Directed by: Frank Urson, Cecil B. DeMille (uncredited)
Starring: Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi, Eugene Pallette, Robert Edeson, May Robson
Before it was sanitized as a Ginger Rogers comedy and before it was musicalized, Maureen Dallas Watkins’ play Chicago saw screen life as a 1927 silent produced—and presumably directed—by Cecil B. DeMille. (The film is credited to Frank Urson, which was likely to keep DeMille’s name off it as director, since the scandalous nature of the material wasn’t suitable for the man who just made King of Kings.) The results are just as cynical and amoral as the 2002 Rob Marshall film—and maybe a little more so. They certainly make for a fascinating comparison.
As far as the DeMille business is concerned, it’s impossible to watch Chicago and not conclude that it’s his work—assuming you’re familiar with DeMille. Even if he didn’t direct it—and my guess is that he did—he’s obviously in control of the film. The sense of humor is his. (The gum-smacking trio watching the trial is pure DeMille.) The style is his. The overt sexuality is his—as is the way he handles it. (DeMille is nothing if not unsubtle.) The tendency to want to moralize is his. Our own tendency to hold DeMille in mild contempt as a man who made preposterously silly movies is not unreasonable, but that doesn’t keep him from having a discernible style all his own.
The film itself is a curious mix of sophistication and naivete. The overall cynical notion of getting away with murder overrides everything else—whereas the trial, amusing as it is, is presented in a pretty simplistic manner. This could be viewed as a comment on the credulous nature of a jury of 12 men when faced with a pretty girl, but that’s giving the film credit for a subtlety it doesn’t really evidence. It is, in any case, a solidly crafted late silent, and one that is typical of the period in its fluid nature.
The story differs in a number of ways from the musical version. Amos Hart (Victor Varconi) is considerably less of a pathetic loser than the later incarnation, while the character of Velma (Julia Faye) is a very minor one here (certainly nothing like the Catherine Zeta-Jones character in Marshall’s film). The dynamics of the plot are close to identical, however, except that this film veers toward melodrama on several occasions in a way the later version doesn’t. It’s not a great film (frankly, neither is the musical), but it’s a consistently interesting one.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Chicago at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 22, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.