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"The Low-Down Story of a High-Class Gal" read the tagline for Roxie Hart (1942), an adaptation of Maurine Dallas Watkins' play, Chicago, which opened at the Music Box Theater on December 30, 1926. The story was based on Watkins' real-life experience as a reporter on the Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner trials in 1924. Both women were accused of killing their lovers and both were acquitted, with Watkins swaying public opinion when she wrote a story falsely claiming that Annan was pregnant. In later years, Watkins apparently had her doubts about their innocence.
Roxie Hart was not the first screen adaptation of Watkins' play; a silent film had been produced in 1927, starring Phyllis Haver. With the censors still ruling what filmmakers could put on the screen, the story had to be toned down for the 1942 Twentieth Century-Fox film. The original play had Roxie as an adulteress and killer, who tried to pin the rap on her husband. Now, director William Wellman and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had to change the plot so that Roxie couldn't be the killer. Instead, she takes the rap for a murder committed by her husband (George Chandler) because her agent (played by Lynne Overman) tells her it will jumpstart her stage career. During the trial, Roxie is defended by wily lawyer Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), who uses her physical charms to gain the sympathies of both the jury and the press, including reporter Homer Howard (George Montgomery).
The role of Roxie Hart had been intended for Fox's own star Alice Faye, but Faye, who had married radio star and bandleader Phil Harris in 1940, became pregnant with her first child. Ginger Rogers, who had become a top star at RKO in her films with Fred Astaire, had recently renewed her contract, which gave her the right to appear in any film she chose and the right to work for other studios. When Roxie Hart became available at Fox, she took the role. The film was shot on the Fox lot in West Los Angeles from late October to early December 1941, with principal production ending the day before Pearl Harbor, Saturday, December 6th. Retakes were shot on January 2, 1942.
Rogers wrote in her autobiography that although Roxie Hart was not technically a musical, she felt that there needed to be scenes of her tap dancing, since Roxie was a dancer. To choreograph these scenes, she chose her close friend and frequent collaborator, Hermes Pan, who had choreographed her films with Fred Astaire. Rogers wanted her dance numbers to blend in seamlessly, although a scene of her dancing the Charleston was cut from the final film, but can be seen in outtakes. Rogers was particularly fond of a number that she suggested: A moment when Roxie was on a flight of stairs. "I'd always wanted to do taps on a metal staircase, because I knew the taps would have a good, resounding sound. Twentieth Century-Fox didn't have a metal staircase on hand and had to go to a good deal of trouble to locate one. It was finally found in the wreckage from a demolished building in downtown Los Angeles. It was worth the effort; the tap sequence was pure joy to do and, I'm happy to say, a pure joy to watch."
When the film was released on February 20, 1942, the critics were mixed as to how much joy they got from watching Roxie Hart. Variety wrote that "Ginger Rogers does well for a girl who is dazzled by the sudden attention, but seems to overdo her characterization at several points." The often curmudgeonly New York Times critic Bosley Crowther stayed true to form when he complained that "It is simply a ribald wallow in the cheapness of an ugly phase of life. And although Mr. Johnson, the producer as well as the writer of the film, has endeavored to give it an aura of sentiment by telling it in flashback, it still is a trashy story without any immediate pertinence to life." Regardless of what the critics said, Ginger Rogers had the last laugh when she received the 1942 National Board of Review award for her acting in this film and The Major and the Minor.
After Roxie Hart was released, creator Maurine Watkins let the property fade away, shunning offers for remakes or adaptations. Reportedly, she was uncomfortable with the fact that she had glorified murderers. After her death in 1969, legendary stage director Bob Fosse turned the story into the 1975 musical Chicago, starring Gwen Verdon. Verdon had wanted to star in a stage musical version of the story ever since she saw Roxie Hart as a sixteen-year-old. The play was revived in 1996, which led to the 2002 film starring Richard Gere and Rene Zellweger.
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