My experience of the 42nd Chicago International Film Festival came to an end on Wednesday with a radical departure from the rest of the slate, that somehow seemed weirdly appropriate: Chicago, a 1927 comedy based on a play based on a true story that would ultimately yield two other films and a Broadway musical.
It's an extremely rare film: there is only one decent print in existence (the one that I saw), and that has only existed since UCLA restored the film earlier this year. And while it's not a victory for the world of cinema in the same way that finding a complete print of Greed would be, it's an objective good that this film exists again. Chicago, even more so than the diverse set of its descendants, is a brilliant satire of celebrity culture and America's pornographic love of violence; "the more things change, the more they stay the same" is a damned cliché, all the more damnable for being true, but it applies perfectly to a nearly 80-year-old film that feels as fresh and honest as if it had been written in response to pick-your-favorite-current-scandal.
Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver) is a boozing, jazz-loving playgirl in Chicago, circa 1924, living off of her boyfriends' money and making a general fool of her husband Amos (Victor Varconi). This ends on the day that her current love, Mr. Casely (Eugene Pallette) tries to walk out on her, which she responds to with a few bullets. She becomes an instant celebrity, finagles the service of high-profile lawyer William Flynn (Robert Edeson), and gets away scott-free to enjoy her fame - just as another brassy jazz girl shoots a woman right in the courthouse.
It's familiar to anyone who's seen either the stage or screen version of the Kander & Ebb musical (I hope you have, and I hope it's the former), although there are considerable cosmetic changes that aren't worth looking at. In sum, it's all the same story: have a pretty face and a good line, and not only can you get away with murder, you can be a hero while doing it. The play was written by Chicago Tribune veteran Maurine Dallas Watkins, who blamed her sensational stories for helping two guilty women to escape death row, but nothing here betrays that: it's cynical and snarky, decades before those became the default position of all comedy.
The success of the film - and it is significant - rests completely on the shoulders of Phyllis Haver. An extremely prolific character actor in the teens and twenties, this is one of her very few leading roles, and the only one of her vehicles which I have ever seen; and somehow, despite being so very unheralded, her work here is without a doubt one of the best silent film performances I have ever seen. Haver's Roxie is a much subtler version than the musical leaves room for, and better than Ginger Roger's loopier take on the role in 1942. She's a schemer, but a much sharper schemer than in the later versions ("much sharper" really describes most of the characters in the film), and Haver never lets us forget that she's in control of every situation: a great example is late during the courtroom scene near the film's end, when she very slightly hikes up her skirt, and even more slightly peeks over to make sure the jury is watching (this leads to one of the film's best bawdy jokes, but I'll leave that as a surprise: it's going to come to DVD eventually, so rent the thing). It's pointlessly obvious to note that silent actors performed with their eyes more than anything else, but I will note it anyway, as Haver succeeds at this as well as I've ever seen. It's a grand comic performance, not without it's traces of violence, and it pushes an already fine script into brilliance.
As credited, the film was directed by Frank Urson, a minor figure if ever there was one; but modern scholarship agrees that producer Cecil B. DeMille played anywhere from a significant to an overriding role in creating the final product. I am no DeMille expert, but this seems reasonable: it is a rather sophisticated comedy in the vein he was mining before exploding into religious epics shortly before Chicago's release. Whomever the director, it is solid film and much tighter than many of its contemporaries. Scenes go on for not one moment longer than they should, and the comic tension of the film builds for well over an hour with hardly any flagging. (Allegedly, the film was projected too slowly at its August UCLA re-premiere; I imagine that would have sucked a lot of the air out of the comedy. At any rate, it was 24 fps in Chicago, and I'm glad of it).
Which is not that the film is perfectly-paced; it is too long. Whenever will I call a film too short? In this case, the film has a perfectly awful tacked-on epilogue that runs for some 20 minutes. It was not present in any other version of the story, all of which end with Roxie shell-shocked at just how fleeting her celebrity is; but the moral tone of '20s Hollywood demanded her punishment be a bit more literal than that, and so we must see her rebuked and thrown out by the suddenly-clever Amos Hart. It's more than boring, it violates the spirit of the whole story. Not that it ruins the film, but it leaves an impossibly bitter taste.
Yes, well. A great silent film is a precious thing, and Chicago is so close to a great silent film, you can taste it. Cheers to the good men and women at UCLA and all the places that restore these wonderful bits of history, proving that satire might be what closes Saturday night, but it does a pretty decent job of sticking around for eight or nine decades.