In honor of the Toronto Silent Film Festival screening CHICAGO (1927) this afternoon, here are my notes on the film that appear in their program.

Fox Theatre's CHICAGO Advertisement Cropped

A newspaper photographer poses a pretty flapper with platinum curls wearing not much more than a peignoir over a man’s lifeless body. Don’t worry. He’s not really dead. He’s playing her real victim, who’s lying cold elsewhere. Welcome to CHICAGO where a girl gunner gets priority in print over her victim! She was the one who was going to sell papers, and she did. In the movie, her name is Roxie Hart, but in real life her name was Beulah Annan, and she would take her place on “Murderess Row” where she awaited trial and attempted to maximize her beauty and newfound fame into an acquittal. Reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins covered Annan’s case. If Annan was an angel of death, then Watkins wanted to be an avenging angel with her words as her weapon.

Watkins didn’t start out wanting to be a reporter. She intended to live a quiet academic life of language and religious studies, but she changed her mind after her short stories earned her a place in George Pierce Baker‘s prestigious playwriting workshop. Baker, a mentor of Eugene O’Neill, encouraged Watkins to go out and experience life for her work. Suddenly her purpose crystallized for her; she felt called to engage evil, and she’d do it through her writing. Like O’Neill, she became a reporter, and she chose to work in Chicago since she saw it as a hotbed of sin, and she applied to the CHICAGO TRIBUNE because it was “a real hanging paper—out for conviction always.”

Watkins was sure Annan was guilty. She had shot her lover in the back after drinking two quarts of wine with him, so her defense of preventing dishonor didn’t seem believable. Watkins wrote biting and acerbic pieces mocking Annan and the attitudes that might free her. Annan would be audacious enough to claim to be pregnant, but cynical Watkins feared Annan’s being a woman was enough to avoid conviction. Juries were only composed of men, who held Victorian views of women. As a youthful and beautiful woman, Annan might walk away from her crime. The prosecutor entreated the jury not “to let another pretty woman go out and say ‘I got away with it!’” Since Annan and Hart received the same verdict, you’ll have to watch them film to find out what it was!

Watkins covered crime for six months. Her last case was the Bobby Franks murder. She interviewed Leopold and Loeb and provided pre-trial coverage of the pair. She suddenly switched to movie reviews. She may have burnt out on covering murders, but she definitely was biding time until she could reunite with Baker to work on a play she had started, one ultimately called CHICAGO. Watkins distanced herself from her newspaper work, and no mention of it was made to promote her play. Her play was a hit, and when the offer came in to adapt it for the screen, her services were declined. She wrote other plays and eventually screenplays, including LIBELED LADY (1936).

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