A Satire on the Third and Fourth Estate of Democracy
Set in the roaring twenties, in Illinois, Chicago follows the story of upper class murders committed by women and portrays them as representations of show business to highlight the working of the criminal justice system of the time. The 1926 play, written by Maurine Dallas Watkins opened in Broadway on December 27, 1926 and was later turned into a Broadway musical by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse which further went on to be adapted into the Academy Award winner, 2002 film by the same name, Chicago, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall. Due to limitations of availability, I keep this discussion limited to the Broadway musical and its consequent film adaptation.
In a world of jazz, liquor and money, the story revolves around two unconnected murders committed by Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, both sharing some romantic affiliation to the victims. While Roxie confessed to have committed the murder of her extra marital lover, Fred Casely, Velma refuses to confess to the murder of her sister and husband, who she found in a compromising position before their cabaret show. The story also shows other such upper class murderesses of the Cook County Jail and the corrupt matron of the prison who in exchange for small bribes, does them favours. In comes famous lawyer Billy Flynn, already representing Velma and now Roxie, for a steep rate. He is known to sway not only the clients but also the media and consequently the jurors to lead to his unbeatable, ‘never lost a woman’s case’ rank. The story builds up a ‘celebrity criminal’ each time a new case comes in and though we see both Roxie and Velma get acquitted in a twist in the courtroom, their moment of fame dies out before it began to another woman who was caught with the charge of a triple homicide. The story ends with Roxie and Velma entering showbiz as a duo and performing a Cabaret number, ‘Nowadays’.
The film follows the script of the musical to the nail except for a few changes in the sequence of the scenes. Done probably to showcase the timeline of the story in a more compressed yet engrossing manner, the changes of the sequence just helped piece the story together with a bit more suspense and thrill. Though made in a really entertaining way, with revealing costumes, portrayal of high class social night life, forbidden affairs, raunchy dances and songs with comic lyrics, the movie still gets its view of the corruption of the criminal (in)justice system of Chicago across to the viewers.
The movie is also not as seamless in its direction, it is interspersed with songs and cabaret performances, mostly on stage, and appearances of the Master of Ceremonies who announces each song before it is performed, even to go on to say that the performances are “for your pleasure and entertainment”. This serves not only to draw dramatic comparisons by allowing a kind of a merge between theatre and film but also invokes a Brechtian subtlety in the film, reminding the viewer time and again that it is essentially a film. This helps to highlight the purpose of the movie and the storyline.
Along with the pomp and show, the movie also makes use of flapper girl costumes. They cast actresses with skinny, slender frames, long legs, flat chests and bobbed hair, significant characteristics of flapper girls. Flappers were seen as brash for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, treating sex in a casual manner, smoking, driving automobiles, and otherwise flouting social and sexual norms of the time. Flappers had their origins in the liberal period of the 1920s and shunned all previously held societal beliefs about the behaviour of women to try and achieve a new kind of social and economic liberation. Their representation in the film helps firstly to establish the timeline of the story and second, to establish the exact character of these women involved.
Being a musical, the film is full of songs which have been performed in remarkable ways to aid the dramatic expression of the lyrics. In the famous song, ‘The Cell Block Tango’, in which the six murderesses of Cook County Jail describe their murder stories, there has been an interesting use of a red sash which is pulled out of the victim’s body depending on the mode and weapon of murder. It is not only symbolic of the murder but also the way it was carried out. In the case of Velma, they show her dancing with both a man and a woman, presumably, her sister and husband and show two red sashes flowing from her hands to signify both their murders. It is also interesting to note that out of the six, the third murderess, the Hungarian Hunyak, they show a white sash instead of a red one to indicate what she kept repeating, “Not Guilty”. The way that each murderess dances with the victim (man) also shows the relationship they shared. Although they were all romantically affiliated, the kind of power they held in the relationship became clear by the dance moves used.
The song, ‘They Both Reached For the Gun’ shows Billy Flynn operating Roxie like a ventriloquist’s puppet, feeding words into her mouth. By the end of the song, he is shown operating all the journalists like ventriloquist’s puppets, directly showing the manipulation of the facts of the case and the media. This was all done to gain ‘sympathy from the jury’ and create a ‘celebrity criminal’ by providing personal, emotional and exciting touches to her case to fuel the sensationalism prevalent in the media.
The song, ‘Mister Cellophane’ shows Amos, Roxie’s believing and gullible husband, dressed as a clown, talking about being ‘invisible like cellophane’. The dramatic clown makeup, loose pants and subtle jazz dance movements put across the points of the lyrics in a better manner. The lines, “You can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there” encapsulate the essence of the song and highlight the ‘invisible role’ he played in the story and how he was being played like a clown by his wife and lawyer for support and money.
The insertion of the ‘Hungarian Disappearing Act’ performed by the Hunyak makes the perfect background to her hanging. While the act in itself is very small, the enthusiastic clapping at the end of it by the audience members shows the elation of the journalists present on the scene to monetise the execution and sell more papers, as Mary Sunshine, one of the sob sisters reporter, says “History will be made today… will be the first woman in the state of Illinois to be executed”. This also highlights the apathy of the readers to the incident as it just one more piece of sensational news.
Lastly, Billy Flynn’s objectification of the courtroom as a stage for show business and its comparison to a ‘three ringed circus’ in the song ‘Razzle Dazzle’ shows just how far the jury can be played. The courtroom is shown as a circus with women in highly revealing extravagant costumes performing circus tricks around the lady of justice, also dressed in a golden coloured revealing costume. This while having the literal connotation of justice being ‘razzle dazzled’ and the jurors caught up in the fancy circus tricks of the lawyers and witnesses also has a more metaphorical connotation, that of the power of female flesh and money, repeatedly highlighted by the pulling up of one’s skirt to reveal the garter and the open exchange of bribery.
The movie successfully portrays the soul of the play and is an excellently hilarious, exciting and entertaining satire on the social, police, legal and justice system of the time. It covers multiple aspects simultaneously, be it women’s liberation, social norms regarding them and how they were reshaping them, the corruption ingrained in the criminal justice system and the sensationalism in the media at the time. Due to its vast topics of focus, the movie is still relevant to an extent in present times and will probably continue to be so.
Mitchell, E. (2018). FILM REVIEW; ‘Chicago,’ Bare Legs And All, Makes It To Film. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/27/movies/film-review-chicago-bare-legs-and-all-makes-it-to-film.html [Accessed 25 Oct. 2017].