the sheer salaciousness of Roxie and her wanton ways, the film turns the jailhouse scenes, where Roxie is the reigning the cellblock celebrity, into a burlesque spectacle of leggy beauties in garter and lingerie, with girl fights in place of musical numbers. In place of the charming con-man of a celebrity shyster that the musical makes of Flynn is a veritable gangster who uses his influence to extort clients and criminals. Even the jurors are corruptible, too obsessed with Roxie’s leggy beauty and coy flirtations to concern themselves with such details as evidence or justice.

Though DeMille didn’t take credit (he only takes a “Supervision by” credit with Frank Urson as credited director), his fingerprints are all over the production, a handsomely mounted film filled with perfectly crafted imagery and scandalously salacious behavior. It takes some odd turns (a brazen theft feels out of place and was dropped in subsequent incarnations) but is otherwise perfectly cynical and marvelously entertaining. He was certainly a director who knew how to marry sex and showmanship and they come together perfectly here: he allows the audience to revel in the decadence before properly condemning it all.

The fictional Roxie Hart was based on a real-life Chicago murderess, or rather a few of them, though one in particular served as Watkins’ primary model: Mrs. Beulah Annon, a married woman who was cheating on her husband and shot her lover dead, telling her husband that he was a burglar. The truth quickly unraveled and she all but confessed, but the coverage gave her a notoriety fanned the flames of the pubic interest. Adding details from a few other cases and setting it against a backdrop of yellow journalism and sensationalism, it satirized the killer, the legal system and the media equally. That story is brought out in the supplements of the two-disc Flicker Alley DVD, in the original visual essay Chicago: The Real-Life Roxie Hart, an eight-minute original piece that features stills and reprints of original newspaper articles and an audio dramatization of an edited version of her testimony from the court transcript. The set also features two archival documentaries: the hour-long The Golden Twenties from 1950, produced by newsreel veteran Louis de Rochement, and the 1985 The Flapper Story, a half hour survey built around first-person remembrances with elderly women recalling their days in the twenties; their frankness is refreshing.

The Flicker Alley DVD, produced by Jeffery Masino and David Shepard, is mastered from a near-perfect archival print from the DeMille estate at 25 frames-per-second. Rodney Sauer (guided by the original cue sheet) prepared the compilation score that he performs with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a lively small combo arrangement that serves the film well. Also features a booklet with essays on the real-life inspiration and background to the play, DeMille’s involvement in the production and notes on the score.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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