Review: William A. Wellman’s “Roxie Hart,” Starring Ginger Rogers

Ginger Rogers in
Ginger Rogers in "Roxie Hart"

From director William A. Wellman, starring Ginger Rogers, Roxie Hart offers a satire of crime and celebrity in 1920s Chicago. Framed through flashback narration, the film follows Rogers as Roxie Hart—a young woman who, in order to become famous, takes the blame for a murder her husband committed. Egged on by her attorney Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), Hart dances, lies, and smiles all the way to the trial.

Based on Maurine Watkins’ 1926 play, Chicago, Hart’s story may sound familiar to some, as it was adapted in 2002 as Best Picture winner Chicago. While the 2002 version flaunts Hart’s sexuality and crimes, the 1942 adaption faced the Production Code Administration’s (PCA) forcing of some major changes that limited the film’s plot. In addition to limiting sexual content or innuendo, the code stated that criminals must be punished for their crimes and frowned upon anything that mocked government systems. This became quite a problem, as in the original play, Hart was the actual murderer and gets off free. If any studio wanted to make the film, several significant changes would have to be made.

A poster for the 1927 version of "Chicago"
A poster for the 1927 version of “Chicago”

Hollywood did want to make the film (a precode version in 1927 had already been successful). In February 1941 Columbia president Harry Cohn submitted the play to the code for consideration. PCA head Joseph Breen politely denied Cohn’s request, stating, “it is our considered judgment, then, that a picture based on this material would be in violation of the provisions of the Production Code and that we could not approve it,” citing the play’s “innumerable pages of sordid discussion,” and its “throw[ing] a very discreditable light upon the court process of our country,” along with expected objections to the murder and adultery throughout. 1. That must have convinced Cohn to give up, because by July, Fox had attained the rights—and submitted a first draft of an adaptation of the play to Breen, who responded in turn with a long list of objections.

Nunnally Johnson, having just received an Oscar nomination for adapting The Grapes of Wrath, was assigned to adapt the play. Johnson submitted two more drafts before the PCA accepted the story. In order to follow the code’s rules on criminals and punishment, Hart’s character was made innocent, confessing to the crime only in order to gain fame.

Johnson also drastically altered the structure of the film. In his script, the story is told through a series of flashbacks by a reporter who witnessed Hart’s trial firsthand. The young reporter falls in love with Hart and eventually she with him. This framing device seems unnecessary to the plot and draws the viewer out of Hart’s story. The young reporter’s relationship with the protagonist adds little, if any, dimension to Hart—why would a married young woman looking for fame fall in love with a seemingly pointless young journalist? As Johnson told The New York Times before the film’s release, setting the film in the twenties “took the curse off Miss Watkins’ cynicism because that age has now become as much a ‘period’ as the Civil War, and it is permissible to indicate wickedness flourished among the ancients.”2 The flashbacks ensured that the audience knew any such injustice or similar behavior in the contemporary moment would be unacceptable. Besides this strange framing, Johnson’s rewrites to fit the code hold up quite well.

The performances are the real highlight of the film. Rogers was best known to the public for her films with Fred Astaire, and as she wrote in her autobiography, additionally by RKO as being a “dancing-leading lady-comedienne.”3 Rogers, though, had begun to branch out just before making Roxie Hart. She said goodbye to her Astaire partnership in 1939, and won an Oscar at the beginning of 1941 for her performance in Kitty Foyle. By a stroke of luck, her seven year contract with RKO was up for renewal in May 1941. With her growing success, she was able to renegotiate her contract to allow her to work for other studios so long as she made three films for RKO over the next three years. This new contract allowed Fox to pick her up for the role of Roxie Hart. Rogers was not actually the studio’s first pick, but first-choice Alice Faye had just gotten pregnant.

Ginger Rogers surrounded by the cast of "Roxie Hart"
Ginger Rogers surrounded by the cast of “Roxie Hart”

Rogers definitely works hard to bring her character to life. At the time Variety reviewed her performance: “[Rogers] does well as the tough girl who is dazzled by the sudden attention, but seems to overdo her characterization at points.”4 While Rogers does tend towards the overly dramatic in her portrayal of Hart at some points, this seems to add to Hart’s charming allure as the girl willing to do anything for fame. The one questionable decision Rogers made was the addition of a short tap dancing sequence on the metal steps in the jail; there is no narrative purpose behind this number, and it seems tonally out of place even for a comedy. But Rogers requested this, writing in her autobiography, “since Roxie was supposed to be a dancer, I thought I should work a little tap routine into the proceedings . . . Twentieth-Century Fox didn’t have a metal staircase on hand and had to go to a good deal of trouble to locate one. It was finally found in a the wreckage from a demolished building.”5 While Fox clearly found the sequence to be worth the trouble, it does not stand well today.

The supporting actors in Roxie Hart are what truly bring the film together. Without them, there would not be half as many laughs. Both Adolphe Menjou and George Chandler (who plays Hart’s husband) had working relationships with Wellman. Menjou, incredibly successful in his time in Hollywood, charms and glides his way through the show business of Hart’s trials effortlessly, while Chandler provides great comic relief. These two men, as well as the group of reporters, bolster the film and really nail the ridiculous nature of celebrity in criminals.

Despite the production’s complications, Wellman created an entertaining and well-acted satire. Despite Variety considering it to be “solely for adult attention” in the forties, it would contemporarily be considered just barely racy.6 While not one of Wellman or Rogers’ most memorable films, Roxie Hart provides a good case study on how the Production Code affected storytelling.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on Amazon

For More on Roxie Hart

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Joseph Breen to Harry Cohn, February 24, 1941. Hollywood, California.
2. Thomas Brady, “Hollywood ‘Alert,’” New York Times, December 14, 1941.
3. Ginger Rogers, Ginger: My Story (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 220.
4. “Review: Roxie Hart” Variety, February 4, 1942.
5. Rogers 1991, 240.
6. “Review: Roxie Hart” Variety, February 4, 1942.