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Roxie Hart

Roxie Hart(1942)

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Before there was the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002) the film musical, there was, working backwards, a 1975 Broadway musical (with a 1996 smash revival), a 1942 sound film, a 1927 silent film, and a 1925 stage play based on an early-1920s true story. All were titled "Chicago" except for the 1942 film, Roxie Hart, which has been newly issued on DVD by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. And what an issue! Ginger Rogers, fresh off her Oscar® win for Kitty Foyle (1940), turned in one of her greatest performances as Roxie, the showgirl who confesses to murder for the publicity and is defended by star lawyer Billy Flynn.

The essential story of Roxie Hart is the same as all the others, but there are a few differences. There is no character named Velma, though there is another female prison inmate, not used too much, who is modeled after her. The most major difference, that Roxie is actually innocent, was made in order to appease the censors. Nonetheless, Roxie Hart is pretty racy, especially considering it is not a pre-Code movie. (And what a pre-Code movie it might have been!) It still sends up the judicial process and the media in a masterfully satirical manner. The relevance of these issues to present-day American society helped make Chicago (2002) a hit, and it makes Roxie Hart just as relevant and un-dated.

With the presence of Ginger Rogers and the later success of the property as a musical, one might well assume that Roxie Hart is a musical. It's not, though it does have two quasi-dance numbers. The first, a jailhouse charleston, is "unreal" enough to not really belong in the world of this story, but it's so enjoyable and infectious that no one will mind. Rogers dances superbly, of course, and a bit later on, she does a little tap number on a metal prison staircase which is short, simple, and stunning.

Rogers is riveting throughout, brimming with energy and spunk and even chewing bubblegum with more abandon than one would think possible. You can't take your eyes off her, which really is the definition of a movie star. Her abilities as a comedienne have often been overshadowed by her dancing prowess, which is understandable, but take a look at Roxie Hart, The Major and the Minor (1942) and Bachelor Mother (1939), and get an idea of what she could do when she wasn't dancing.

Roxie Hart has a somewhat theatrical feel, belying its stage origins, but it moves right along thanks to breezy direction by William Wellman. He milks the story for all the wit and cynicism he can, setting the tone perfectly with an on-screen prologue that reads: "This picture is dedicated to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique."

The supporting cast is strong, with George Montogmery as a reporter remembering the tale and trying to help Roxie, Adolphe Menjou as a too-old but still effective Billy Flynn, and Sara Allgood as the prison warden. Astute movie watchers will recognize Allgood as Beth Morgan from How Green Was My Valley. Here, in a 180-degree turn from that John Ford classic, she has a wonderful moment in which she breaks up a hissing, snarling catfight between Ginger Rogers and another inmate so that she can get back to reading her paper - one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

The DVD of Roxie Hart boasts a very good transfer, crisp and clean. The only extras are two trailers, both of which are fun viewing and give a fine sense of the outrageous tongue-in-cheek tone of the picture. Use the language feature to choose between mono and a stereo sound (an option which is not mentioned on the box cover). I thought the mono sounded better.

To order Roxie Hart, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold