Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Roxie Hart (1942)

The story of ROXIE HART will be instantly familiar to anyone who's seen the musical CHICAGO. Would-be entertainer Roxie (Ginger Rogers) rises to fame and notoriety when she goes on trial for murder.

This being the era of the Production Code, the storyline is neatly worked out so that Roxie pleads guilty but is not really a murderess. Otherwise, the antics of Roxie and her manipulative attorney, Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), go along as expected. The script by Nunnally Johnson and an uncredited Ben Hecht was based on the original play CHICAGO by Maurine Dallas Watkins, and for the most part it's quite amusing, especially given the film's talented cast.

Lynne Overman is very funny as newspaper reporter Jake, who launches Roxie on the path to fame. George Montgomery is Homer Howard, a lovestruck reporter, and Spring Byington is gossip columnist Mary Sunshine. William Frawley is the jury foreman, with Phil Silvers a newspaper photographer and George Chandler Roxie's put-upon husband, Amos.

The cast also includes Nigel Bruce and Sara Allgood. George Lessey does a good job as the Judge, who constantly interrupts his solemn duties to pose for pictures. If you look carefully, that's a young Hugh Downs playing the reporter who comes into the bar with George Montgomery and listens to his tale.

Helene Reynolds plays Velma, the character played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 2002 movie, but she only has a brief scene. Iris Adrian is another jailed murderess, Two Gun Gertie.

Although the movie stars Ginger Rogers, it's mostly a comedy, not a musical. However, there are two brief musical numbers, including a solo Roxie performs for Homer in the jail accompanied only by the faint sound of a drum. Ginger is excellent as the gum-chewing, mercenary Roxie, especially during the big scene where she takes the stand, weeping, batting her eyelashes, and hitching her skirt up above her knee. Menjou is also quite funny in this scene, silently mouthing the words he's rehearsed with Roxie.

It's not a perfect film and is a bit draggy in spots, but all in all this is a fun movie.

An interesting side note, this story has a long history. It was first filmed as a silent movie in 1927, called CHICAGO, with Phyllis Haver starring as Roxie Hart.

ROXIE HART was directed by William A. Wellman. Although ROXIE HART is satire, the flashbacks and murder trial in a Roaring '20s setting reminded me of Wellman's MIDNIGHT MARY (1933), starring Loretta Young. The irreverent take on the press's love for a sob story also calls to mind Wellman's NOTHING SACRED (1937).

The movie was shot in black and white by Leon Shamroy. It runs a quick 75 minutes.

ROXIE HART has been released on DVD and VHS. It can also be seen from time to time on Fox Movie Channel.


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