Thursday, July 17, 2003


The big Oscar winning musical CHICAGO was based on a 20's play which was filmed twice before, once as a silent (which I haven't seen) and once as this film. The 2002 film is more entertaining, but this version, though not a musical, is fun and clearly influenced the makers of CHICAGO. Ginger Rogers is Roxie, a rather tarty dame married to a schlub (George Chandler); she is anxious to break out of her humdrum married life and into show biz (think Lucy Ricardo), perhaps with some help from talent agent Nigel Bruce. One night, a man (Bruce's partner) is killed in her apartment and Chandler confesses, saying he shot a robber, but when his wife's connection to the dead man is made clear, he recants and Roxie is arrested. She insists she is innocent, but people keep telling her that she has a good chance at getting off (Chicago goes easy on its well-publicized female killers) and Bruce even thinks the charges could jumpstart her career. She hires expensive laywer Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), older, more rumpled, and less self-assured than Richard Gere in the 2002 film. Roxie soon realizes it's all about publicity and illusion, and that even real life is show biz; there's a very nice bit in the prison holding room where she tap dances down the stairs in front of the waiting reporters and soon the scene is a full fledged musical number, with the reporters joining in on the merriment. This cynical theme is, surprisingly for the time, almost as central to the movie as it is to the musical.

George Montgomery, who narrates the story from 15 years later, is a young reporter who falls for Roxie; Spring Byington is columnist Mary Sunshine who takes up Roxie's cause in the press; Phil Silvers, a little less obnoxious than usual, is the chief photographer. Sara Allgood is the matron; her part is not nearly as important as Queen Latifah's in the recent film, but she does have a nice scene where she stops a fight between Roxie and another prisoner (complete with snarling cats on the soundtrack). The film is dedicated to all the women "who shot their men full of holes out of pique." There's a clever pun on the word "madam," unusual for a Code movie. Even the judge is not exempt from criticism as he makes sure he is prominent in all the photos shot of Roxie in his courtroom. Words like "audience" and "performance" are used frequently to refer to the judicial proceedings, and we see Menjou silently mouthing along with Rogers' testimony. Unlike in the original and the musical, Roxie is actually innocent (the burden of the Code, I assume) and justice is served in the end (and Montgomery gets his gal). In a film with many clever touches, one of the best is William Frawley playing a bartender who is listening with much interest to Montgomery's story in the present--it turns out he was the foreman of Roxie's jury. George Chandler, who I know mostly from very small roles, is quite good here, and Rogers is at her best. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

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