“All you need to make a movie,” the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is a girl and a gun.” While guns—anatomical and otherwise—are the props used to propel much of Chicago‘s plot, they’re secondary to the girl part of Godard’s dictum. Set, mainly, in the women’s ward of the Cook County Jail in Chicago in 1926, the film, along with its progenitor, Bob Fosse’s musical of 1975, has a largely female cast that makes clear what the play on which both were based and the two nonmusical films that preceded them did not: that Chicago is, among other things, a powerful examination of female rage and a demonstration of blackness as a corrupting style. There’s the rage of one “jazz baby” murderess, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger in the movie), who has a craving to be a celebrity. There’s the rage her archrival—another murderess, the vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones)—feels once Roxie’s celebrity begins to eclipse her own. And then there’s the rage of the other incarcerated women—all candidates for classes in anger management—who share the jail-stage with Roxie and Velma. They may have killed a man or two once or twice, but they shouldn’t be locked up for it, since their victims “had it comin’.” So the women sing in one of the film’s brilliantly performed numbers, “Cell Block Tango.” (“He took a flower/In its prime/And then he used it/And he abused it/It was a murder/But not a crime!”)
All that rage shows itself in fairly direct cinematic ways in the beginning of the film before Roxie goes to jail: murder, mayhem, melodramatic plot points. In the first scenes, Roxie is betrayed by her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West), a furniture salesman who claims to have connections in show business. More than anything, Roxie wants to be a star. But when Fred spurns Roxie with the truth—he has no connections, he lied to her to get her into bed—Roxie, her kimono flying, reaches for a gun conveniently kept in her bureau drawer and blows Fred away. He had it comin’.
But what elevates the film—what makes it so artful—is the emphasis of its director, Rob Marshall, on the chilly narcissism at the non-hearts of his women, projecting—with their black helmets of hair or processed finger-waves; their rolled stockings and dresses with dropped waists; their rouged lips, cheeks, and eyelids—a “don’t care-ish” attitude. And that style informs their behavior. It is a black style—loose and funky—which grew out of jazz and its love of the low-down, and which enables the actresses to adapt their movements to something like those of the Negress that Zora Neale Hurston described in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934):
Everything is acted out. Unconsciously for the most part of course. There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned….
A Negro girl strolls past the corner lounger. Her whole body panging and posing. A slight shoulder movement that calls attention to her bust, that is all of a dare. A hippy undulation below the waist that is a sheaf of promises tied with conscious power. She is acting out “I’m a darned sweet woman and you know it.”
Like Hurston’s strolling Negress, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, whose dancing consists largely of undulations, “act out” a sort of “conscious power” as well: in their case, by their wit, a perversion of sorts as well as a resource of rage.
The women in Chicago are, literally, murderesses. Roxie and Velma want to be stars and try to use their notoriety as murderers to get them there. But there’s only one stage and one audience for one killer, or one woman, at a time. And that creates the film’s dramatic tension: Will Roxie knock Velma out of the running, or will Velma win? Or can they coexist? (They can.)
Bob Fosse was given a copy of the 1926 Maurine Dallas Watkins play Chicago in 1963, by his then wife, the actress and dancer Gwen Verdon. Watkins had based her play on a murder case she had covered when she was a cub reporter for the Chicago Tribune. On April 3, 1924, a woman named Beulah Annan shot her lover, an auto mechanic. She committed the act while “the Hawaiian foxtrot ‘Hula Lou’ (‘She’s got more men than a dog has fleas…’) played on her Victrola.” Beulah told her husband, Al, a mechanic who worked nights, that she’d murdered the man because he was an intruder. The police arrived. Beulah, drunk, confessed that, in fact, the victim had been her lover and she’d shot him when he tried to walk out on her. Beulah’s attorneys claimed that she had shot her lover because she had been under the influence. (Temperance laws had been established in 1919.) Chicago’s “prettiest prisoner,” her lawyers said, suffered from what we might call “existential dread”: she was a dim-witted, lovely white woman who didn’t know who she was given the confusing times. Beulah’s story generated a lot of press.
While in jail, Beulah claimed, falsely, that she was pregnant (Illinois law prohibited executing an expectant mother). Her trial was delayed. More press. Beulah as a martyred mother-to-be. When the case finally did go to trial, the twelve-member jury (four of whom were bachelors) declared Beulah Annan not guilty. She died in a mental institution four years later.
When Fosse approached Watkins about adapting her play as a musical, she wasn’t interested. In the years after Chicago, she had become a born-again Christian who did not want to condone the wayward lives she had described in her play. Neither Fosse nor Verdon gave up on the project, and Chicago finally reached the stage in 1975, after Watkins’s death. It’s not difficult to discern what drew them to the play: it shows the Annan case for the vaudeville and latter-day amorality tale it was.
In Watkins’s play, a kind of comedy, Annan is renamed Roxie Hart. She lives in Chicago, where she lies in the hotbed of booze, men, and hotcha. Jazz is her downfall. This music, born out of minstrelsy and the blues in the Storyville section of New Orleans, was first called “Jass” music, in homage to the jasmine perfume that the prostitutes wore in the red-light district. Like so much black underground culture, it became a fashion among whites when it moved up north to cities like Chicago. Many flappers—the new independent women, who had been given the vote in 1920—claimed it as the soundtrack of their lives: fast, vibrant, wicked, so unlike the songs Mama had sung at the kitchen table.
Watkins’s play provided the outline that both Fosse and the makers of the current movie followed. In the play Roxie hates being a homebody. She’s also a hard case. In Chicago she marries—a girl must earn her living somehow—Amos Hart, a stand-up, nowhere guy who earns a meager living as a mechanic. The faucet drips in the tenement flat he shares with Roxie; Roxie thinks Amos is a drip, too. To relieve the boredom of her domestic life—and throw a little shine on her dirty linoleum—Roxie takes up with one Fred Casely, an auto salesman. Roxie wants to be a star. She knows show business is her true home, but how will she get there? Fred—her audience of one—tries to leave her. Roxie, disillusion smearing the greasepaint she thinks she’ll never get to wear, finds the convenient revolver—it’s a melodrama with laughs sometimes—and shoots.
After she mows Casely down, Roxie, like Annan, tells her husband that Casely was an intruder and that she shot him to protect herself against his advances. Amos supports her claim. At first. But then Amos learns Roxie has been the stiff’s lover and tells the police his wife tried to make him take the rap for it. But now he won’t. He’s no fool.
Thus busted, Roxie is carted off to jail. In jail she becomes—fame as a lure—one of the favorite girls of the prison matron, Mrs. Morton (Queen Latifah in the movie), because she is a favorite with the press, including the sob sister Mary Sunshine, who writes for a “dry” newspaper and enjoys nothing more than pointing out the corrosive effects of booze and jazz. Roxie is Velma Kelly’s least-favorite girl. Until Roxie made a name for herself, Velma was the prison’s star. (Velma, a minor character in the play, was based on a real murderess, the cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, who was, like Annan, eventually acquitted.)
In jail, Roxie becomes famous—a victim of her immoral times, as her lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere in the movie), tells reporters. He specializes in defending a new breed of criminal—the “jazz baby” who hits a sour note. When the reporters’ interest turns to other women who kill, Roxie’s story gets a little old. So, like Beulah, Roxie, not one to be upstaged, lies and says she’s pregnant. Every woman sympathizes. Not only does she have to go through the bother of being on trial for knocking off a creep, she has to raise a child.
Flynn treats the jury like an audience (and the audience like a jury). He razzle-dazzles them, using the familiar questions that bring out the familiar patriarchal: Is gallantry dead? How could this young woman, a mere provincial, end up in a courtroom, pregnant and alone? Who is the man responsible for this? Did he deserve to die? Why should Roxie die twice—first as a young girl with dreams, and now as a mother? Roxie gets off, presumably to pursue show biz beyond the gallows.
Watkins’s play opened in New York on December 30, 1926. It ran for 172 performances. In 1942, William Wellman directed his film version (the first, a silent movie, was released in 1927). Retitled Roxie Hart, it boasted Ginger Rogers as Roxie. The film is static, no more than a filmed play that tries, largely through Rogers’s frenetic performance—she’s much too old for the part and cracks gum and bats her eyelashes incessantly—to make up for its lethargy. Ginger’s Roxie murdered her lover—this time he’s a cheap chiseling producer—because he tried to walk out on her without offering her a contract. Roxie doesn’t regret murdering him. And in any case the newshounds are more interested in taking pictures of her gorgeous gams than understanding the “reason” she clipped him in the first place.
Roxie revels in her amorality. She even dances “The Black Bottom” to seduce a skeptical reporter—and her future husband. Ginger doesn’t hang either. She gets off because Roxie’s got moxie, and she’s cute and the nearly all-male jury loves her. But Roxie doesn’t end up a star. She marries the reporter who followed her case. They have seven children—a different kind of packed house. Texas Guinan, bathtub gin, and vengeance are all a thing of the past, like the rest of the Roaring Twenties, including Roxie herself.