Director: Frank Urson and Cecil B. DeMille (uncredited). Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee, titles by John Krafft, from the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Cast: Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi, Robert Edeson, Eugene Pallette, Virginia Bradford
THOSE LIPS, THOSE LEGS
"I hope you enjoyed your trip back to a more innocent time," said presenter Randy Haberkamp to a packed house last night following the screening of the 1928 Chicago at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
This latest installment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences‘ "Lost and Found" series, presented in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive 13th Festival of Preservation, was a major production — they even had Johnny Crawford and His Orchestra accompanying the film. However, like so many of Cecil B. DeMille’s own mega-spectacles, the event was impressive to behold while feeling somewhat off the mark.
The chief culprit was, oddly enough, Crawford’s orchestra. Although the musicians did a thoroughly professional job, they failed to deliver the appropriate musical accompaniment to the action on screen. Early in the evening, Haberkamp announced that the score was based on the film’s cue sheets, but Crawford seems to have gone off on his own.
Ballads were played when the action needed a fast-paced beat, while jazzy rhythms were heard during the film’s more sedate moments. Not helping matters was the fact that from where I was sitting, Crawford could be clearly heard giving directions to his musicians. Even louder was his pacing up and down what I believe was a wooden platform set up for his orchestra. To call that distracting would be quite an understatement.
The evening’s other problem had to do with the projection speed. Apparently following UCLA guidelines, Chicago’s 11-reel roadshow version was shown at 22 frames per second. The faster (and more common) projection speed of 24 frames per second would have made a welcome difference in the film’s pace. As it was, scenes that needed a fast comedy tempo seemed off-key, lasting quite a bit longer than they should have.
Yet, even though the Chicago experience wasn’t flawless, the film itself was a treat — partly because it is so incredibly rare, partly because the good-looking print had been taken from an "immaculate" original from DeMille’s own collection, as explained by film restorer Jere Guldin. (Unfortunately, the source was notthe original negative as that would have made a major difference in the look of the restored film.)
But most importantly, Chicago impresses by its modern sensibility; its no-holds-barred look at love, lust, law, social mores, and the media; and especially by its delightfully amoral heroine, played to perfection by former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver.
Based on the hit 1926 Broadway play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Chicago had its origins in articles Watkins wrote for the Chicago Tribune. The articles, typical "sob sister" stories written to appeal to female readers, depicted the plight of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Sheriff Annan, both of whom had been accused of killing their respective lovers. (More details in the notes/trivia section.)
Produced by Cecil B. DeMille, best known today for his campy religious epics, and directed by the little-known Chicago-native Frank Urson (reportedly under DeMille’s supervision), the film version of Chicago stars Haver as the greedy, heartless, but oh-so-sexy murderess Roxie Hart; hunky Hungarian import Victor Varconi (born Mihaly Varkonyi) as her faithful husband, a man who loves Roxie’s golden curls as much as he lusts after her pretty little feet; and top 1920s supporting player Robert Edeson as Roxie’s attorney, an expert at manipulating jurors, judges, the media, and the U.S. justice system. (See synopsis.)
Lenore J. Coffee’s generally faithful screen adaptation is peppered with clever — and sometimes quite risqué — lines and situations. Among those is a prison sequence in which a knife-murderess is immersed in a book of etiquette so as to find the answer to the pressing question, "When is it correct to use a knife?" And in one of the film’s most suggestive scenes, we see a closeup of the male jurors’ shoes sticking straight up while they ogle Roxie’s legs during the trial. When she pulls her skirt down, the shoes go down, too.
Some of those situations are most likely from the play, though Coffee and intertitle writer John Krafft may have come up with a few of their own accord. Either way, except for its moralistic ending (a departure from Maurine Watkins’ play) Chicago feels as if it was written 80 weeks ago instead of 80 years ago.
Frank Urson (or perhaps DeMille himself) displays a good hand in terms of framing the action, but possibly because of the slower projection speed the direction seems somewhat lethargic. At about 2 hours running time, Chicago overstays its welcome by a good 15 or 20 minutes. (A 24-fps projection speed might have helped to solve this problem.)
In case Urson was indeed the actual director, he proves himself a good handler of actors. (Urson had directed top talent — e.g., Wallace Reid, Mary Miles Minter — at Famous Players-Lasky [later Paramount] throughout the 1920s.) Victor Varconi, for instance, brings remarkable pathos and honesty to the role of Roxie’s faithful — and cuckolded — husband, a character that could easily have come across as a buffoon (as was the case in both the play and the 2002 film version). The film’s supporting cast — Robert Edeson, Julia Faye (a DeMille favorite, in a small role as the murderess Velma), and future Academy Award-nominee May Robson — also deliver effective performances.
But ultimately, Chicago belongs to Phyllis Haver. Although Haver probably wouldn’t be considered a great beauty by today’s standards — in the film, she’s labeled "Chicago’s Most Beautiful Murderess" — she makes us believe that her coy, cute, sexy, rotten-to-the-core Roxie Hart could really turn men’s heads and make their feet stick straight up. She shoots a mean gun like the deadliest of gangsters, knows when to be girlish and when to be gargoylish, fights the fight with fellow murderess Velma, and doesn’t spend too much time worrying that the doorway mirror she uses to make herself beautiful has a hole in it left by the bullet that killed her lover. Oh, yes, when her hubby throws loads of dollar bills into the fireplace, she all but dives into the flames to retrieve the burning dough.
Haver also proves herself an excellent comedy performer, extracting the most from her (silent) lines — "Shouldn’t blondes be cheaper?" Roxie asks upon learning that her prospective attorney wants $5,000 to defend her. At one point during the trial, Haver uses her face and body to convey a whole array of emotional qualities, ranging from droopy despondence to steely virtue, that reminded me of Marion Davies‘ impersonations in The Patsy and some of her other films.
In fact, Haver is as good as Ginger Rogers — who’s outstanding — in the tamer 1942 film version of the play (renamed Roxie Hart), and she’s infinitely better than Renée Zellweger in the drab 2002 Academy Award-winning musical. (Reese Witherspoon would have been a better choice for the role, while Carole Lombard would have been a great Roxie had there been a 1930s talkie version.)
All in all, in spite of the moralistic ending Chicago holds up remarkably well as a jaded (or perhaps just plain lucid) take on sex and power in American society, dealing with issues that are as relevant today as they were yesteryear.
While cigar stand owner Amos Hart (Victor Varconi) is away, his wife, Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver), will play.
Roxie plays the role of lil’ blonde girl to her sugar daddy, Casley (Eugene Pallette), who has enough money in his bank account to buy sexy Roxie the pretty little things she likes.
But Casley has had enough of Roxie’s demands. The problem for big daddy, however, is that his little girl will not take No for an answer. When the burly Casley pushes his blonde doll against the wall, the girl loses it. As Casley is exiting her tiny flat, Roxie grabs a gun and pokes a bullet hole in both the doorway mirror and her lover’s head.
Amos is so enamored of (and full of lust for) Roxie that he initially takes the blame for Casley’s murder, but ditzy Roxie ruins his ploy by telling the police more than she should have. Knowing a good story when he sees one, a reporter (T. Roy Barnes) decides to turn the murder case into a celebrity affair.
The D.A. (Warner Richmond) is determined to send Roxie to the gallows — the lawman sees her notorious case as a great chance for self-promotion — but first he must lock horns with a savvy defense attorney, Flynn (Robert Edeson), who has earned a (very good) living by manipulating the U.S. justice system.
The catch: Flynn, who cares nothing about justice but who cares a whole lot about money, asks for $5,000 to take on Roxie’s case. Amos, who can’t bear to think of a noose around Roxie’s delicate, milky-white neck, steals money from Flynn himself in order to come up with the full amount.
Once hired, Flynn tells Roxie how she should behave in court. Smart Roxie is an exemplary student — in fact, she’s even a few steps ahead of her teacher, knowing exactly how to display the right mix of seductiveness and saintliness. Not surprisingly, she is acquitted by the all-male jury, who are as impressed by her virtuous eyes as by her sinuous thighs. But victory turns sour when another murderess grabs the spotlight. The acquitted Roxie is now old news.
But there’s always Amos, no? Uh-oh … After almost being caught for his theft, Amos decides he has had enough of Roxie’s lies and selfishness. He summarily kicks her out of their flat. The tenement’s maid, Katie (Virginia Bradford), who is as sweet and decent as she’s pretty — and a brunette to boot, will now try to win his heart.