Roxie Hart (1942)
The story of the “cute little jazz killer” who showed that murder and sin can easily be forgiven if you have a pretty face has been told in several stories, most memorably in the 2002 Best Picture winner, Chicago. Roxie Hart is a less glamorous version of the same story – and it’s fun to see how much of this film was lifted and recycled into the 2002 adaptation – that’s anchored by a high-flautin’ performance by Ginger Rogers. It’s worth watching back-to-back with the musical to see how a true impresario of the song and dance story did it first!
Roxie Hart (Rogers) is a housewife who dreams of something more. When a man ends up dead in her home, she believes it’s just enough to get her into show business, so she happily confesses! All she has to do now is get away with murder, and with the help of attorney Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou) she just might do so.
Compared to the 2002 musical, Roxie Hart hews closer to the Nunnally Johnson stageplay. It’s also a satire of the American justice system with regards to celebrity and gender (something that hasn’t changed at all in this current day and age). Since the ending was changed to appease the Hays Code, the movie plays with the knowledge that Roxie isn’t a murderer, yet wants you to embrace the fact that she is; we get an opening prologue that thanks “the beautiful women who shot their men full of holes out of pique.” Of course, this also opens the door to the moments of misogyny. The prologue explains that women shoot their men out of anger (probably for leaving the toilet seat up) and when Roxie fights with a fellow inmate there’s screeching cats playing over the audio. It’s not enough to anger you, but if you notice take notice it will make you slap your head in frustration. Once that’s taken care of the script rocks between social satire and a musical, of which both are good.
The social satire element starts from the opening credits made up to resemble newspaper comics. I’m assuming this is all in the play, but it’s apparent in the script that we’re supposed to see the bias and conflict within the newspaper industry. The readers thrive on “juicy murders,” while the newspaper reporters dream of going back to the “bad old days” where corruption reigned supreme, sophistication came by way of crime, and newspapermen were in the money. It’s no mystery that Chicago during the time period was dirty, and one character sums it up best by saying the town “wouldn’t hang Lucrezia Borgia!” High praise, indeed. As the trial progresses there’s never a moment where the cameras aren’t getting Roxie to pose, sometimes complete with the judge! The farcical moments add a layer of contempt for the court system at the time and display the lengths papers will go to in order to get what they want. Furthermore, you see the creation and bias of the media; since Roxie is a willing participant in her publicity, the newspapers are fine giving her good copy.
The role of Roxie was originally given to Alice Faye, and not having watched any of Faye’s work I can’t give an accurate assessment on whether that would have been better. I will say that Ginger Rogers is unrecognizable as the cute jazz killer, Roxie; from her costuming, complete with holes in the stocking, short shirts and redheaded perm, you understand this isn’t a woman living in the lap of luxury. Rogers is headstrong and that’s literally invoked when she rams a newspaper reporter who discovers the dead body. She’s trashy, hard-boiled and hardened, described as “sinful-looking,” but conveying it in spades! She’s the antithesis of sophistication, right down to telling her life’s story while loudly munching food. However, the script tames her far too much. She’s been an expert at manipulating men – her husband is a dupe who believes she’s “artistic” for taking provocative photos – and the crux of the narrative is forcing Roxie to let men control her; her publicity, and even her defense are controlled by men. Her punishment at the conclusion of the story, because you can’t have a woman be a murderer at the time, is to be under the yoke of a man forever; the final image is of her and her husband, the newspaper reporter she met while in jail, saddled with several rambunctious children as her husband yearns for freedom. All the back-and-forth on women makes an unbalanced tone where you never understand, ultimately, what the movie wants to say about it’s female character. One moment you have a call for equal rights – albeit in terms of women being executed as often as men, which is interesting territory to discuss – and on the other the film controls what Roxie does at the end of her life by punishing her through domesticity.
In the acting category, Rogers and Menjou are perfect. Rogers dances circles around everybody else during an impromptu dance sequence that is absurd but shows Roxie’s “contagious spirit.” The tap dance routine she has on the metal staircase is a work of art, in my opinion. Rogers is having fun and creates a character that has no shame. Roxie winks at her beau while revealing a fake pregnancy, she changes her hair and wardrobe, and relies on her sexuality to gain the jury’s sympathy. Roxie’s testimony is a string of Roger’s best facial expressions: mugging, flirting, and smacking gum! Acting opposite her is Adolphe Menjou as Billy Flynn. He’s an opportunist who is the only man up to the challenge of working with Hart. They’re a formidable duo that create magic in the film.
Thanks to Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou I enjoyed Roxie Hart. Due to the Hays Code the ending has less of a punch, and forces the script to “punish” Roxie in a way that’s a misogynist’s dream; an enjoyable musical, nonetheless.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I really love this movie. I’m also a big fan of the 2002 movie, but this, like you said, seems closer to what would have been on the stage. When Ginger started her little tap routine on the steps, I literally said “Ooooh!” THERE is the Ginger Rogers we know and love, hiding under the character of Roxie! Granted though, Ginger was so extremely talented and could really do anything–drama, comedy, musicals, she could probably have even done noir if given the chance–and it’s kind of a shame that people outside classic Hollywood circles only know her for her pairing with Astaire. That was only one small part of her talent.
Rogers never ceases to amaze. She’s definitely a wunderkind who could excel in any genre!
As a Wellman fan I love this version of the story, though must agree that the type of ‘punishment’ at the end leaves a sour taste. Rogers is wonderful in this and so are Adolphe Menjou and George Montgomery. You make a good point about how the film plays with the thought of Roxie as a killer even though the Hays code didn’t allow this. Enjoyed your piece!