I was delighted with Catherine Zeta Jones and Queen Latifah in the 2002 “Chicago. directed by Rob Marshall. Renée Zellwegger and Richard Gere were good, too. Not only the choreography but also the camera angles screamed “Bob Fosse.” Fosse choreographed the 1975 musical by the song-writing team that wrote “Cabaret.” “Chicago” is, perhaps, more stylized even than “Moulin Rouge.” The songs and dances are spliced up not quite as much as “Moulin Rouge,” but more than “Cabaret,” though “Cabaret” pioneered extending the songs in the cabaret being intercut with scenes from outside it. No really memorable songs, but some memorable dances, especially Richard Gere tap-dancing and the female murderers recounting the reasons the men they killed deserved to be killed.
Seeing “Chicago” sent me back to the 1942 (second) movie version of the 1927 Maurine Dallas Watkins play (a silent film version was released in 1927), with Ginger Rogers playing Roxie Hart, the adulteress who shot the man who had promised her a shot at a show business career in the lawless Chicago of the “roaring ’20s” and was defended by a publicity-mad attorney, Billy Flynn, who specialized in keeping female murderers from being executed. In the current incarnation, I thought there was too much of Renee Zellwegger’s Roxie, too little of the other accused murderesses who could outsing and outdance her.
Despite the title character’s would-be dancer being played by Ginger Rogers, “Roxie Hart” is not a musical, so that it does not matter that no one in that movie’s cast could outdance or outsing Rogers. There is one real dance number and some other smatterings of dance steps exhibited, and no songs. There is even more of Roxie in the movie named for her—again too much in my view. Iris Adrian’s Velma has a much lower proportion of screen time than Catherine Zeta Jones’s incarnation does, and no other accused murderesses appear at all.
“Roxie Hart” only runs 75 minutes, too much of which is wasted on a frame of remembering the case from a Chicago bar in 1942 (bar-tender William Frawley (I Love Lucy, My Three Sons) was on the jury, and reporter Robert Montgomery was smitten by the story and the woman Roxie. All the roles are caricatures rather than characters. Rogers is the most grating, because she is on screen the most, but also because she overplays the most. Maybe she needed Fred Astaire to tone her down? Maybe she needed better lines.
As Billy Flynn, the experienced cynic/hypocrite Adolph Menjou (The Front Page, Morocco, Paths of Glory) is funnier than Roxie. Long before “Sgt. Bilko,” Phil Silvers was already accomplished at playing a cynical manipulator, here a newspaper photographer in and out of the courtroom. Frawley got to look besotted at Roxie throughout the trial. The judge (George Lessey) makes sure that he is in every photo, and the prosecutor (Lynne Overman) who is seeking the death penalty also rushes to pose in most of the photographs of witnesses, including Roxie. Sara Allgood as Mrs. Morton, the Cook County Jailhouse matron and Spring Byington as human interest columnist Mary Sunshine have a few moments of being funny, but most of the movie is Ginger Rogers mugging for the camera and/or the judge and jury. Zellwegger is considerably more subtle, though she gets to sing and dance and Rogers mostly did not.
There is some satire of the public’s gullibility and hunger for sensations served up by news media (radio as well as newspapers), preening lawyers eager to be celebrities (not that Flynn’s greed is underdeveloped!) and there are flashes of wit, but too much of the movie is Roxie flashing the all-male jury glimpses of her knees and phony smiles at anyone she thinks might help her, especially the judge.
In one of the many, many dubious choices that are the history of the Oscars, Rogers had won one in 1940 (for playing the title role in the tedious melodrama “Kitty Foyle”). After 1942, in which she appeared as the second title character in Billy Wilder’s relatively silly “The Major and the Minor,” Rogers’s career declined. She continued to make movies, including one more with Fred Astaire (“The Barkleys of Broadway” in 1949), but the only really good movie she made after 1942 was “Monkey Business” (1952) directed by Howard Hawks in which Rogers had a relatively peripheral role as Cary Grant’s wife and an emerging star by the name of Marilyn Monroe was more memorable. Rogers’s memorable screen performances were as the foil and partner of Fred Astaire in 1930s musicals and as choosing between “Tom, Dick, and Harry” (1941).
©2018, Stephen O. Murray