William A. Wellman
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Twentieth Century Fox DVD
Roxie Hart, a 1942 comedy produced and written for the screen by the great Nunnally Johnson (with an uncredited assist by the equally great Ben Hecht), is an adaptation of the play, Chicago, by Maurine Dallas Watkins and a precursor to the Bob Fosse musical and Miramax film of the same title. Anyone who has seen that Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2002 — and judging from the box office and DVD rental receipts, there seems to be few who have not — knows the basic story of Roxie Hart: a girl shoots a guy and then cynically parlays her apparent misfortune into big fame. It is a situation ripe with opportunity for satire and that is exactly what Johnson, with the able help of director William Wellman, wrings every drop of from this material.
Like the best of comedies from the Golden Age of cinema, Roxie Hart combines timeless comedic situations with a flood of historical, literary, and pop culture references — everything from Lucrezia Borgia to Barney Google — all delivered by seasoned performers such as Ginger Rogers (a sparkling comedienne who has, to this day, not received her due as such), Adolph Menjou (here giving a marvelously undignified performance as a manipulative lawyer), and the best character actors of the day including Phil Silvers, Sarah Allgood, Lynne Overman, Nigel Bruce, Spring Byington, and William Frawley (better known as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s landlord, Fred Mertz). While not a musical, the film does afford Rogers a moment or two to strut her considerable dancing talent, but those moments emerge from the irrepressible vivacity of the character she plays and are not in any way out of keeping with the rest of the film. One scene has Roxie getting a room full of newspaper reporters to jitterbug, the only surprising aspect of which is that it does not come as a surprise at all.
It is unfair to compare this film with Chicago since they are not actually adaptations of the same material. At the same time, I do question why this version of the Roxie Hart story, sixty-some years old, feels fresher and livelier than the version made just two years ago. Chicago was entertaining enough, but took itself so seriously as to suck all the actual fun right out of its promised Big-Time entertainment. Roxie Hart, on the other hand, aims to pack its brisk 74 minutes with as many wisecracks, sight gags, witticisms, and spoofs as it can without collapsing under its own weight. I cannot imagine a film as amusing, biting, erudite, witty, and just plain fun as Roxie Hart being made today, and that is a terribly depressing thought.