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Chicago (1927) (DVD Review)

5 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/6/10
Flicker Alley
$39.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi, Robert Edeson.

You can satisfy the needs of a debating society by ranking the surprises here: that the first screen version of Maurine Watkins’ play ultimately turned out to exist when for so many years it was thought to be lost; that the immaculate print utilized here turned up in Cecil B. DeMille’s private vault; that there is persuasive evidence that DeMille (and not credited Frank Urson) directed a lot of it; and that a movie this irreverently contemporary got made at the time. It even pre-dated the stage version of its sibling-in-cynicism The Front Page, which didn’t premiere on stage until eight months later — just three days before (this is your factoid of the day) Urson’s death by drowning in Michigan. 

If this version existed in a vacuum, it would be the full revelation that Flicker Alley’s loving and typically pro-job packaging portends. But the truth is that William Wellman’s snappy 75-minute Roxie Hart (1942) and especially 2002’s Oscar-winning musical version of Chicago tell the now familiar story with more snap. Both films are blessed with more fetching leads (respectively, Ginger Rogers and Renee Zellweger) than this version’s Phyllis Haver, who looks a little “advanced” to be so convincing as a man-killer (which her Roxie character is in both senses). Why is it that so many silent actors look so much older than the folks they’re playing? — though, amazingly, Haver was only 28 when she made this).

On the other hand, it belatedly becomes clear that the approach here is intentionally more sober than that of its follow-ups, ultimately presenting a more jaded than winking view of press fickleness. The most effective shots in the movie are the final ones (in separate scenes) of Roxie and her husband, which make one re-evaluate what has preceded.

Written somewhat on the sly by Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who had covered a couple prominent murder cases like the one this play-to-film portrays, the story deals with a married floozy who fatally shoots her sugar daddy when he instigates a break-up after being handed her latest fistful of shopping bills. Roxie’s husband (played by Victor Varconi and a character more prominent here than in the musical version) wants to stand by her. But he’s not without a moral compass and is shaken by the circus her situation creates.
Which is, that the mercenary press will support Roxie to sell papers — especially given that she has been cooperatively up-front with the police — because she’s good-looking and thus worthy of reader sympathy. In other words, woe be if you plug someone and you’re homely. Thus, one can at least speculate why DeMille (who, at very minimum, heavily supervised the production), didn’t take credit as director. The most recent picture he’d directed for credit was the same year’s The King of Kings, and the subject matter here didn’t synch particularly well with the story of Jesus.

Chicago is obviously of significant historical interest, and Flicker Alley has thrown in the goodies. A booklet contains three informative essays (one makes the case for DeMille’s more substantial contribution) plus enticing on-screen supplements that include an online link to Watkins’ original reportage plus a half-hour featurette that explains the flapper phenomenon by interviewing women who offer first-hand remembrances.

The standout bonus is the inclusion of an obscure but lively 63-minute "March of Time" documentary The Golden Twenties, which RKO distributed in 1950. Reminiscent of the old NBC “Project XX” specials from the late ’50s and early 1960s, it’s co-narrated by pop chroniclers from Elmer Davis to Red Barber to then TV personality Robert Q. Lewis. There is higher-quality archival material than we usually see in look-backs of this sort, from crisp presidential inauguration footage to Sacco and Vanzetti to shots of several long-deceased authors. In other words, when’s the last time you saw John Galsworthy in a reasonably clean print?

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