The Silent Version of Chicago

The Silent Version of Chicago
For a film that is better known to modern audiences as a musical starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this 1927 silent film version of Chicago stands on its own merit. While many silent films have not fared well over time, this version by Cecil B. DeMille remains entertaining and often funny.

The film includes upbeat music that would thrill any jazz baby. Additional sound cues were added – such as the tinkling of the little bells on Roxie’s garters – to enhance the plot of the story.

The film teases the audience starting from the very first title card:

“This is the drama of a big city – every Big City --- and of a little girl who was all wrong.”

Unlike the contemporary musical version, the silent film tells the story by focusing primarily on Roxie’s husband, Amos Hart, played by Victor Varconi. Amos is portrayed as sensitive, devoted, and ultimately broken-hearted. He is the moral compass of the film in contrast to his rather self-serving mate.

Another difference is that the silent version adds a pretty cleaning lady who has a mad crush on Amos, but her affection goes unnoticed as he only has eyes for his Roxie.

But don’t believe for a second that Amos steals the show; it’s the larger-than-life ambitions of Roxie Hart that holds the attention of the audience.

Phyllis Haver – without the benefit of dialogue or musical numbers – portrays the egocentric Roxie quite convincingly. She is able to weave Roxie’s lust for life with just enough realistic insecurity that the character is not perceived as overly dramatic, but rather as a fast-thinker who knows how to manipulate a situation when she’s in a jam.

There are some funny moments in the film, including a conversation between Roxie and the matron as they talk about the other inmates. Velma, whose story is not explored in this version, is portrayed as a high society dame who killed her husband. The first time she makes an appearance, she is using a belt vibrating machine while wearing lace undies and a flouncy sequined robe, providing quite the sight as she shakes off those pounds and inches.

When a fight breaks out between Roxie and Velma, the title cards offer some hilarious “dialogue,” and the tempo of the music transitions to tunes reminiscent of a dance hall or speakeasy.

The courtroom scene is a mix of comedy and drama as gum-snapping groupies hang on Roxie’s every word.

Because of its nature, the silent film allows the audience to use its imagination to fill in some of the quieter moments with its own thoughts and presumptions. Because of this, Chicago can be viewed as a comedy, a drama, or even a love story. The viewer gets to choose and in doing so, the constant banter of spoken dialogue is hardly missed.

Chicago began as a stage play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Besides the famous 2002 musical version, it was also revitalized in 1942 in the mediocre comedy Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers, and again for the stage by the likes of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in the 1970s.

In the end, however, it all washes out the same. Chicago, in all of its iterations, is still about how the honorable are often fodder for those who dream of the spotlight regardless of the cost to others.

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