“Oh, my god! She’s just pathological!” That’s what we couldn’t help saying aloud about the character of Roxie Hart in this first film adaptation of the successful 1926 play Chicago, the basis for the recent musical play adaptation and its 2003 film version, Chicago, featuring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Phyllis Haver is outstanding as the manipulative and single-minded jazz baby Roxie Hart in this energetic DeMille Pictures Corporation adaptation of the original play. Given that Haver is not among the top echelon of silent era actors, and is hardly remembered today among the lower ranks of the second tier of box office stars, she nonetheless masterfully commands the screen with her deliciously over-the-top performance. We found it hard to watch anyone else on-screen when Haver wound it all up.
Victor Varconi supports as the whipped, sheepish and easily manipulated husband, Amos Hart, in a role that is not surprisingly just beyond his talents to bring to life. One can see him precisely running through the sequence of the scene’s business assigned to him by director Frank Urson — shallowly but also pleasantly well paced. Amidst the gale storm of Haver’s performance, workman actor Varconi is an attractive fence post.
Robert Edeson delivers a rock-steady performance, showing off his decades of acting chops, as the corrupt defense attorney William Flynn. There is nothing so flashy as Haver in his turn as a formula heavy, but there are also no false notes in his performance. Edeson is the true costar of the film.
Mysteriously appealing, Chicago is a confection that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. Under scrutiny, the routine structure of the play’s storyline shouldn’t work, but somehow it is all lifted by an unexpected airiness that allows the actors unrestricted comedic room to vamp broadly. The courtroom sequence is in turns low-key (with Varconi) and hilarious (with Haver).
After the success of Chicago, Haver was tapped for a similar role to Roxie Hart as a golddigger in D.W. Griffith’sThe Battle of the Sexes (1928), which can also be viewed on home video. Curiously, despite a career run of more than 100 films ranging from Sennett comedy shorts to supporting and starring roles in features, Haver’s film career ended in 1930. — Carl Bennett
2010 DVD edition
Chicago (1927), black & white, 119 minutes, not rated,
with The Golden Twenties (1950), black & white, 64 minutes, not rated, and The Flapper Story (1985), color and color-toned black & white, 30 minutes, not rated.
Flicker Alley, FA0017,
UPC 6-17311-67519-5, ISBN 1-893967-51-4.
Two single-sided, dual-layered, Region 0NTSC DVD discs, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 13 chapter stops; two-disc standard DVD keepcase, $39.95.
Release date: 6 July 2010.
Country of origin: USA
This quality DVD edition, produced by Jeffery Masino of Flicker Alley and David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, has been mastered from the 35mm nitrate print previously owned by director Cecil B. DeMille, whose company produced the film. The source print is excellent, with a broad range of greytones and fine picture detail that is well-reproduced in the full-frame, natural-speed (at 25 frames per second) high-definition video transfer. Very little fine speckling and dust, slight exposure fluctuations and a few processing flaws remain in the transfer. The resulting picture looks great whether its a standard television or a high-definition television with progressive line-doubling capabilities. Fabulous.
The film is accompanied by a music score compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, leading practioners of the art of silent film accompaniment. As usual, we were impressed and entertained by the quality of the musical arrangement and ensemble performance.
Among the supplemental material is a 16-page booklet that includes an essay by Thomas H. Pauly, an exerpt on Chicago from Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by Robert S. Birchard, and notes on the music score by Rodney Sauer. A featurette gives us some background on the true life source for the Roxie Hart character and the play’s author, Maurine Watkins. Disc one includes a still gallery (more than 200 images), a promotional materials gallery (9 images), and DVD-ROM files that include newspaper articles by Maurine Watkins.
The additional film content focuses on the jazz age of the twenties. The Golden Twenties (1950), a feature-length documentary produced by The March of Time for RKO Radio Pictures, is presented from a 35mm duplicate negative, with newsreel footage that includes presidents Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, General John J. Pershing, industrialists J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, labor leader John L. Lewis, producer Flo Ziegfeld, vaudevillians Harry Lauder, Harry Houdini, and Gallagher and Sheen, dancers Ruth St. Denis, Irene Castle and Anna Pavlova, composers George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sergei Rachmaninov and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, musician Paul Whiteman, singers Enrico Caruso, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Marion Talley, Rudy Vallee, Helen Morgan and Al Jolson, film executives Will B. Hayes and Adolph Zukor, actors Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, Dolores Costello, Rudolph Valentino, Pola Negri, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Russell, Billie Burke, Texas Guinan, Rod La Rocque and Vilma Banky, 35mm footage of Charles Chaplin in Dough and Dynamite (1914), baseball players Babe Ruth, John J. McGraw, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, George Sisler and Frankie Frisch, former baseball player and evangelist Billy Sunday, golfer Bobby Jones, football players Knute Rockney and Red Grange, boxers Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Luis Angel Firpo, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, racehorse Man o’ War, socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce, scientist Madame Curie, inventor Thomas A. Edison, writers Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells, aviators Charles A. Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker and René Fonck, criminals Al Capone, Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and attorneys William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow during the Scopes trial. The silent era footage rockets by at sound film speed. Narrative commentary is given by Robert Q. Lewis and sports announcer Red Barber, among others. A lot of the stock footage you have seen from the 1920s comes from this documentary.
The Flapper Story (1985) has been transferred from a conflated 16mm print (likely the original format), and examines America’s transformation from 19th century Victorian values to the new, first wave of women’s liberation in the 20th century. The documentary includes newsreel footage of actress Mary Pickford, and aviator Ruth Elder.
This edition is highly recommended for both its entertainment and home video production values. Chicago is a film that is definitely worth sharing with friends and enjoying in multiple viewings.
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