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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Roxie Hart (1942)

"This picture is dedicated to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique."
- from the film's prologue

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: April 18, 2004

Stars: Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, George Montgomery
Other Stars: Spring Byington, Nigel Bruce, Phil Silvers, William Frawley, Sara Allgood
Director: William A. Wellman

Manufacturer: PDMC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:14m:26s
Release Date: April 20, 2004
UPC: 024543113621
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ BA-C+ D+

DVD Review

After seeing Chicago, it's hard to view the 1942 comedy Roxie Hart without ceaselessly comparing it to Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning musical or Bob Fosse's long-running Broadway hit. Story-wise, the adaptations are strikingly similar, with even the names of minor characters remaining consistent. Yet the major difference between the two films lies in the tone and attitude of William A. Wellman's production. Shot in a far more innocent age, when a rabid censorship board quickly squelched racy subject matter, Roxie Hart lacks the bite and hard-edged cynicism of its musical successors, and presents its heroine in a more whimsical and ultimately less intriguing light.

Of course, maybe I'm just so used to the infectious razzmatazz of Chicago that the straight delivery of Roxie Hart somehow feels incomplete, like a comedy in search of a score. Wellman packs his sparse, furiously paced film with broad, in-your-face humor, which suits his pugnacious directorial style. He obviously feels comfortable with Prohibition, gangsters, and trigger-happy chorus girls—after all, he made The Public Enemy—but the subtleties of the story, so brilliantly conveyed through song in the musical, get lost here amid all the frenetic action.

In this instance, we view the well-known tale through flashback, as newspaper reporter Homer Howard (George Montgomery) entertains a throng of grizzled barflies with his memories of the sensational trial of Roxie Hart (Ginger Rogers), an aspiring hoofer accused of murder. Roxie loudly proclaims her innocence, but also hopes to parlay her image as a cold-blooded killer into show business success—if she can beat the rap. Although her savvy, egocentric lawyer, Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), and a pack of ferocious reporters hoping to surf her coattails to a Pulitzer assure her no woman in Chicago has ever been hanged for murder, Roxie endures a few dicey moments during her circus of a trial, especially when her sole alibi turns up dead.

The plot of Roxie Hart differs enough from Chicago to keep its outcome in doubt, but an unsatisfactory denouement and contrived ending leave a sour aftertaste. Anyone familiar with 1940s censorship knows the code would never allow Roxie to get away with murder (as she does in Chicago), so to preserve the film's comic tone and prevent Rogers from playing a somber scene on death row, Roxie can't be guilty of the crime. Such knowledge spoils a bit of the fun and dulls the material's sharp edge.

Whereas Chicago paints a scathing portrait of America's preoccupation with celebrity and scandal, Roxie Hart softens the message by inflating its characters to cartoon proportions. In Wellman's film, Roxie is more ditzy and brassy, constantly smacking gum and flashing toothy grins. She still craves the fame and notoriety of a show business career, but it's not a consuming passion, and she seems happy to be groomed and manipulated by others. Exuberant, flighty, and impulsive, Rogers' Roxie lacks the vulnerability Renee Zellweger brings to the role, and exhibits a far less calculating and ambitious demeanor. As shyster lawyer Billy Flynn, Menjou goes way over the top in his courtroom orations, obscuring the kernel of truth that makes Richard Gere's portrayal in the recent musical so captivating.

And where is Velma Kelly? Roxie briefly locks horns with a glamorous female inmate early in the film, and their ensuing catfight (complete with hilarious feline sound effects) is a highlight, but after the knock-down-drag-out scuffle the character disappears. As a result, the jealous tension and cutthroat competition between the two women that's such a delicious element of Chicago is absent here, and Roxie Hart pays the price. After all, Roxie without Velma is like Prohibition without whiskey. No fireworks.

Thankfully, a gallery of top-flight supporting actors helps fill the void, with Spring Byington as newspaper sob sister Mary Sunshine, Sara Allgood as prison matron Mrs. (not Mama) Morton, William Frawley, a young Phil Silvers, and Nigel Bruce adding color and energy to the movie. Rogers even gets a chance to shuffle and tap in a couple of impromptu (but no less impressive) jailhouse and courtroom dances, choreographed by Fred Astaire's long-time collaborator Hermes Pan. As she struts and shimmies through her routines, Ginger proves she's still got plenty of snap in her step, making us wish she never dissolved her partnership with the legendary Astaire.

Yet the brief musical interludes only call attention to how much John Kander and Fred Ebb's score enhances the story, lending it a glitzy spark and subtle depth that Roxie Hart, for all its brazen attitude, sadly lacks.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Fox has fashioned a transfer with lots of razzle-dazzle—crisp, clean, and flaunting plenty of rich contrast. Blacks are inky and solid, and the print possesses a vibrancy that makes the black-and-white photography leap off the screen. Lines are sharp, but no edge enhancement distracts from the lush images. For a 62-year-old film, Roxie Hart looks fresh and lively.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Few defects mar the stereo track, although a tinny quality typical of the period does pervade the audio. The original mono is more muted, but also doesn't enjoy as much presence.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring All That Jazz, The Commitments, The Rose, The Sound of Music, Star!
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 59m:12s

Extras Review: Two original trailers and a handful of previews for other Fox DVD releases are the only disc supplements.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Roxie Hart enjoys many moments of engaging comedy, but too much broad farce overwhelms the film. Diehard Chicago fans might be tempted to give this earlier version of the story a gander, and Fox's sublime transfer makes viewing a joy, but even a vivacious Ginger Rogers in a curly brunette wig can't lift this film into the rarefied realm of its musical offspring. To quote the song, just "give us the old razzle-dazzle" instead.


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