Roxie Hart (1942)

Standard

By Scott Ross

A highly stylized adaptation by Nunnally Johnson of the Maureen Watkins play Chicago, which Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb later transmigrated into their musical with John Kander – and which that venerated hack Rob Marshall betrayed with his inexplicably popular movie. (Which violated the very spirit of musicals by its idiotically literal insistence that the numbers be justified. Why do a musical, then?)

Directed with a rather surprisingly arch eye by William Wellman, it is, like the Fosse musical, a full-out attack on celebrity-worship, the law, the press, accepted pieties and the audience itself, which somehow got by the Breen Office censors – presumably because of the softened ending, which one can see coming fairly early on and which is, although “ironic,” a bit of a let-down, especially since the movie itself is so magnificently, sometimes wildly, funny. Ginger Rogers, fresh off her Oscar win (and just prior to her pluperfect three-point turn in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor) looks spectacular, fully embraces Roxy’s cheapness and vulgarity , and has a great impromptu tap-dance on the jail-house stairs. (Although you can’t quite believe it; if Roxy is that good, why couldn’t she make it in show-biz?)

Roxie_Hart_-_1942_-_Poster

Alfred Newman’s score incorporates, very wittily, some choice 1920s musical hits, and the great supporting cast includes Adolphe Menjou (as Billy Flynn), Lynne Overman as the chief louse among the reporters, Nigel Bruce, Phil Silvers as an peerlessly annoying press photographer, Sara Allgood (as “Matron” Morton), William Frawley, Spring Byington (as Mary Sunshine), George Chandler (as a rather rat-like Amos), George Lessey (as the Judge, who manages to get his face into every courtroom photo) and Iris Adrian (as “Two-Gun” Gertie.)

Roxie’s father, informed by telephone that his daughter has been arrested on a charge of murder, to his wife: They’re going to hang Roxie.

Roxie’s mother: What did I tell you?

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Richard Llewellyn’s massive novel about a Welsh mining family, filmed with a melancholy poet’s eye by John Ford. It was Orson Welles’ bad luck to enter the Oscar race with Citizen Kane against this moving yet resolutely unsentimental saga — not that the Academy would have given him the awards anyway. (Interestingly, both movies were shot by the great Gregg Toland.) The cast is uniformly superb: Donald Crisp as the kind-hearted patriarch, Sara Allgood as the mother, and Walter Pigeon as the gentle minister whose love for the radiant Maureen O’Hara is doomed to mutual frustration.

But the revelation is little Roddy McDowall as Hew, the sensitive youngest son. McDowall later claimed that Ford “played me like a harp,” but the director was astonished by the boy’s innate abilities: Watching McDowall rehearse the scene in which Hew first enters school, and noting the way the child sat at his desk completely in character, staring forward and finding his seat with one buttock, the director remarked to an onlooker, “That kid is so good he acts with his ass!” The final shot of McDowall, his dead father in his arms and shattered beyond feeling, is like the more vaunted image of Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, but far less studied and academic… and infinitely more devastating.

Phillip Dunne did the splendid adaptation, and the spirited score is by Alfred Newman. His theme for the lovers is so tender and delicate it sounds as though it could shatter if you breathed too hard on it.

My only complaint about this luminous portrait of familial warmth in adversity is the comic moment in which Allgood douses Crisp with a bucket of water as he’s about to light up his pipe after a day’s work in the mines. You just know that woman would never have done such a thing to a man who labored under those conditions.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross