Here’s another installment in our “where did the story for that musical come from?” file – DVD division. The musical Chicago was drawn from a real-life story that was first a series of newspaper articles, then a comedy on Broadway, then a silent movie, then a sound movie, and only then, a musical blending the concepts of a vaudeville show with the structure of a book musical.
The missing link in the development has long been the silent movie, a 1928 release from the famed Cecil B. DeMille Studio. It was assumed to be lost forever as no print was known to have survived and old movies like that had been printed on nitrate film – a crystalized nitroglycerine that disintegrated with time and was known to spontaneously combust, often taking whole libraries in the resulting conflagration.
Now, in one of those fortuitous discoveries that keeps hope alive, a print has been discovered in the personal collection of Mr. DeMille himself, and it has been lovingly transferred to digital disc for commercial release by a company called Flicker Alley. The 104 minute film makes marvelous viewing – at least it does for one view. It is a fine example of the art of its time, which is to say that tastes and techniques have progressed over the more than 80 years since these actors performed in the melodramatic mode of the day and the story progresses at what would be considered a snail’s pace in the age of MTV quick cuts. Fans of old movies will find the package a delight on its own merits but fans of modern musical theater will find the historic import and the relationship to the musical they know to be plenty of reason to immerse themselves in the package with its fine visual restoration, its newly composed score based on themes from its era and the bonus material of note.
It takes you back to the pre-depression, pre-WWII, pre-cold war, pre- … -well, pre lots of things era when newspaper reporter Maurine Watkins found a “hook” for coverage of a fairly run-of-the-mill crime story to get herself some front page coverage. The attitude of a woman accused of shooting her lover when he suggested that he would leave her – “No woman can love a man enough to kill him – they aren’t worth it because there are always plenty more” – made good copy. For the Chicago Tribune, Watkins covered her case and another of an accused murderess who announces her pregnancy at a key moment. Later, when Watkins moved on to New York and tried her hand at playwriting, she turned the cases into a comedy skewering the appetite of the public for notorious details of the crime world and the equal appetite of some criminals for notoriety.
The play Chicago opened on Broadway just after Christmas in 1926 and ran for about five months in the theatre Irving Berlin and Sam H. Harris had built for Berlin’s Music Box Reviews. The Cecil B. DeMille Studios bought the rights and filmed a fairly faithful version with the director’s credit going to Frank Urson. In fact, it appears that DeMille personally directed the majority of the film but hesitated to put his name on it as director for fear of detracting from the marketability of his latest big release, “King of Kings.” In 1942, a sound film drew from the material using the fictitious names that Watkins had used for her play and for the silent film, and Ginger Rodgers ended up starring as “Roxie Hart.”
Then, in 1975, the tale of the merry murderesses of Chicago opened at Broadway’s 16th Street Theatre (which we know today as the Richard Rodgers Theatre) with a jazzy score by John Kander and Fred Ebb putting each plot point in a single scene in the style of a different vaudeville act with Gwen Verdon as “Roxie Hart,” Chita Rivera as “Velma Kelly” and Jerry Orbach as the $5,000 fee (in advance!) lawyer “Billy Flynn.” It got the kind of notices that mark a hit, was nominated for eleven Tonys and ran for almost a thousand performances. But it was something of a case of collateral damage when Broadway was struck by a hurricane known as A Chorus Line just a month later. A Chorus Line began a history-making 6,137 performance run of fifteen years and was nominated for 12 Tonys – it won nine of them, including those in almost all the categories in which Chicago had been nominated. Chicago didn’t get one. But Chicago’s revival may well be a get even event, as it has been running for fourteen years now and is closing in on A Chorus Line’s magic number with over 5,600 performances to date.
Flicker Alley’s transfer of the print of the silent “Chicago” appears to have been handled in a manner that could serve as a model for the preservation/restoration of the heritage of film. When the print was discovered in Mr. DeMille’s collection it was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Producer David Shephard of Film Preservation Associates mastered the digital video transfer at the original 25 frames a second so there is none of the distracting speedup effect of so many video versions of old movies.
The feature is accompanied by a sound track of a seven-piece chamber orchestra, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, playing a score created by Rodney Sauer from themes found in the collections of the music directors of silent movie theaters including some that were specified in the original film’s “cue sheet.” An interesting article by Sauer in the booklet accompanying the DVD explains how the score was assembled as an “example of a score that could have been heard in a theater when this film was first released.”
While it takes some allowances for the acting style of the day, the performances of Phyllis Haver as “Roxie Hart” Victor Varconi as “Amos Hart” and Robert Edeson as lawyer “William Flynn” are each effective and affecting. Fans of the Kander and Ebb musical with its book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, will find the character of “Amos Hart” the most interesting revelation. In the silent film he’s nowhere near the “Mr. Cellophane” he is in the more modern version.
The film is packaged in a two disc set with interesting but hardly indispensable extras including a compilation of newsreel footage of the era, “The Golden Twenties” produced by The March of Time, and a documentary from 1985 titled “The Flapper Story” made up principally of interviews with mature women who had once been flappers. The disc even comes with a PDF file with the texts of the original Chicago Tribune newspaper articles – fascinating reading.
Flicker Alley’s catalogue contains a wide variety of other gems rescued from either obscurity or complete extinction. Their title “Saved From The Flames” is a collection of short films that have literally escaped the ravages of time. What a thrill to watch George Pal’s use of wooden puppets in stop-action animation (one frame exposed at a time) to create a vocal and dance segment of “Harbor Lights” that rivals anything Busby Berkeley put on film. A collection of films by Georges Méliès includes some sumptuous tinting from as early as 1909 and “Under Full Sail” is a collection of five silent films that are set on the high seas. None, however, offer as much fascination for the theatre lover as does this view of the origin of the great musical that shares its title – Chicago.