When you think of Chicago, chances are good that the musical and probably the film version of that musical spring to mind. What you might not know, though, is that both are actually based on a play that debuted in 1926, a play that inspired a silent film version the following year.
Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner (negatives from the Chicago Daily News archives)
Watkins penned the play and it premiered on Broadway in late December 1926 and ran for 172 performances. Hollywood took note and Cecil B. DeMille quickly snapped up the rights (for $25,000 - the equivalent of $320,000 today) to produce a film adaptation and tapping the beautiful Phyllis Haver to play the lead role of Roxie Hart. Although Frank Urson is credited as director, DeMille actually directed most of the film.
Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart
The story follows Roxie Hart, a gold-digging jazz singer looking to make a name for herself who takes advantage of her husband’s devotion to her. After her lover ends their affair, she shoots him in a state of rage and is terrified that she’ll be tried and put to death. She lies to her husband, saying the man was attempting to rob and violate her, and although he suspects the truth, he agrees to take the blame for her. The fact that Roxie was the killer gets out and the papers are instantly fascinated with her, something that Roxie relishes. The game quickly becomes one of manipulation, presenting Roxie as something she’s not to sway the judge, jury, press and court audience. Although Roxie quite literally gets away with murder, she ends up without a husband, without a home and with nothing but the clothes on her back. Not even the public cares enough to notice her, because they’ve already moved on to the next murderous adulteress.
Roxie and Velma are separated during a cat fight in prison.
Chicago served as more than just the backdrop for Roxie Hart’s run-ins with the law. During the early days of silent film, it was the home of many major film studios, and even briefly served as Charlie Chaplin’s home. Learn more about Chicago’s silent film past.