Roxie Hart (1942)

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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?)

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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

Top Hat (1935) / Swing Time (1936)

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By Scott Ross

No one should be forced to chose a single Astaire-Rogers musical.

Top Hat is probably the better movie: it’s swifter, more sparkling, lays some nice emphasis on those two incomparable sissies Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton, and boasts a pluperfect Irving Berlin score that includes a title song that elegantly sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire — whom Graham Greene once called the human equivalent of Mickey Mouse. (That isn’t the insult it seems; in the early ‘30s Mickey was not yet the figure of respectability he became; he was rambunctious, elastic, mischievous, even slightly cruel — just like Fred.)

Swing Time, despite its occasional longuers and a truly silly finale, has a Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score that is just about the greatest of its kind, and inspired Astaire to one of his supreme achievements: the duet with Rogers on “Never Gonna Dance.” Shot in a single take, the final portion of this breathless medley of everything for which we love these two required endless re-takes, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Rogers’ feet started to bleed.

A side-note: Astaire was one of the American songbook’s great stylists, but just compare the way he listens to Ginger singing with the manner in which she takes in his vocalizations. He smiles a lot but looks faintly bored; she hangs on every word whether she’s facing him or not, and always seems to be hearing them for the first time. She not only (in Sylvia Fine’s memorable phrase) “did everything Fred did, backwards and in heels”; she also acted him off the screen.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross