From my Retro-Fit column in Nomad Widescreen, on the 1927 silent version of Chicago (which may or may not have been directed primarily by Cecil B. DeMille on the QT):
Nothing guarantees a murderer immortality quite like getting away with it, as Lizzie Borden could have told you. And so could Beulah Annan, the woman who in 1924 shot a lover foolhardy enough to threaten to leave her — and who walked out of a courtroom 13 months later, free and clear. The story so captured her city and era that a musical and two movie versions bear only the name of her town as a title: Chicago.
The 2002 Oscar-winner was a disappointing, at times downright perverse hash that threw the Broadway musical's greatest asset — its Bob Fosse-choreographed dancing — into a whirling Cuisinart of cuts. Director Rob Marshall slowed down the numbers that needed to sizzle and jazzed up the ones that needed some quiet. It's a delight, then, to return to the first movie made about this long-ago scandal, the 1927 silent, and see how inviting this little cyanide pellet of a story remains.
It's a simple tale of a simple woman with a simple need for the niceties, the nicer the better. Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver) is married to Amos (Victor Varconi). Amos works at a news and candy stand; he is poor, honest, hardworking, and loves his wee girly with all his handsome, sappy heart. She, of course, is sick to death of him and has instead been carrying on with Casely (Eugene Pallette). As it's a silent, Pallette is bereft of his famous voice, which sounded like a bullfrog trying to climb out of a tuba, but he is young(ish), virile, a couple of dozen pounds lighter than in My Man Godrey nine years later and, more to the point, he has money. Money that he has been spending on Roxie, and money that he has decided, it transpires, to spend on something else. What that something else may be we are destined never to know, for when Rodney arrives at a tryst and rudely announces that he's giving Roxie the air, she airs him in return, with a couple of bullet holes...
...The rest of the film is taken up with watching Roxie scheme and feud from jail cell to courtroom, and Amos slide further into chump-dom as he attempts to rob the jailhouse lawyer (William Flynn) who's promised to get Rosie an acquittal. The idea is to pay the crooked shyster with his own money, an appealing idea for someone capable of doing it competently, which of course Amos is not.