This hilarious comedy saw Ginger Rogers solidifying her status as an actress and comedienne after winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle two years earlier. It's the 1942 version of the play Chicago, a farce about slick lawyers winning not-guilty verdicts for incredibly guilty female murderers with the the help of the newspaper media system. It's from the same source as the musical version of a year ago. Ginger kicks her heels up in a couple of terrific dance scenes, but it's not a musical per se. And it's funny in the tradition of The Front Page - fast, cynical, and witty. It may not be a Studio Classics presentation, but it's a heck of a lot lighter-spirited than The Grapes of Wrath or The Ox-Bow Incident - a "classic" from the same director. This goes on the shelf next to My Man Godfrey and Sullivan's Travels.
Roxie Hart must have been a dynamite morale booster in the early months of WW2: as pure escapism it had nothing to do with contemporary problems. The constantly-funny script uses a flashback structure that reaches a mere fifteen years into the past to find Chicago a completely different world of gold-digging flappers. The news media is out of control, and even the prosecutors and judges vie for publicity. The completely amoral newsmen use Dixie as a circulation builder and her fame snowballs. The husband is shut away from his own wife (can't have him mucking up the defense or the headlines), the jury foreman (William Frawley) falls immediately in love with the accused, and the young reporter (Montgomery) discovers that Roxie's fallback witness has died, throwing her absurd defense into a tailspin.
Nunnally Johnson's delightful dialogue is just as witty bu easier on the ears than the Hecht-MacArthur style of ten years before. Adolph Menjou wraps himself around at least 50 great lines. Phil Silver's corps of jolly cameramen jump like vultures at every phony courtroom revelation. Reporter Lynne Overman covers the courtroom proceedings on live radio like a boxing commentator. Cadaverous Milton Parsons cuts in for frequent commercial announcements.
Vivacious Ginger Rogers is introduced as a pair of legs sneaking down a fire escape. Chewing bubblegum with a game smile, she pushes the limits of what was acceptable to the hays office, all the while summoning fake tears and sobs when needed and grinning slyly at her own delicious wickedness. There's some cheating with the original details to appease the censors, especially who actually murdered who. But the spirit is all there, even Roxie's opportunistic gambit for sympathy - she pretends to be pregnant to keep her publicity from fading.
It's a necessary ploy to wrest the headlines back from a new media sensation, a Bonnie Parker-like rural gunslinger (in jeans, no less) called "2 Gun Gertie" (a wonderfully slummy Iris Adrian). Unlike the musical, the competition between gorgeous inmates is kept to a minimum. Roxie has an opening catfight (with cat yowls on the soundtrack!) with the previous star prisoner and spars a bit with Gertie, but hilariously tough prison matron Sara Allgood (Sara Allgood?!) calmly konks the combatants out like Wonder Woman.
The music is limited to real songs from the period and is nicely introduced in the 1942 wraparound bookend segment when a broken player piano suddenly revives and spits out a snappy 1927 tune. Ginger displays a little sexy dancing (The Black Bottom!) but wows us with a wonderful tap on the steel steps to the jail cells that integrate nicely with George Montgomery's growing infatuation. And then there's a silly number where Ginger and the press celebrate good times in the interrogation room with an all-out Charleston. Spring Byington (as gossip maven "Mary Sunshine"), Sara Allgood and a raft of square-looking newshounds cut a fancy rug. Seeing all the middle-aged actors dancing is a real treat ... they probably all learned them when they were brand new!
Roxie Hart is so funny it gets to have its cake and eat it too. It neatly sidesteps the problem that Roxie is a tramp who'd sleep with practically any of her admirers. The wrap-up barely establishes who's bamboozled who, and the final flash-forward to the present ends things on a strictly Tex Avery gag basis, which for this story is perfect. 2
William Wellman's direction is flawless - light and breezy but with a strong dose of nostalgia. Everyone in the cast gets their fair share of choice moments, with William Frawley receiving special attention - his character has a direct association with the present-day story. The picture moves so quickly we hardly have time to think that it stays confined to an apartment, the jailhouse and a courtroom. Ginger Rogers doesn't hog the center of attention as would any star in today's power-driven movie world: In the comedy dance number we get a dozen great angles of jazz-age dancing, but it isn't Ginger's scene alone. 1
Why Fox's DVD of Roxie Hart doesn't qualify as a Studio Classics edition I don't know, because the movie is more entertaining than many of their key titles. Maybe 1942 was just too serious a year to elevate a comedy. The transfer is stunningly good, with Leon Shamroy's crisp lighting coming through perfectly, and the busy soundtrack keeps all those machine gun comedy lines strictly audible.
The only extras are a pair of effective teaser trailers. The photo of Rogers on the cover would make a great poster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Roxie Hart rates:
1. Not to rag too heavily on
last year's Chicago, but its one lousy joke (everyone's corrupt) wears off quickly in a welter
of overdone songs and tiresome stylization that makes gangland Chicago look like something between
Cabaret and Sweet Charity. Its singer-stars can barely sing and their dancing is so
minimal, they can't be allowed to do more than a half step in any one cut. It's all flash that wants to
be taken seriously. Ginger Rogers does far more entertaining in just two 2 minutes of light tap and
showoff exhibitionism. And we also get a fast script with laughs to equal a Billy Wilder movie.
2. Avery would later return the compliment - Kitty Foyle was
the subject of a Tex Avery gag in his anarchic 1949 cartoon Bad Luck Blackie.