Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Windy City Melodrama

Of the 2002 version of Chicago, I once wrote that I might enjoy watching the makers of that movie devoured by dingoes. It would be more entertaining, I think, than watching the actual movie. To say that I hated it almost understates my reaction. Longtime readers of this blog might be surprised at the intensity of that hate, given that I try to be fair to the movies I see regardless of their limitations. Sometimes a movie just rubs me wrong, though, and Chicago 2002 was such a movie. The original silent version of Chicago (1927, directed by Frank Urson) showed at my local art house this week as part of their spring Pre-Code series. I liked it a bit more than the remake, in so far as I did NOT walk away from it wanting to see the filmmakers devoured by marsupial predators. Perhaps that's faint praise.

The story is more or less the same. Good-time girl Roxie Hart is cheating on her husband, but when her current sugar daddy decides he's had enough, Roxie shoots him. Roxie's husband, Amos, defends her to the last, and hires big shot lawyer William Flynn to defend her. Flynn is a baffle them with bullshit kind of lawyer (Fosse's musical version gives him the song "Razzle Dazzle") and he and Roxie play the jury like a violin, neverminding the fact that Roxie is totally guilty. The trial is a press circus, and that, too, is part of the game. When she's acquitted in the end, Roxie is horrified to watch the press move on to another nine day wonder. She's old news. Worse, her husband, having lied, cheated, and stolen to help exonerate Roxie, has seen through her lies and knows what she is. He tosses her out.

This is a pretty bitter and cynical movie. For those who are unfamiliar with the circumstances of the movie, it's based on a play that was, in turn, based on a pair of Chicago murder trials. The play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered both trials as a journalist. In both cases, the defendant got off, and it's clear that Watkins thought they both got away with murder. In the play, these characters become Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, though this film version diminishes Kelly's presence to almost nothing while inflating the role of Roxie's hapless husband, Amos. Amos Hart is elevated to a role that's co-equal with Roxie, though that has its problems. The core of the play remains, though. Roxie gets away with murder because she's a master at manipulating the press, or perhaps because the press has an interest in the way the story turns out, or perhaps because the jury can't see Roxy beyond the farce Flynn puts in front of them. Regardless, justice is not done and it's not done for frivolous reasons.

There's a moralizing streak in this movie a mile wide. The moralizing is there in the play, but it's expanded in the movie. Chicago was produced by Cecil B. DeMille, who is also listed as "supervisor". The credits may list DeMille's assistant, Frank Urson, as the director, but it's DeMille's movie. More than one source claims that the movie was directed by DeMille himself and that Urson was a front to keep a discreet distance between this film and DeMille's contemporaneous King of Kings. Whatever the truth of this, Chicago feels like a DeMille movie, in so far as it is titillating while providing a cover of moral outrage. DeMille was good at this sort of thing. He throws in a bunch of sex for the groundlings while voicing moral approbation for the bluenoses. It's a brilliant formula, and if ever there was a vehicle for it, it's Chicago. Certainly, the expansion of Amos Hart's role in the movie is designed to give the filmmakers an out, to give them a figure of strong, masculine moral rectitude. (I'll come back to this in a bit). What's interesting about this is how thoroughly this formula seeps into the Pre-Code movies that followed over the next few years. Chicago almost seems like a template for these kinds of movies. Certainly, you see it in DeMille's own movies from the period, whether it's Claudette Colbert bathing in ass's milk and seducing virtuous young women in The Sign of the Cross or the decadent party on a dirigible in Madame Satan, DeMille found ways to provide salacious content under a moralizing cover.

Chicago has a weird relationship with women. Roxie Hart is basically a straw woman version of the then-controversial "new woman," who smokes and carouses and listens to jazz and has some measure of agency when it comes to her sexuality. Chicago's version of the "new woman," is a murdering slattern who corrupts men, even her virtuous husband. The movie takes pains to contrast Roxie with the Harts' cleaning woman, who adores Amos and is willing to completely sublimate herself to doing for him. The zeal with which she leaps into domestic tasks when he finally notices her at the end of the movie is almost comical from a post-feminist perspective. But there's something a little bit off about all of this, and it occurred to me when the movie finally presents Roxie to a jury. An all male jury. The United States Supreme court didn't disallow all-male juries until 1975, after having permitted them in 1961(!!). I don't know if this would have registered to a 1927 audience, but it stands out like a sore thumb to a 2012 audience. For great whacks of the movie, Roxie is surrounded by men, whether police, reporters, or the court. The visual design of the movie tends to make Phyllis Haver jump off the screen as Roxie. What other women there are in the movie are almost inconsequential, though the movie doesn't hesitate to give the audience a catfight when Roxie encounters Velma in prison. Is Roxie acting in a way to subvert a patriarchy of which she's so obviously a victim? Maybe. Certainly, Bob Fosse picked up on this idea when he adapted the story into a musical. He devoted an entire musical number to the women in Roxie's cell block listing their grievances with men. A lot of Pre-code movies smuggled this exact sort of subtext. I'm not sure that that's what Chicago is doing, though, and that's down to the expanded role of Amos Hart. His character arc suggests that good men are victims of bad women, as if the movie were saying, "Sure, it's awful that Roxie is a victim of men, but what about the men?" It's actually kind of galling. And, sure, Roxie may get away with murder, but the movie doesn't hesitate to punish her at the end. The lot of Roxie Hart at the end of this movie is pretty dire, and the filmmakers punctuate this with a shot of a newspaper trumpeting her acquittal being washed into a sewer.

Still, there's a lot to enjoy in this movie. Parts of it are hilarious (one juror's foot, canted upward when he first sees Roxie, is one of the film's funnier symbols). Parts of it are broadly melodramatic. This is an element with which the audience I was with seemed to struggle. The mood of this movie is all over the place, and contemporary audiences aren't used to that kind of thing, I guess. The movie has other kinds of flourishes that you wouldn't see in a sound picture, too, whether it's the bubblegum chewing Greek chorus in the courtroom or the film's persistent upskirt imagery that reduces Roxie to her sexuality. All of this makes for something alien in comparison to contemporary film. And yet, for all that, Chicago doesn't exactly feel like a relic, either. That's possibly due to the quality of the print that has survived (this was almost a lost film; the only print to survive was DeMille's personal copy and it's in particularly fine shape). Part of it is the way the story has seeped into the culture at large. Part of it's the cynicism. Cynicism never goes out of style, I guess.

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