Maurine Dallas Watkins' 1926 play Chicago was based on real-life murders committed by housewife Beulah Sheriff Annan and cabaret singer Belva Gaertner. In April 1924, Annan shot her lover in her own apartment. Some reports claim that while the man lay dying, Annan kept busy sipping cocktails and listening to a foxtrot recording on her victrola. The previous month, Gaertner had shot her married lover to death.
Watkins had initially written about the two women for the Chicago Tribune. For one of her “sob sister” articles, she had Annan and Gaertner photographed together, and went on to describe the story of the two murderesses in the piece “Killers of Men.”
Flynn, the play's unscrupulous attorney, was based on mob lawyer William W. O'Brien, who represented Annan at her trial. O'Brien concocted a fake pregnancy for his client in order to help her get an acquittal – and indeed she was found innocent. Gaertner's lawyers used similar tactics for their client, and also got an acquittal. (Court TV has more details on both trials.)
After quitting the Tribune, Watkins took a playwriting course from George Pierce Baker at Yale University. She was then inspired to write a fictionalized account of the two killings.
On Dec. 30, 1926, Chicago opened at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. With George Abbott directing, the play ran for 172 performances. Francine Larrimore played Roxie Hart (based on Beulah Annan) and Juliette Crosby played Velma Kelly (based on Belva Gaertner). Gaertner was in attendance on opening night.
In both the original play and the 1927 film version, Velma is only a minor character.
In his book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, Robert Birchard quotes Picture Play magazine columnists Edwin and Elza Schallert's assertion that “it has been done with much secrecy, but fact will out. Cecil B. DeMille is directing Chicago.” The writers then stated that upon the film's release DeMille's name would not be found in the credits.
Additionally, Birchard points out that a print of Chicago – whose crew was composed of DeMille regulars – was found in the director's personal film vault. Among the film's produced by the DeMille Picture Corporation, Chicago is the only production not (officially) directed by DeMille to belong to the collection.
But why would DeMille not want his name attached to one of the most talked-about productions of the year?
Well, perhaps because in the late 1920s the director was going through a brief phase of “serious” religious-themed pictures. The King of Kings, a 1927 release about the life of Jesus, was a monumental hit. It simply wouldn't do to have DeMille's name attached in the same year to both Jesus and Roxie Hart. Thus, DeMille would follow his New Testament success with an attack on atheism, The Godless Girl, while Frank Urson, a minor 1920s director and DeMille's assistant in a handful of films, received sole credit for handling the impious world of Chicago.
(Note: In his autobiography, DeMille makes no mention of either Chicago or Frank Urson.)
Spoilers: Maurine Watkins' play comes to a close at the end of Roxie's trial, when the fickle media's attention turns to another sensational murderess, and Roxie becomes old news – though she still may profit financially from her notoriety.
Lenore J. Coffee's screenplay has a new epilogue, in which Chicago swerves into conventional melodrama. At the end of the film, Amos sends Roxie away, for even though the naughty girl was found innocent by the U.S. justice system she remains guilty in the eyes of the gods. Thus, she must be punished.
The character of Katie, played by Virginia Bradford, is a film creation. The kind-hearted brunette is supposed to eventually lift Amos out of his despair.
Amos, for his part, was turned into a more romantic character than his stage self.
Regarding the more melodramatic tone of the film, Phyllis Haver explained, “It is the old story of necessary appeal for less sophisticated audiences in smaller communities. … Back in the Middle West, for example, people would see only the obvious, that Roxie instead of being punished was rewarded for her crime.” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 1928.
(Note: It is possible that smaller markets saw a truncated – perhaps watered down? – version of Chicago, and not the long roadshow version screened in metropolitan areas. The copyrighted version was two reels shorter than the roadshow version.)
According to records from the DeMille Pictures, Inc., Chicago was in production for 45 days and cost $303.306.18. It earned $483,165.79. (Not clear if domestic or worldwide.) Source: Robert Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood.
“Roxie struck so many keys of emotion, one following the other with such rapidity that she made herself hard to follow. It is bad enough to get in tune with any character but when one jumps up and down the octave whamming out this discord and that, the task is nerve wracking.
“Did I enjoy her? Of course, but she kept me jumping. I don't believe I have ever worked so hard on a single person as I did on Roxie, but then of course, I consider her the best characterization I have ever had.” Phyllis Haver in the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 1928.
Shortly after making a fortune with Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings, Sid Grauman refused to show Chicago at his Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
The following title was attached to the front of Chicago whenever the film was screened for censorship boards:
“Chicago attacks a great evil in our time – the hysterical tendency to make a vulgar criminal an heroic figure in a public circus. Since the force of the story comes from the biting truth with which it is presented we ask you to consider very earnestly before suggesting changes which may weaken its effect.” Source: Robert Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood.
A musical version of the play, also named Chicago, opened on Broadway on June 3, 1975, and ran for 936 performances. The musical, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. The show was revived in 1996, and is still running after more than 4,000 performances.
The 1942 20th Century Fox production of Roxie Hart starred Ginger Rogers (Roxie), George Montgomery (news reporter), Adolphe Menjou (Billy Flynn), and in a small role Helene Reynolds (Velma). In this bowdlerized version, Roxie is innocent of the murder, and has a (sort of) happy ending with the handsome news reporter. Directed by William A. Wellman, Roxie Hart was adapted to the screen by Nunnally Johnson.
The 2002 Miramax musical, based on the Bob Fosse stage musical, starred Renée Zellweger (Roxie), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma), Richard Gere (Flynn), Queen Latifah (prison matron), and John C. Reilly (Amos Hart). Chicago was directed by Rob Marshall, from a screenplay by Bill Condon. It won 6 Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Supporting Actress (Jones).
The Kansas-born Phyllis Haver, who made a career in silent films playing gold diggers and assorted naughty flappers, gave up her acting career to marry Manhattan millionaire wholesale grocer William Seeman in 1929. The marriage was performed by New York Mayor James J. Walker at the home of cartoonist Rube Goldberg. The couple were divorced in 1945. “Bill has too much vitality,” Haver explained at the time. “I'm getting older and want a little peace.” She never remarried.
Haver lived in retirement in Falls Village, Conn., and at her apartment in New York City, until she killed herself at her Connecticut home with an overdose of barbiturates on Nov. 19, 1960. She was 61.
A housekeeper found Haver's body lying in bed. (The former actress' face was fully made up; she was a first-rate make-up artist.) Police later said that she had attempted suicide the year before.
According to the actress' relatives, November was always difficult for her because that's the month she and Seeman had divorced. Haver supposedly had never fully recovered from the breakup. (Actually, the divorce became final in May 1945, though the couple may have separated in November of the previous year.) November 1960 was particularly bad because of the death of her early film mentor, Mack Sennett, on Nov. 5. Haver claimed she had no idea that Sennett, who died in utter poverty, had been in such dire financial straits.
Phyllis Haver left no immediate survivors.
On Aug. 18, 1928, Frank Urson drowned in Indian Lake, Mich. He was 41. Chicago and Almost Human, both released in late 1927, were his last two films.
Julia Faye, the murderess Velma in Chicago, is the actress who was cast most often in Cecil B. DeMille's films, usually in small supporting roles.
Several of the Chicago players had also been cast in DeMille's highly popular 1927 portrayal of the life of Jesus, The King of Kings. Victor Varconi played Pontius Pilate, May Robson was the mother of Gestas, Robert Edeson was Matthew, the publican, and Julia Faye was Martha.
“That a Hollywood blonde belongs to real life was to a certain extent proved in the picturization of Maurine Watkins' play, Chicago, which was presented last night at the Gaiety Theatre. In this quasisatirical affair, none other than Phyllis Haver, the vampire in Emil Jannings' last film, The Way of All Flesh, gives an astoundingly fine performance as the redoubtable Roxie Hart. Miss Haver makes this combination of tragedy and comedy a most entertaining piece of work.” Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times.
A grateful “thank you” to author Allan Ellenberger for his assistance in finding material for this page.