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Forgotten by Fox: Roxie Musical

Ginger Rogers gives the performance of a lifetime as Roxie Hart, in William A. Wellman's vicious comedy.
David Cairns
Let's be fair to Disney/Sony/Fox/whoever they think they are: there's been a DVD release of William Wellman's Roxie Hart (1942), but it's not currently streaming, which is a crying shame. It's a masterpiece, up there with The Public Enemy or Safe in Hell or Midnight Mary, Wellman's excoriating, criminous pre-Codes.
The story may be a familiar one: former newspaperwoman Maurine Dallas Watkins' stage hit Chicago was filmed as a Cecil B. DeMille production in 1927, and more recently in musical form with Bob Fosse's choreography put through a blender by Rob Marshall, Harvey Weinstein, and Martin Walsh, who promptly won the Oscar for Most Editing.
Our story, and its heroine, are laid in the great city of Chicago in the Roaring Twenties. An opening title solemnly dedicates the picture to all those women who have filled their husbands full of lead out of pique. George Montgomery plays an old newspaperman and then, in flashback, a young one. A more cynical practitioner of the breed (to which screenwriters Nunnally Johnson and Ben Hecht also belonged) is impersonated by Lynn Overman, with his amazing, wheedling, broken, twanging drone. But the important thing is Roxie.
Roxie Hart has shot a strange man to death in her apartment, it would seem. There is some question about her guilt, early on, but this is swept aside in the media frenzy and the legalistic machinations of her high-powered lawyer, Billy Flynn, of whom Overman purrs, "Sex appeal rises from him like a cloud of steam."
Roxie is Ginger Rogers, which should be enough to tell you this is the definitive version of this particular yarn. And "Ginger," said somebody or other, "can play anything she understands," one of the great back-handed compliments of the twentieth century, which was full of little else as I recall it; but still, the truth. And boy, does she understand Roxie. Mercenary, shameless, tawdry, and dumb as a post, Roxie is still somehow a really lovable character, maybe just because she brings so much entertainment, maybe because her sinfulness is utterly without guile.
"I just know you're innocent."

"Aw, you're a sweetheart to say it, but if you print a word of it I'll wrap a chair round your neck."
Also, this is not strictly a musical but once incarcerated, Roxie does quite a lot of dancing, choreographed by Hermes Pan using the syncopated effect of high heels on iron steps, and the strangely specific movements associated with the dreaded "black bottom" dance craze. And a pelvic thrust that takes George Montgomery off at the knees.
Bill Flynn is brought to energetic life by Adolphe Menjou, who we know is a gifted actor from the likes of Paths of Glory, but what a farceur! Menjou had worked in silents with Lubitsch and Chaplin but it's uncertain either man had anything to teach him. His timing, his flamboyant physical movements, his ungodly and unpredictable tricks with the pitch of his voice—which Ginger seems to pick up and riff on, even as she mockingly mimics the cockney accent guest star Nigel "Dr. Watson" Bruce essays in his single scene.
When Flynn informs Roxie that her autobiography is to be serialized in the papers, and that he has his secretary writing it as he speaks, she preens: "An authoress!" Deeply moved by her own accomplishments.
She describes the fatal incident "...and then everything went purple," getting carried away with her own dramatic invention.
"Purple?" queries Menjou.
"Black? White? Red?" asks Ginger, hopefully.
"Purple's good. It's new."
And novelty is the name of the game: to the extent that our shameless anti-heroine has any comeuppance, it's that, having displaced a society dame who shot her beau, she's knocked off the top spot by a pistol-packing female heister, and then, having clawed her way back to the front page with a phantom pregnancy, is dethroned by her own husband, who really did it—or did he? The censor must be satisfied, this being 1942 (and maybe the most perfect film of Chicago would have been made in around 1933, but it never happened, alas) so there's a throwaway line about Flynn getting disbarred for "skullduggery in the first degree," but it's thrown away in the middle of the film so it makes no impression and doesn't count. Roxie is finally "punished" with marriage and babies, the things forties women are supposed to want, which is some heavy irony to slide past the Breen Office.
Wellman is in fine form with what's unusual material for him (although see also Nothing Sacred), but he has no trouble holding Ginger full-frame in an unbroken shot while she dances, unlike the former choreographer Rob Marshall, and various of his tropes are present, such as occluding violent action with foreground set dressing: a catfight is staged behind table and chairs, with feline yowling dubbed on, and Ginger remonstrates with a fellow accused murderess.
The trio of Rogers, Menjou and Wellman, red-baiting McCarthyites all, might be more than I could stomach face-to-face, but onscreen and working in sync they boggle and bewitch me and I take my hat off.
And I haven't mentioned Spring Byington, Sarah Allgood, Jeff Corey (a mere couple of lines, with which an entire sinister worldview is evoked), and most of all George Chandler, as Roxie's appalling yet appallingly put-upon husband. In other movies he gets maybe a line as a cabbie or bartender. This is his apotheosis. If you have a face like George Chandler (it's listed in the  CaF Directory of Specific Conditions and Rare Disorders under the name "George Chandler Face") you only get the one apotheosis. But, like everyone else in this blackhearted carnivalesque, he seizes his chance, wrestles it to the floor, and sits on it, proudly.

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