Roxie Hart (William Wellman / U.S., 1942):

Jazz Age venality, longed for "ever since the democrats got a hold of the country." The eponymous heroine (Ginger Rogers) is a half-bright flapper parachuted into a tenement shootout -- a throwaway news item, but a spiky refugee from The Front Page (Lynne Overman) juices it up into a sensational scandal and the gum-chewer becomes a celebrity prisoner. The brassy center of a fickle media whirlwind, she eagerly takes advantage of old Chicago’s gallantry and horniness, is leered at, dotted over, celebrated (she’s "a garden of hollyhocks," or, simply, "female and ambitious"). Innocence is promptly discarded: "You are supposed to build up a story, not tear it down," the callow journalist (George Montgomery) is taught throughout the show. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay sows cynical seeds reaped three decades later by Bob Fosse, William Wellman stages it with plenty of what Manny Farber called "practical-joke violence" (and also rolls up the entire first reel of Nothing Sacred into a single joke with Roxie’s Ma and Pa on a rural porch). The outstanding gallery of connivers includes George Chandler as Roxie’s hapless husband, Phil Silvers as the photographer capturing the courtroom frenzies, and Adolphe Menjou in a beautiful rendition of the shyster in full flight; visiting Brits like Nigel Bruce’s wry theatrical agent and Sara Allgood’s head-slamming prison matron add their appreciation for this American madness. The bookending sequences revealing the story as a saloon countertop remembrance give the nearly imperceptibly poignant effect of a smitten barkeep’s (William Frawley) Chekhovian longing; the punchline locks the heroine, "yesterday’s news," into a domestic vision as stifling as any jail. With Spring Byington, Iris Adrian, Ted North, Helene Reynolds, and Jeff Corey. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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