Yesterday was Silent Second Saturday at the Music Box. The movie was none other than Chicago (1927). This is the first movie made from the play Chicago by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Then came Roxie Hart (1942) with Ginger Rogers, then the musical, and then the movie Chicago (2002). I love them all (though I haven’t seen the musical). Spoilers ahead.
Like its later iterations, this silent film is wonderful. It tells the story of Roxie Hart, “the jazz slayer,” and her spectacular trial for the death of her lover. Phyllis Haver plays a delightfully conniving and cold hearted Roxie Hart. This version goes into much greater detail in her relationship with her husband Amos Hart than the other versions. Victor Varconi plays a very sympathetic Amos Hart. In the 2002 film, Amos Hart is portrayed as a putz but this 1927 Amos Hart is handsome, kind, and intelligent. He knows that she was cheating on him with the dead man. But he goes along and defends her anyway. And he even morally compromises himself to help her out because he loves her so much Roxie doesn’t realize what she’s giving up.
The humor is wonderfully sharp as it is with Roxie Hart. In all the films, my favorite parts are the jail scenes with all the other murderesses. In this movie, the interactions are short but they are among the funniest in the film. In the scene, Roxie is cutting out columns and photos of herself. She asks the warden what each woman did to get there. The warden whispers to her about each woman. The warden tells her that one woman, who is quietly reading to herself, stabbed her boyfriend at a dance hall. Roxie peers over at the book to find that it’s a book of etiquette. And the woman is reading about the proper use of knives. Hah! The warden tells her that another woman who may be Velma Kelly (it’s unclear) is a “real lady” because she never does her bed. This woman antagonizes Roxie while gyrating in a weird exercise machine. Eventually, Roxie Hart gets into a fight with her. During the confusion, the stabbing murderess leans over and grabs the scissors with unbridled glee. The warden breaks it up and tells them, “You aren’t at home. You can’t do these things here”. Beautiful.
The court scenes are also amazing. The movie plays up the notion that a trial is drama. Roxie and her attorney manipulate the jury so well. The men are captivated by her beauty (and garters). There is this amazingly charged bit when Roxie pulls her skirts up to show off the bows on her garters. The movie then cuts to the men’s feet that are all shaking in sexual energy at her. Then she lowers her skirts. The shot goes back to the feet that have stopped moving. Wonderful. There is also this bit with three women chewing gum. At various points in the trial, the shot shows their heads munching away. Then something horrifying is revealed in the testimony and the women stop chewing for a second. And then they resume. It’s such a wonderful gag.
I highly recommend seeing Chicago and its later iterations. They are all worth seeing in their own way.