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Chicago

Chicago(1928)

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Before jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart strutted her stuff in the 2002 movie musical Chicago, on Broadway in the 1975 Bob Fosse-directed musical or even in the 1942 film comedy Roxie Hart directed by William Wellman, this roaring twenties wild child was the terrifically tawdry main character of a 1926 Broadway comedy by Maurine Dallas Watkins and a 1927 silent film produced by Cecil B. DeMille.

Phyllis Haver, a former Mack Sennet Bathing Beauty turned twenties sex symbol, is Roxie, a brassy, bleached blond jazz baby married to an adoring, hard-working husband while making time with a wealthy lover (Eugene Palette, the thirties comic character actor who, in the silent era, was generally relegated to heavies). She's too expensive for his blood but she doesn't take getting jilted lightly and plugs him. The sequence is a model of silent movie artistry, opening with the playfully lurid naughtiness of their affair and her teasing flirtations while dressed in a negligee and robe (the kind of sexual suggestion that thrived in the pre-code era), veering into brutality when he roughly pushes her aside and then building to the explosive fury of the murder, which blasts through the film via the ingenious and evocative visual suggestion of a shattered mirror. The hole and cobweb shatter across the glass becomes both the symbol of the killing and a reminder of the act hanging over Roxie.

The familiar musical version of the story plays Amos into a schlub and a sap, the slow-witted innocent used and dumped by Roxie. Here he's a straight shooter who dotes on Roxie and stands by her loyally even as the revelation of her mercenary nature shatters all of his illusions. Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode, is the only real hero of the piece, and if he's initially blinded to her tawdry nature by his unconditional love, he has no illusions after watching her play up to the media, basking in the notoriety and playing the victim on the stand as she acts out a parody of a D.W. Griffith heroine.

Roxie isn't alone in her mercenary moves. The D.A. sees a big, splashy case that will make his name. The reporters see a chance to crank a lowly lover's spat murder into front page headlines: "Chicago's Most Beautiful Murderess," they pitch to Roxie, and she plays along for the tawdry glamour of the attention. Her attorney, celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn (Robert Edeson), is simply in it for the money. The victim (no innocent himself) is forgotten while everyone turns the crime into an ongoing soap opera played out in the papers. Everyone except Amos, who nonetheless gets caught up in various shenanigans including a robbery that, while adding a little dramatic excitement and tension, feels oddly out of place here and was dropped from subsequent versions of the story. The film satirizes practically every character onscreen but Amos, who is given a scuffed dignity and respectful treatment that keeps him from slipping into the role of victim.

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.

The original Chicago is tremendously entertaining, with all sex and corruption of the best of the pre-code sound films and the cinematic gracefulness of the peak of the silent era. DeMille's regular crew-including cinematographer J. Peverell Marley, art director (and future director in his own right) Mitchell Leisen and costume designer Adrian-gives the film the polish of his best productions. But by 1927 DeMille was known for historical epics and, most recently, the Biblical pageant The King of Kings. For all the box-office potential of the project, he didn't want his high-minded epic tainted by his involvement in something so cheerfully salacious. Frank Urson, a DeMille company veteran who had both directed DeMille productions and served as assistant director on DeMille's epics, including The King of Kings, is the credited director. DeMille only takes a "Supervision by" credit but his fingerprints are all over the film and historian Robert S. Birchard notes that DeMille personally directed numerous scenes, including eleven days of retakes. 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.

Chicago was thought to be lost until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille's private collection. The print was in near perfect shape and subsequently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2006. The print and transfer on this disc, produced by Jeffery Masino and David Shepard and mastered at 25 frames per second, is excellent: clean, sharp and free of damage. 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. (An essay by Sauer in the accompanying booklet helpfully goes into detail on his process and choices.)

Before she wrote the play Chicago, Maurine Dallas Watkins was a reporter on Chicago's police beat who turned her coverage of female killers into sensationalistic articles. She based her fictional Roxie Hart on the crimes and criminals she covered, in particular the case of Mrs. Beulah Annon, a young married woman of indeterminate scruples who shot her lover and told her husband that he was a burglar. Annon's story is outlined 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 two-disc set also features two archival documentaries: the hour-long The Golden Twenties from 1950, a moderately interesting production from newsreel veteran Louis de Rochement, and the 1985 The Flapper Story, a half hour survey of the very specific sexual revolution of the 1920s that is most interesting for the numerous interviews with middle-aged and retired women recalling their experiences with the new freedoms for young women in the era. There is also a booklet with essays on the real-life inspiration and background to the play and DeMille's involvement in the production.

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by Sean Axmaker