The big question about Chicago (1927), the first version of the famous play which later gave us Ginger Rogers as Roxie Hart and, ahem, some other people in a musical, is, "Did credited director Frank Urson really direct it, or is producer Cecil B. DeMille the film's true controller?"
I'm inclined to credit Urson, although I haven't seen any of his other fourteen films (he never made it into talkies, dying in 1928 just as the writing became visible on the wall, and the actors started reading it aloud). Possibly because the film's too good. But it certainly has a DeMille touch about it too, notably a reveling in sinful excess, followed by a bludgeoning morality play ending. Anybody who's enjoyed the crawling hypocrisy of a DeMille bible story will recognize the same mentality in Jazz Age drag.
Phyllis Haver is Roxie Hart, the most convincing if not the most charming embodiment of that particular fictionalized person. Journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins took her inspiration from a particularly hard-boiled dame, Beulah Annan, who shot her lover, then sat drinking cocktails and listening to a foxtrot record for four hours, watching the poor sap die. No movie version has recreated that particular scene. While Ginger Rogers really sells the comedy of the amoral slut who's so completely innocent of any shred of decency she's actually kind of winning, and Renée Zellweger... actually, I can't really remember what she did. Anyhow, Phyllis is aggressively vulgar, heartless, hypocritical and downright vicious in her alienation from any tender human feeling, and since the silent version robs the character of her best lines, the impression is all the more forceful.
(When Phyllis wanted to retire and marry a millionaire two years later, she invoked the Act of God Clause in her contract. DeMille asked what she meant. "Well, if marrying a millionaire ain't an act of God, I don't know what is!" He saw her point.)
So fascinating is the character in all her awfulness that the film's slow opening works pretty much as straight melodrama, as do long stretches of action thereafter, despite the presence of comedy titan Eugene Pallette as the soon-to-be-ex-lover. It's like one of those Bette or Joan movies where the audience stares awestruck, riveted by the single question, "How low can she go?" As the film's introductory title suggests—"The story of a little girl who was all wrong."—the answer is indeed, pretty damn low.
Humour does intrude when the authorities nose in, and Watkins' social satire can get a look in, typing the police and DA as heartless careerists and brutes. Handsome stalwart Victor Varconi as the wronged husband is the only element of human sympathy, and we really don't need him. But we're going to get him, and plenty of him. William A. Wellman's viciously farcical treatment of the story in the 1942 retelling, which was scripted by Nunally Johnson and Ben Hecht, who also knew the newspaper racket, treats Amos Hart as a simple stooge, mistreating him dreadfully, and allowing the audience to know this is quite wrong while never preaching about the injustice of it. The more earnest 1927 approach makes Amos a hero, nobly trying to take the rap for his spouse's crime, remaining silent about her infidelity, and putting himself on the line by pawning everything to hire crooked lawyer Billy Flynn, and then, when that doesn't raise enough, burglarizing the lawyer in order to pay him.
This stuff is rather conventional compared to the sexy goings-on in the women's prison (where assorted murderesses and mannish lesbians rub broad shoulders), and the comedy of Flynn's grooming of Roxie as a virtuous little woman to impress in the witness stand. And alas, the last twenty minutes are given over entirely to letting virtue triumph. I don't think any of the movie versions ever found a way to conclude such a gleefully wicked tale: only Warners in the pre-code thirties could have hit the right tone consistently, a tone which says, "This, I'm afraid, is the way the world is, and all we can do is laugh or go crazy." While traces of that approach are sharply visible here, and make up the film's best business, it's an alien approach to DeMille, which is perhaps why the film's conclusion convulses so hard in its attempts to stamp out any microbe of naughtiness.
This is only a small blot on an otherwise adult and enjoyable wallow. And if Urson was on the way out, another filmmaker was busy coming into his own: production design J.M. Leisen would soon be better known as director Mitchell Leisen. His cunning and imaginative placement of mirrors in the Hart apartment is an artistic triumph in itself—
A door with a mirror in it is a little surprising, but it allows Urson/DeMille/whoever to artistically suggest a fatal headshot, blasting a hole through the glass where seconds earlier, Eugene Pallette was admiring his bloated mug. The hand clutches the doorframe in momentary spasm.
And a little later, told that she'll be hailed by the papers as Chicago's Most Beautiful Murderess, Roxie is moved to touch up her makeup, removing the traces of those crocodile tears. Abruptly noticing the bullet-hole, she's prompted to a rare moment of, yes, reflection.
Chicago, with it's big long unwieldy scenes, static shots, and fairly heavy use of intertitles, does show signs of the debilitating theatrical impulse which would run amok all over the screen when sound came in. But details like the above show what's still possible within such a form. Cinema can embrace theatre and possess it.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.