Old Ass Movies: The Old Razzle Dazzle of ‘Roxie Hart’

By  · Published on March 27th, 2011

Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

This week’s Old Ass Movie celebrates one of the funniest flicks about capital punishment ever made. Roxie Hart takes the wrap for killing her lover so she can make it big in Chicago. Her smooth-talking lawyer promises to get her off and get her out on the town as a starlet, and everyone from the judge to the press seems to be in on the gag. What? You trust everything you read in the papers?

What’s a newspaper? Go look it up first and come back to discover how funny hanging someone can be.

Roxie Hart (1942)

Directed By: William A. Wellman

Written By: Nunnally Johnson, adapted from the play “Chicago” by Maurine Dallas Watkins

Starring: Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, George Montgomery, William Frawley, and Lynne Overman

In a modern context, Roxie Hart is a faster-paced version of Chiacgo without the musical numbers (although Ginger Rogers does get to show off a few dance moves).

In its own context, it’s just a funny film that lampoons the legal system, the idea of stardom and the press.

Everybody here knows the story (some have fabricated extra parts). The 2002 Oscar winner featuring Renee Zellweger is what we’re all most familiar with, and even though this movie doesn’t feature John C. Reilly singing “Mr. Cellophane” (to its detriment), it tells the same basic tale of Mrs. Hart, a murder, and a show trial featuring a lawyer named Billy Flynn.

The film makes its intentions known even before the action gets started; the opening credits feature drawings of a girl dancing on a gallows with a noose above her head while hot jazz plays in the background. It then dedicates the picture to all the beautiful women who have ever shot their man full of holes.

There’s not a serious bone in this movie’s body, and all of that humor is derived by how deadly serious everything should be coupled with characters that refuse to see a life or death situation as anything more than fodder for the afternoon news. It’s a movie inhabited by big egos and big talk. There’s no surprise that veteran Ginger Rogers more than holds her own here amidst the noise. Even playing the blondest red-head in history, she creates a ridiculously entertaining Roxie who seems like she’s got everything under control even though there’s no way for her to get a grip. She wants fame, she sees her chance, and she reaches for it by claiming she reached for a gun and shot a man down.

The only person capable of up-staging her is Adolphe Menjou (who was also in the fast-talking Front Page). He plays Billy Flynn here, and he does so with even more flair than Richard Gere did in Chicago. He’s a showman so good that you don’t know he’s playing you, even while he wears his act on his sleeve. He exists in a courtroom universe where the judge regularly strikes the same pose behind the defendant for the slew of camera-slingers. Actual legal rules are upheld (like hearsay being tossed out), but that just goes to show how little the law really matters. What really counts is the amount of knee Roxie can show the jurists, how well she cries when she’s cross-examined, and how well Flynn can pontificate to distract from the truth.

The “truth” of Roxie Hart is fascinating, because it came out during the Hays Code, so the writing had to reflect Roxie as an ultimately moral character. Thus, she’s innocent. She didn’t kill the man at all, but it’s important to her that the papers never print that information. It’s far better for her career if people think she’s taken a man’s life…in self defense only of course. Plus, her infidelity is only really hinted at, even though it’s hinted at strongly.

What’s funny ultimately is that the Hays Code demanded that a likable character display strong moral fortitude, so they changed the story, but that change ultimately makes Roxie a lying opportunist who makes a mockery of murder and the court system in order to launch a dancing career. So much for pathos.

Swing has two meanings here. It’s the fast music they listen to down at the clubs, and it’s also the motion Roxie’s neck will make if she’s found guilty. Both are constantly in view, but it’s only the music that’s taken seriously. Somehow, without saturating the picture in jazz tunes, there’s still a dirty feeling of the Chicago syncopation throughout. The actors practically sing their lines, and everything is truly choreographed even though nobody’s dancing (until they’re actually dancing in the jail in a moment that shows that the press really are big buffoons).

Ultimately, this is the story of the manufacturing of a star. What she needs is a hook, a story, a reason to be in the papers. Then she can use that to launch her stardom from because the people already love her. The biggest joke here is that the formula for fame that everyone involved seems to unquestionably follow doesn’t work. Roxie has fifteen minutes, but that’s it.

Fortunately, there’s a man who’s fresh to the newspaper business and has loved her since he met her. George Montgomery pulls double duty here as the storyteller – regaling a bar crowd with stories of the biggest news sensation of 15 years ago, back in the bad old days – and as a character who falls in love with that news sensation. He’s the only one left when all the onlookers and rubber-necked reporters run away to the next story.

It’s not just fame under the gun here. The legal system and the journalism profession are run through the muck. The entire court sequence is a mess that pauses every so often so that cameras can set up shots for the new edition. It’s all a play, and even the judge seems to casually lament having to enforce legal proceedings when they get in the way of the narrative everyone’s agreed on. For the press, it’s a similar situation. Roxie’s first interview with a gaggle of them is a sympathy-fest where everyone has already agreed on the story and does their best to lead her answers in the right direction to fill their column lines. In fact, the truth and the value of life are dismissed as meaningless early on when a cameraman sets up a shot of Roxie and asks another journalist to lie down and pretend to be the stiff. The dead man is as replaceable as the truth.

So, what’s best about this movie is that it’s a movie. In the mechanical sense where a group of people decide on a story to tell, and the audience agrees to be told the story by sitting in the theater, William Wellman and company have created a story about a group of people who all agree on a story to tell and the audience that agrees to it. Ultimately, it’s the audience that’s satirized for allowing storytellers to feed us lies and excitement. It’s fun in the theater. It’s not as fun when someone’s neck is on the line.

Just kidding. When someone’s death is on the line, that’s when things get downright hilarious.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.