Roxie Hart (1942)

Roxie Hart (1942)

“A pretty murderess is as safe here as she is in her mother’s arms!”

A reporter (George Montgomery) recounts the story of a performer (Ginger Rogers) advised by her agent (Lynne Overman) to take the rap for a murder committed by her husband (George Chandler) in order to give her career a boost — and who received ample coaching from her lawyer (Adolphe Menjou) in using her femininity to convince the media, the jury, and the public of her innocence.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Comedy
  • Courtroom Drama
  • Flashback Films
  • Ginger Rogers Films
  • Media Spectacle
  • Play Adaptation
  • William Wellman Films

This early screen adaptation of Maurine Dallas Watkins1926 play Chicago — turned into a Broadway musical in 1975, which was then adapted as the 2002 Oscar-winning film — was based on the real-life stories of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, and gives ample credence to the notion that “feminine wiles” will get you plenty-far (and may save your life) in the American court system. Unfortunately, the entire affair is over-played to an extreme: Rogers’ scheming ‘Roxie Hart’ smacks gum and preens in front of her various audiences like a caricature of a wind-up doll, and the rest of the cast plays along in kind. It’s too bad there’s no subtlety here whatsoever, given that the topic — are women treated preferentially in court cases and the media, given their ability to turn on their charm and sexuality, weep at will, and get pregnant? — is well worth a closer look. (It’s been too long since I watched the 2002 remake for me to comment on how well it succeeds in this arena.) The idea of the media and the public going wild for any kind of spectacle, and turning on a dime as soon as something else piques their interest, certainly remains true enough: the scene showing two versions of a newspaper ready for selling, depending on Roxie’s verdict, nicely depicts an old-school version of Twitter, as a vendor listens down on the street for news from the courtroom up above, then tosses out the appropriate version within seconds. However, both screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director William Wellman try far too hard for laughs; as noted by Bosley Crowther in his review for the New York Times:

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Wellman, who directed, have squeezed every laugh they could from it. As a matter of fact, one fault is that they have squeezed just a bit too hard. A gag such as a box full of jurors gawking at Miss Rogers’s legs or a judge jumping into a news picture is funny when pulled once or twice. But several times is too many.

Indeed; it’s a good thing this film is only 75 minutes long.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Roxie’s impressive tap-dance on a metal staircase (choreographed by Hermes Pan)
  • Atmospheric cinematography by Leon Shamroy

Must See?
Nope; feel free to skip this one.


3 thoughts on “Roxie Hart (1942)

  1. Agreed ; not must-see. However, it’s entertaining-enough so a viewing isn’t wasted time. As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb) (11/3/15):

    “Sane before and sane after, with a little teensy-weensy spot of insanity right in the middle. Is that it?”

    ‘Roxie Hart’ (1942): Seeing this again, it’s easy to spot just how much fun it probably was for Kander & Ebb to turn this modest 75-minute film into the musical ‘Chicago’. ‘RH’ is amusing-enough in its tale of a young woman who agrees to confessing to a murder rap, as long as it gets her publicity that will help secure a showbiz career. She’s promised she’ll beat the rap in the nick of time, but it doesn’t work out that way. As the film progresses, it becomes slightly repetitive and, as Roxie, Ginger Rogers overplays her hand a little. But it has some fun moments – my fave being the ‘black bottom’ jazz sequence.

  2. My favorite moment by far (you can tell I wasn’t a fan of this one) was Rogers’ tap-dance on the stairs — it was fun to read about it in TCM’s article:

    Rogers was particularly fond of a number that she suggested: A moment when Roxie was on a flight of stairs. “I’d always wanted to do taps on a metal staircase, because I knew the taps would have a good, resounding sound. Twentieth Century-Fox didn’t have a metal staircase on hand and had to go to a good deal of trouble to locate one. It was finally found in the wreckage from a demolished building in downtown Los Angeles. It was worth the effort; the tap sequence was pure joy to do and, I’m happy to say, a pure joy to watch.”

  3. I like ‘Roxie Hart’ more than the film version of the musical ‘Chicago’ – which I sort of can’t stand. I like the stage version; I saw it on Broadway. The film of it more or less just gave me a headache.

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