Posted by Susan Doll on March 6, 2017
When I lived in Chicago, I enjoyed learning the city’s history—not the events you find in text books but the city’s pop culture history. Chicago was that toddlin’ town where notorious gangsters opened red-hot nightclubs in which soon-to-be-famous singers and comedians launched their careers; or, serial killers trolled for victims at the larger-than-life Columbian Exposition of 1893; or, the yellow press turned nobodies into celebrities because the competition to sell papers was so cutthroat. (See last week’s post on the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal.)
One of my favorite Chicago stories occurred in 1924 when two Jazz Age babies murdered their lovers within a month of each other. Their cases provided the basis for the 1926 play Chicago, which became the silent film Chicago (1927). Three decades later, Bob Fosse turned the story into the Broadway musical Chicago, which was adapted for the screen in 2002. FilmStruck offers you the chance to compare both film versions because they are currently available for streaming as part of the All Hart theme.
The tale of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, the main characters of Chicago, is based on the real-life escapades of two 1920s flappers. The antics of Beulah Annan provided the background for the Roxie Hart character, while the case of Belva Gaertner was the inspiration for Velma Kelly. A cashier in a laundry, Beulah was married to mechanic Albert Annan while carrying on a flirtation with coworker Harry Kolstedt. During a lovers’ quarrel, Beulah shot Harry in the back. Unsure of her next step, she cranked up the record player and listened to “Hula Lou” for three hours while she deliberated. Finally, she decided to phone her husband for help—not the best decision, because he called the police who hauled Beulah away. Over the next few days, Beulah changed her story many times before deciding on a version in which she shot Kolstedt to protect herself and her honor. During the trial, which according to the Chicago Tribune may have been the first to allow newsreel cameras in the courtroom, Beulah revealed that she was pregnant, which cinched her acquittal in May 1924. Two days later, she left her husband who had—surprisingly—stood by her during the trial.
Belva had been a singer in one of the cabarets that sprang up in Chicago during World War I. She quickly landed millionaire William Gaertner, and the two were married in 1917. By 1920, Belva was cheating, and Gaertner threatened divorce. The millionaire hired off-duty police detectives to watch Belva to make sure she did not carry off any of the furniture in the house, which apparently worried him more than her cheating. Belva fought back by hiring her own detectives to watch Gaertner’s team to make sure they didn’t falsify their reports about her daily activities. Belva and Gaertner divorced, and the wayward flapper continued to live fast and loose. On March 12, 1924, she spent the afternoon drinking with her lover, a married car salesman named Walter Law. They ended up in front of Belva’s apartment building where the two quarreled because Walter wanted to end the relationship. Police found him slumped over dead in Belva’s car. During the trial, Belva claimed she didn’t remember the events of the day, noting “We got drunk and he got killed with my gun in my car. But gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don’t they.” Belva must have been convincing, because despite the fact that her lawyer offered no opening remarks, no witnesses, and no closing statement, the teary-eyed jazz baby was acquitted. Despite their lucky breaks with sympathetic juries, neither Beulah nor Belva would lead a happy life.
After the two acquittals, reporter Maureen Watkins, who had covered both trials extensively, fictionalized her articles into the stories of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly for her 1926 play Chicago. Watkins, who likely contributed to the acquittals of Beulah and Belva with the melodramatic tone of her news articles, shaped the material into an indictment of the tabloid press as well as a criticism of a corrupt judicial system.
The following year, Cecil B. DeMille turned it into a successful silent film. The film focuses almost entirely on Roxie Hart, who is played by Phyllis Haver. A tremendous silent film actress, Haver knew how to use her physicality to its advantage. When Roxie’s lover knocks her around after announcing he is leaving her, Haver tumbles backwards into a startling position that makes her look at first like a victim and then like a predator as she grabs a gun and shoots the unarmed man. Later in jail, she starts an argument with Velma Kelly over who has received the most press coverage. Strangely enough, Velma is shown using an old-fashioned fat-reducing machine — the kind with the leather band that you put around your waist as the machine jiggles the fat from your body. The girls start to brawl while Velma is still jiggling in the machine. A mass of legs and arms tumble into frame as the two women engage in the funniest catfight I have ever seen onscreen.
The year 1927 was the height of the flapper craze on film, though the archetype had appeared in magazines and novels since the early 1920s. Being a flapper was about more than just fashion; flappers smoked, drank, club-hopped, worked and acted in ways that were the complete opposite of women in traditional roles. Newspapers and magazines were full of articles debating the effect of flappers on our society, some denounced them, others defended them. Like the play, the film version of Chicago criticized the press for turning news into entertainment and manipulating public opinion, but DeMille also shaped Roxie’s story into a fable about the foibles of flapperhood.
Fifteen years later, when the country and the film industry were long past an obsession with flappers, another version of Chicago was released titled Roxie Hart. Directed by William Wellman, the script altered details of the story to fit the norms of movie-making during the Golden Age. The character of Roxie was shaped to fit Ginger Rogers’s star image. For example, though Roxie Hart is not a musical, Rogers gets an opportunity to show off her dancing skills in two scenes: She dances the “black hula,” which mesmerizes a young reporter who falls in love with her, and performs an awe-inspiring tap dance up and down a set of steps. Unlike the calculating protagonist of the silent version, Rogers’ dim, gum-chewing Roxie is fun-loving, naïve and vivacious, which helps to showcase the star’s comic abilities.
Broadway musical star Gwen Verdon saw Roxie Hart and wanted her husband Bob Fosse to buy the property and turn it into a musical. Maurine Watkins had become a born-again Christian in her senior years and did not want to let go of the rights to her risqué play. Finally, when she died, her estate sold the rights to Fosse, who turned it into Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville during the mid-1970s—the height of the Watergate era. The play’s condemnation of corrupted social institutions suited the times just as it had in the 1920s. Fosse also sharpened the role of the press in his work, displaying how tabloids shaped public opinion and commented on our culture’s ever-growing fascination with celebrity. Fosse’s musical was eclipsed by the more sentimental A Chorus Line during the 1970s, but when it was revived on Broadway as Chicago: The Musical in the 1990s, the theme of celebrity obsession perfectly fit the times.
Fosse also expanded the role of Velma Kelly for his play. Velma appears in only one scene in the silent version of Chicago and doesn’t appear in Roxie Hart at all, though there is a Velma Wall in a very, very tiny role. In the play and in the 2002 film, the expanded Velma role and an increased focus on the other women in the Cook County Jail recalls a theme found in Maureen Watkins’ original articles. That theme is echoed in the notorious “Cellblock Tango” number, in which several characters reveal the stories behind their crimes and offer insight into why men drive women to murder. Like Beulah and Belva, Velma and Roxie learn that marriage is not the fairy tale it’s cracked up to be. Unlike Beulah and Belva, they learn to make it on their own.
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