Hello, Persephoneers! This week’s classic movie pick is “Roxie Hart,” made in 1942 and based on the play Chicago by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The movie stars Ginger Rogers, Adolph Menjou, and George Montgomery and was directed by William Wellman. The play was based on Watkins’s coverage of the Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan murder trials in 1924. At that time, Chicago saw an explosion of murder trials in which the defendants were women and the press was eating it up.
The movie opens with a conversation between crime journalists in a bar, and Homer Howard (Montgomery) begins to regale everyone with his coverage of the Roxie Hart murder trial. Roxie is accused of murdering her lover, Fred Casely, and she sees it as an opportunity to become famous. She and her husband hire hotshot attorney Billy Flynn (Menjou) to defend her, and she and Flynn both exploit the media and the public’s hunger for juicy details to engineer her acquittal of murder by an all-male jury.
The film perfectly captures Watkins’s disgust and fascination with the Annan trial. Rogers plays a brassy, unrefined Roxie who has dreams of leaving her drab, humdrum life for the heights of stardom and who will do anything to do it. Billy Flynn, determined to see his defendant acquitted, helps her to polish her story and portray her as a woman who was acting to defend herself from Casely, who, according to her testimony, intended to kill her. Roxie is transformed into a fragile, broken woman who never meant to do anything wrong, despite the fact that she slyly chews her gum as though she knows exactly what she is doing. And the newspapers, always eager for a good story, eat all of it up, causing the other woman defendants to compete for the media’s attention.
Watkins satires the way in which these women’s defense attorneys used the media and the Victorian view of women as fragile, delicate creatures to ensure acquittals for their clients. Many of the women who were acquitted were quite guilty of the murders they had committed. They all shared one thing, though: Many of them were young, attractive white women, and all-male juries were more likely be sympathetic toward them. Watkins did not believe that this was fair; in her mind, these women’s attorneys were a little too vigorous in their defense, and they should be criticized for using the court of public opinion to sway the juries. It’s still a common practice in our justice system that is sometimes considered a problem.
For the record, both Annan and Gaertner were both acquitted of their crimes and went on to live somewhat normal lives. Watkins continued to write both plays and screenplays until the 1940s. Douglas Perry’s book The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired “Chicago” gives an excellent account of the crimes and trials and of the newspaper industry of the time, if you would like to read further.