by Allan Fish
p Cecil B.de Mille d Frank Urson, Cecil B.de Mille (uncredited) w Lenore J.Coffee play Maurine Watkins ph J.Peverell Marley ed Anne Bauchens m Rodney Sauer (reissue) art/cos Mitchell Leisen
Phyllis Haver (Roxie Hart), Victor Varconi (Amos Hart), Robert Edeson (Billy Flynn), Virginia Bradford (Katie), Eugene Pallette (Casely), Warner Richmond (Asst. D.A.), T.Roy Barnes (reporter), May Robson (Mama Morton), Viola Louie (Two Gun Rosie), Julia Faye (Velma Kelly),
Even when the 1942 version of Maurine Watkins’ play, Roxie Hart, was released, it was believed that the 1927 silent original was lost. Over the decades the original praise was replaced by a certain incredulity that it was ever made at all. It would have stayed lost but for the care of its maker, and when I say maker I don’t mean credited director Frank Urson. He’d been de Mille’s assistant on The King of Kings, which was still showing in theatres and churches nationwide when de Mille began production of Chicago. He soon took over directorial control and, while Urson was listed as nominal director on over half the days’ shooting records, de Mille then spent nearly two weeks in post-production doing retakes. Yet when it came for its first public showing around Christmas 1927, de Mille’s name wasn’t on the credits. He felt the subject unseemly and un-Christian for his name to be attached to, at least while the Christ film was still raking it in for the Paramount coffers. Yet he kept an original nitrate print in his own collection and it was there, amongst the archives of his personal estate, that Chicago was found.
The tale is familiar, that of Roxie Hart, the gold-digging wife of Amos, who she’s long grown bored with, and who not only has an affair with another older man but even leeches clothes and make-up out of him. When he finally gets wise to her, she shoots him dead. Panicking, she persuades her incredulous husband to take the rap for her, and while he’s at first willing the truth is soon discovered and Roxie is arrested and charged with murder and likely to hang. Or at least she would, were it not for the fact that in Chicago young beautiful women don’t get sent to the gallows, and in the run up to the trial, she is at the eye of a media storm centred around her daily exploits behind bars. To help get her off, Amos steals money from lawyer Billy Flynn to pay him for his $5,000 legal retainer. Roxie gets off, but she’s ejected from the front page by another murder taking place right outside the courtroom.
There are some notable differences here to the 2002 musical, not least in how much that version (and the Broadway original of the same) bumped up the characters of Billy Flynn and, especially, Mama Morton and Velma Kelly, here reduced to one scene. The husband, too, is not quite the absolute chump he is in the later versions, standing by her not because he believes her lies but because he feels it his duty. The biggest change by far, however, is that of Roxie herself. She was depicted as a schemer and, in the musical at least, as an adulteress, but she wasn’t entirely reprehensible. This Roxie is a thoroughly nasty, self-centred, money-grabbing, morally bankrupt slut, the sort of gutter-snipe female who would shoot her own mother to get her picture in the papers, who sees her husband as her own personal doormat to be trampled on at will and herself the victim in the whole thing. She makes you want to see her get sent to the rope even when you know that she doesn’t, and while that justice is denied us, de Mille gives the audience a satisfactory outcome not in the original play, where upon her return from getting off, Roxie is tossed out on the streets in the rain by her husband, who one assumes gets happiness with the neighbour who pines after him in silence. If one is being critical, it does flag on a couple of occasions, but it has authentic period atmosphere aplenty, a wonderful central performance from Phyllis Haver as Roxie and, overall, if you adjust to its tempo, it’s further evidence for the defence at the trial of Cecil B.de Mille as a film-maker. One of the most important recent rediscoveries of the American silent film.