Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chicago (2002)

Bailiff: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
Velma: "And then some."

Title: Chicago
Genre: Musical
Year: 2002
Rated: PG-13

Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart
Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly 
Richard Gere as Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah as Mama Morton
John C. Reilly as Amos Hart
Taye Diggs as The Bandleader
Christine Baranski as Mary Sunshine

Plot: Two murderesses compete for the limelight to avoid the gallows in 1920's Chicago.

Based on: “Chicago” the Broadway musical, which was based on the 1943 film Roxie Hart which was based on the murders
Setting: Chicago, Illinois; 1920’s.

Tagline: If you can't be famous, be infamous.

First Viewing: Borrowed from my grandma on VHS in January of 2003.
Added to the list: Summer of 2003.

I have this problem with movie musicals. Generally, I hate them the first time I watch them and then, for some reason, I end up watching them again and I grow to really enjoy them. In some cases, the musical even gets added to My List. (Okay, in two cases.) But Chicago is one of the lucky two. I bet you can't wait to find out why either.

It's the jazz age Chicago, Illinois when folks made bath tub gin and Al Capone did the Charleston on a flag pole. Crime is running rampant. Women are lifting their skirts, flattening their breasts and bobbing their hair. It's a crazy, trashy time when young (?) Roxie Hart watches as the Velma Kelly performs at the Onyx nightclub and is shortly arrested for killing her adulterous husband and sister (and half of her act) Veronica.

Meanwhile, Roxie is carrying on an affair with Fred Casely, a furniture salesman with apparent connections down at the Onyx. A month passes and starstruck Roxie still hasn't been given her own act. Fred has grown tired of Roxie and tells her she has no talent. So Roxie pulls her husband's pistol from her bureau and blows him away.

When her husband Amos returns from work, she convinces him to cover for her. But when it's discovered that Fred is indeed not a burglar, Roxie is taken down to the clink and introduced to prison matron Mama Morton and the six merry murderesses. Roxie tries to befriend Velma and ask her for career advice but is rebuffed.

Mama takes pity on Roxie and hooks her up with Illinois's best criminal lawyer, Billy Flynn who is currently representing Velma. Amos, eager to get his wife out of prison, agrees to gather $5,000 to pay for her defense. Roxie's image as America's Sweetheart is created along with her defense that she and Fred Casely "both reached for the gun." Velma is pushed out of the spotlight and tries and fails to get on Roxie's good side.

However, a triple homicide threatens to steal Roxie's thunder, so she fakes a pregnancy which speeds up her trial. Velma is brought in as a witness for the prosecution. She brings Roxie's diary with her which has a confession to Fred's murder. Billy accuses the D.A. of tampering with evidence and berating him for making a bargain with Velma. (Billy is actually the culprit).

Eventually, Roxie is found innocent. But stardom does not follow. Instead, the press moves on to a new murder. Amos realizes the pregnancy was faked and leaves Roxie. She makes the rounds trying to get into showbiz. Velma finds her and suggests they join forces despite their mutual hatred. The two become a huge success and live happily ever after...

Chicago is one of those movies on The List that doesn't strike an emotional chord with me. I don't identify with the characters. Not even on that "I-desperately-want-to-be-famous!" level. (That passed in kindergarten). In fact none of the characters in this story are even remotely sympathetic, maybe with the exception of Amos. But he's such a fool, you can only feel a twinge of pity for him.

So why, oh why, do I like this movie? Well, it's a musical, so the music is a HUGE reason. Possibly the most important reason. All of the songs are likable, catchy, and fun to sing. And according to Wikipedia, each of the songs are based on a certain style of vaudeville. Here are so examples (stolen from Wikipedia!):

"When You're Good to Mama" - a Sophie Tucker/Mae West/Pearl Bailey double entendre song.

"Roxie" - an autobiographical, observational stand up comedy routine ala Fanny Brice.

 "Mr. Cellophane" - a clown number reminiscent of Bert Williams.

Along with the music, I also love the production design of this movie. It's what I like to call trashy chic. All of the opulence and grand romantic design of the Victorian and Edwardian eras is slowly deteriorating because those jazz age kids have too many other things on their minds than to take care of their parents' antiques. This is definitely reflected in the opening scene at the Onyx Club. What was probably once a grandiose theatre has turned into sleazy speakeasy. 

What must not be forgotten is before Chicago was a Kander & Ebb musical,  it was the real life murder trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.

Only a smidgen of similarity remains in the original Velma and Roxie.  Belva Gaertner (the inspiration for Velma) was an alcoholic cabaret singer who shot her married lover when she discovered he was leaving her. Gaertner was later acquitted of the crime. Beulah Annan moved from Kentucky to Chicago with her auto mechanic husband. She soon began having an affair. After an argument, Annan shot him in the back and then convinced her husband to take the fall. Her story changed several times. By the time of the trial, Annan claimed she had told her paramour she was pregnant, they struggled and both reached for the gun. Annan was also acquitted.

This real life happening has been the inspiration for several fictional adaptations. Maurine Dallas Watkins, a journalist in 1920's Chicago who had reported on the Gaertner and Annan trials eventually wrote the story as a stage play in 1926. One year later, the play was adapted to the silver screen and produced by Cecil B. DeMille. 1942 had another, sanitized version entitled Roxie Hart, where Ginger Rogers in the title role confesses to the murder to gain popularity, even though it was her husband who did the deed.

In the late 60's Bob Fosse's wife read the original play and wondered if it could be adapted. Maurine Dallas Watkins had since become a born again Christian and believed her play glamorized violence and that hedonistic lifestyle. But when she died in 1969, her estate sold the rights. Finally, in 1975, John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the music to Chicago while Bob Fosse directed and choreographed.

That's just some regurgitated history on Chicago that you could get off of Wikipedia, but I just wanted to pad this blog entry a bit. Anyway...I love Chicago. End of post.

No comments: