Stage To Screen: Chicago

Wikipedia

A year or two ago my friend Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews fame asked if I would review one of her favorite movies, 2002’s Chicago, and I wanted to, but I kept putting it off and putting it off.

Now the time has finally arrived, and I’m not only going to review Chicago but give it the Stage To Screen treatment. Off we go…

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If anyone isn’t familiar with the film’s plot, it’s this: Married woman Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) dreams of being in show business, and the furniture guy she’s been having an affair with promises to get her an audition with some contact he has at a local nightclub. Roxie hasn’t been anywhere in show business except the chorus, but she idolizes star Velma Kelly (Catherin Zeta-Jones) and wants to be her.

Well, Fred lied. He has no showbiz contact. He just told Roxie he did to get her into bed. Roxy might have taken the news better except that Fred also starts batting her around, and one night after a tryst she shoots her paramour dead. Roxie finds herself in jail with–what a coinkidink–Velma, who, along with a host of other women inmates, justifies her homicide by saying, “He Had It Coming.” In Velma’s case, she caught her sister and husband in bed together.

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Roxie knows if she’s found guilty she’ll be hanged, and prison matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) advises her to hire Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) as her lawyer. He’s not cheap. He’s not exactly above the board. He’ll follow whoever dangles the biggest carrot. But he’ll get the job done and he’ll do it in style.

Velma watches all of this with a calculating eye. She’s already got Billy Flynn in her corner, but she knows she’s not the flavor of the month anymore, even if she is a star. However, she’s not beaten yet. The show must go on.

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The real Roxie Hart, Beulah May Annan. (Chicagology)

The origins of Roxie and Velma began way before the 2002 movie or even the Broadway show it’s based on. According to TCM, the show started life as a straight-up play originally titled Brave Little Women. It was authored by journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins, who, in 1924, covered the trials of housewife Beulah May Annan and cabaret singer-turned-socialite Belva Gaertner. Both were married women who shot their paramours yet still walked despite obviously having committed the crimes, and both became instant celebrities.

Of course, the real stories were tweaked slightly. Unlike Roxie, Beulah’s shots didn’t instantly kill their target; Harry Kalstedt spent hours dying while Beulah played “Hula Lou” on a record player and knocked back several drinks. Then she called her second husband, mechanic Albert Annan and told her Kalstedt had tried to rape her, but they both reached for a gun at the same time. Annan stood by his wife, paying for her defense out of his life savings, only to be left by Beulah as soon as she was acquitted. Heh. That’s gratitude.

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Belva Gaertner during her trial. (Women You Should Know)

Belva Gaertner, on the other hand, was a former cabaret singer who had married and divorced a millionaire but who still liked to party. One night she shot her married boyfriend, Walter Law, after repeated attempts by Law to leave the relationship. Belva’s story was that she got so drunk she didn’t remember what happened, just that Law fell against her and she was covered with his blood. Likely story, right?

Belva and Beulah, who met in prison, employed what’s called the “fashion defense.” They set up a clandestine beauty school, where they made themselves and their fellow inmates look as pretty as possible because no jury would convict a pretty woman. At least, that’s what they hoped, and it’s very likely they wanted to avoid the fate of Sabella Nitti, who had been hanged the year before. The papers, and Watkins’s articles in particular, played up Beulah and Belva’s beauty, making them sound like movie stars who just happened to be on trial.

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Maurine Dallas Watkins (Fran Becque)

(Incidentally, beauty behind bars is still a thing to this day, but for different reasons.)

The fashion defense worked, and the women went their separate ways. Beulah married a former boxer and died of tuberculosis, while Belva remarried William Gaertner, and after his death moved in with her sister in Pasadena, where she lived quietly until her own death at the age of eighty.

Watkins’s play, the title of which was soon changed to Chicago, incorporated Beulah and Belva’s actual words, but it changed the names because the majority of the people involved were still alive. Watkins even worked herself into the proceedings via a character called Mary Sunshine. Chicago opened at the Music Box Theatre on December 30, 1926. and ran for 172 performances, closing on May 28, 1927.

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Wikipedia

As with any hot property, Hollywood snapped up the rights, and Chicago came to the screen for the first time in 1927 with Cecil B. DeMille filling the director’s chair. Thought lost until a print was discovered in 2006, it sticks pretty closely to the original play except that Amos has more of a backbone. The film was a tremendous success and would have put DeMille on the map if he had received director’s credit.

Roxie and Velma’s next feature film was 1942’s Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers. Well, sort of. Velma’s just one of the crowd here, with the focus on the title character, and Adolph Menjou is an improbably elderly Billy Flynn. Unlike the earlier film, Roxie Hart has musical numbers, with a lot of spirited Charlestons and tap-dancing, even in the unwaveringly sober prison environment (See a clip here).

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Also unlike the earlier film, Watkins’s original story had to be changed because the Hayes Code forbid the glorification of murder and infidelity. Instead of shooting her cheating husband and wayward sister, Roxie is only accused of murder. Her motives are still less than honorable, though–she thinks a big media circus will help her showbiz career.

Sometimes Roxie gets a little too dumbly on-the-nose: There’s a catfight between Roxie and Velma that has actual cat sounds playing over it. Groan. It plays too many cheap tricks on one’s credibility. And it obscures the murder aspect to the point that it’s hard to care about anything that happens. The movie is not without its charms though; in fact, it can be fun, albeit dated, and Ginger Rogers’ performance is not at all what fans would expect of her. She’s sassy, sleazy, and flirty, chomping on gum in every scene and wearing a really unflattering perm.

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It would take roughly thirty years for Chicago to go back to its roots, and Bob Fosse was next in line to adapt Watkins’s play for the stage. Watkins said no, though, so Fosse waited around until Watkins died in 1969 before he started work on a collaboration with John Kander and Fred Ebb, a songwriting team who had already scored massive hits with Flora, the Red Menace and Cabaret. Finally, we had “All That Jazz” and “I Can’t Do It Alone.”

Combining Kander and Ebb’s songs with Fosse’s choreography and direction seems like a sure recipe for success, right? Nope. The show flopped, despite a healthy run of 936 performances, a great cast and an armload of Tony nominations. Part of it was because the show’s constant breaking of the fourth wall weirded out audiences, and the other part is that A Chorus Line stole its thunder. It wasn’t until 1996 that Chicago would be a hit, and now it’s the longest-running show in Broadway history, currently clocking in almost ten thousand performances. It still uses Bob Fosse’s original choreography, too.

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Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera as Roxie and Velma in the 1975 show. (Playbill)

After Chicago‘s newfound success Hollywood naturally came sniffing around again, and this brings us to the 2002 film at last.

Oh. My. Word. It is sublime. It doesn’t hit a single false note, no pun intended. Even Richard Gere, who plays Billy Flynn, is terrific, despite not technically being a singer or a dancer, and I’m saying this as someone who’s not much of a Gere fan.

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The film is unabashedly racy, which is to be expected. It’s also quite captivating, with spare, direct visuals, and it’s so integrated that most of the numbers take place inside Roxie’s head. She sees the world around her and her own life as a stage show, with her thoughts and others’ words translated into song and dance. It implys that everything is an act and never quite real or sincere. Some are manipulating and others are going along, or something in between. Even a hanging is played as a performance.

Chicago‘s choreography is intense and executed with great verve by the cast, especially Catherine Zeta-Jones, who earned her Oscar as Velma. What’s nice about many of the numbers being in Roxy’s head is that they add some color to the dark, monochromatic prison scenes.

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I like that there’s a real sense of motion, and director Rob Marshall is no stranger to this, being a dancer himself. He grounds the choreography by keeping the performers confined to roughly what vaudeville theaters and nightclubs were like in the twenties and thirties, as opposed to filming on impossibly big soundstages.

Ergo, a lot of shots are filmed with an audience member’s head in the foreground or a performer will be shown from the shoulders up, implying a lack of space. I think Queen Latifah’s “When You’re Good To Mama” number is probably the best instance of this, as the camera never quite pulls back but always stays semi-close to her, and not always at the most flattering angles. It’s done for character development, though, and not shoddy filming, so it’s all good.

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Chicago ended up being a smash hit, earning six Oscars. Roger Ebert said this about it:

“Chicago” is a musical that might have seemed unfilmable, but that was because it was assumed it had to be transformed into more conventional terms. By filming it in its own spirit, by making it frankly a stagy song-and-dance revue, by kidding the stories instead of lingering over them, the movie is big, brassy fun.

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Got another review posting in a few days. Thanks for reading, all…


Roxie Hart (DVD and YouTube), 1927’s Chicago (DVD), and 2002’s Chicago (DVD and Blu-ray) are available from Amazon.

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9 thoughts on “Stage To Screen: Chicago

  1. Excellent review of a very nearly perfect film, Rebecca!

    Thank you for the background information. I knew it was based on real incidents and I had seen Roxie Hart once or twice, but I did not know about the earlier film from Cecil b DeMille.

    Very happy you enjoyed Chicago I saw it twice in the theater and immediately purchase the DVD when it was first released.

    Liked by 1 person

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