Combustible Celluloid
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With: Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi, Eugene Pallette, Virginia Bradford, Clarence Burton, Warner Richmond, T. Roy Barnes, Sidney D'Albrook, Otto Lederer, May Robson, Julia Faye, Robert Edeson, Viola Louie
Written by: Lenore J. Coffee, John W. Krafft, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Directed by: Frank Urson
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 118
Date: 12/23/1927

Chicago (1927)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hot Jazz

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The curly-blonde Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart stars in this, the very first Chicago (1927). It sports roughly the same plot as the newer, Oscar-winning Chicago (2002); Roxie is a good-time girl married to nice guy Amos (Victor Varconi). She's also having a swinging good time with Rodney Casley (the great character actor Eugene Pallette, later known for his raspy frog voice), who helps finance her nights on the town. When Casley is murdered, Roxie goes to jail, hires a slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Robert Edeson) and becomes a media sensation.

Based on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, this one is obviously not a musical (Bob Fosse was actually born the year it came out). Instead it focuses more on the melodramatic aspects, such as Roxie's husband Amos sinking to new depths and suffering to protect his wife, and also some sharp comedy, such as Roxie's performance in the courtroom. It's actually a fairly unique mixture of comedy and drama, which -- aside from specialty items like Charlie Chaplin's The Kid -- was little seen at the time. It was also something of a groundbreaker in that Roxie is a self-propelled female character, even if she's not exactly a role model, and Haver projects a perfect blend of selfishness and exuberance.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this and the 2002 version is that the Velma character was expanded for Catherine Zeta-Jones (who won an Oscar for her work), whereas here, she's more of a punchline to a dark joke. Frank Urson is credited as director, though some sources claim that supervisor Cecil B. DeMille might have had a strong hand in the production.

Though the film was restored in 2006, Flicker Alley has released a new DVD for 2010; it features a gorgeous, clean, rich picture and a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. On a second disc, we get two featurettes, The Golden Twenties (1950), a compilation of newsreel footage, and The Flapper Story (1985), which interviews some of the original flappers. There are also photos and information about the real "Roxie Hart."

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