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Chicago (Movie 1927): Silent Far Superior to Musical

16 minutes read

Phyllis Haver Chicago movie“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.

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

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.

Produced by Cecil B. DeMille, best known today for his campy religious epics, and officially directed by the little-known Chicago-native Frank Urson (but actually 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 close-up 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.

DeMille 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.

Chicago (1927). 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.


While cigar stand owner Amos Hart (Victor Varconi) is away, his wife, Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver), will play.

Roxie plays the role of lil’ blond 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 blond 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.

More on ‘Chicago’


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.


Cecil B. DeMille may have himself directed Chicago.

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 a – however measured – 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.

Chicago was shot at the DeMille studio, formerly the Thomas Ince studio, and later the David O. Selznick studio.

“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.

More on Phyllis Haver

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.

Review Snippets:

“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.

Additional Note:

A grateful “thank you” to author Allan Ellenberger for his assistance in finding material for this page.

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Andre -

I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I can help you there.
Phyllis Haver and Renee Zellweger’s Roxie Harts were blondes from what I recall, but Ginger Rogers’ was dark-haired.

I’d suggest you look for the original play to see how RH is described.

michele -

hello not sure if my last email went through

my daughter is going to portray roxie hart this year and this sight says she is a blonde. our choreographer told us she is always has a black bob… could you please tell us what she should do? its important she’s a competitive dancer and gets judged on accuracy of character… thank you so much :)

michele -

hello my daughter is going to portray roxie hart, and we are having a debate on whether or not she should be a blonde or a brunette… Ive read this and say she should be a brunette… her choreographer says roxie is supposed to have a black bob… please help us figure this out thanks!!!

Andre -

I believe “Chicago” will see the light of DVD-Day sooner or later, if only because of its more famous — and quite dull — remake.

Sue Slutzky -

I attended the screening of “Chicago” at the Academy. I enjoyed the film very much and I have to agree with your assessment of the musical accompaniment. It was distracting and totally wrong for the movie. Johnny Crawford and his Orchestra are good on their own. They have no business playing for a silent film. They play 1920s dance music and that’s what they should stick to. I would love to see the film again with a proper score. Phyllis Haver was a joy to watch. I do hope it comes out on DVD so more people can discover this entertaining film.

Allan Ellenberger -

I saw the silent version of Chicago at Cinecon this past labor day weekend. I was looking forward to this rarely-seen film which was one of the predecessors of the recent Academy Award winner of the same name. While I enjoyed the film, however, for me the script was lacking. Some scenes seemed to go on forever and could have benefited by the editors scissors. I would like to have seen more of Velma, who is very prominant in the recent version. Phyllis Haver was a delight and effective in the films comic scenes. Overall it was worth the wait and hopefully we will see it soon on DVD.

Andre -

Phyllis Haver married a Manhattan millionaire in 1929. I don’t think she even made any talkies. (The IMDb lists her as having a role in a 1930 film, but that’s a mistake, I’m pretty sure.)
I’ve read that “Sal of Singapore” is a part-talkie, but I haven’t found confirmation on that.

Marcus Tucker -

Phyllis Haver had great legs too bad that she didn’t go too far in talkies but it’s great the film was shown. I wish I could have been there. Silent scoring is sort of tough for modern composers I think because it’s an altogether different animal from the way films are scored now. The musical was affected because it took so long to get made. And they went with movie stars instead of people who would have been ideal for the roles, they somehow overlooked everyone who helped revive the stage show. Bebe Neuwirth, not only a Broadway star but a professional dancer, with two Tonys for goodness sake. Or Jasmine Gy also a professional dancer who appeared in the Broadway show. The very least they could have done was hire Ann Reinking, who actually worked with Fosse and as a dancer and choreographer. But they wanted a hit and they got one.


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