The Baby Vamp versus the Avenging Angel: The Headliners behind CHICAGO (1927)

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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Toronto Silent Film Festival News!

Modified Toronto Silent Film Festival 2017 Poster
The Toronto Silent Film Festival is selling early bird passes for its 2017 edition. Get yours before they run or time out! While things didn’t work out for me to attend in 2016, I’ll be there at least in published word in April. I’m very excited to be contributing a piece about CHICAGO (1927) and Jazz Age murderesses to their programme book.

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For the Love of Film Blogathon: Rear Window’s Just a Little Dog

Rear Window Title Still

Since Hitchcock was so invested in his dogs, it’s easy to see that his relationships with them inform the presence of his film dogs and sometimes give them pivotal roles to play. Others have tracked dogs featured in his films even back to his British filmmaking days. I’m going to focus on one of my favorites–Rear Window.

In the film, James Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer laid up in his apartment by a broken leg during a hot, stifling summer. His main entertainment is peering out of his window and watching his neighbors, who mostly remain unaware of his new hobby. His main visitor is Grace Kelly’s Lisa. She loves him, but he’s rejecting her. She’s wealthy and glamorous, and he imagines she is wrong for his lifestyle of travelling on the rough. He fears she will pin him down to a domestic lifestyle and that he will be bored and trapped.

Jeff & Lisa in Rear WindowOne set of neighbors seems to exhibit all that he fears. They’re middle-aged and settled. Their little terrier is the ultimate sign of their domesticity. Their lives are routine even down to how they care for the dog, which they treat like a baby. Instead of taking their steps down and walking their dog and going somewhere, they lower it in a basket down to the courtyard. The dog is trained not to fear heights and to patiently wait as it is lowered. Once deposited, it goes about its business not noticed much, not disturbing much.

Rear Window Dog Being Lowered in Basket

One day the dog changes its behavior. As hunting dogs, terriers are bright and have strong-scent abilities. The dog notices something and starts digging in Lars Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) flower bed. What has he noticed? Something he can smell? A rat or something left by a human “rat?” Hitchcock takes natural dog traits and has them acted out in a way that causes curiosity and inserts something sinister into the simple act of a dog out for a pee and messing around in a yard.

Rear Window Dog Digging up FlowersThorwald isn’t pleased to see his garden being dug up, and he goes over to the dog and shoos him away. Again another ordinary act, but because of everything Jeff has witnessed through his window, this gesture is ambiguous. Is he a man protecting his garden, or is he hiding something in that flower bed?

Rear Window Dog Being Stopped DiggingChildren and dogs are great at seeing past people’s façades. They sense or notice things that others are too polite to pay attention to, especially those living in the cramped quarters of the city. This little dog won’t be so lucky for his transgression into Thorwald’s privacy. When we next see the dog, this nosy neighbor is dead.

In the above clip, the female pet owner has spotted the lifeless body of her dog below, and she screams and cries. Her noise gets the attention of all her neighbors. One-by-one the spell of their self-absorption is broken, and they stop what they are doing and turn their attention to the tragedy in the courtyard. They all partake of Jeff’s voyeurism in this moment. The spinster neighbor, Miss Lonely Hearts, is the only one to act. She approaches the dog and investigates. She says the dog was strangled to death.

This is too much for his owner. She can’t make sense of why her dog was killed, and she accuses everyone listening, “Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbor.’ Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies, but none of you do. But I couldn’t imagine any of you bein’ so low that you’d kill a little helpless, friendly dog–the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did ya kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?”

Her speech is filled with the loneliness and paranoia of city living, being surrounded by strangers. She doesn’t know her neighbors, and they don’t know her. They’re all living what they hope are private lives in their tiny apartments in the big city. Anonymity is double-sided. It’s a blessing when you want it, and it’s a curse when you need to be known and seen. She doesn’t feel a sense of community after her violation, but she probably wasn’t feeling one before. Her previous contentment blinded her to the fact that she had been in a community of three that’s now shrunk to two.

Miss Torso's Reaction

The death of her dog and her speech have an effect. Miss Lonely Hearts looks like she is going to cry as she gently places the dog into its basket for one last ride. The dancer, Miss Torso, looks upset as well. It’s harder to tell if some of the other neighbors and their guests are upset or only watching the show, and if they are upset, are they bothered by the dog’s death or their neighbor’s words most? The woman’s indictment might have gone a little too far and lost her some sympathy. Cassandras are never appreciated.

When she and her husband re-enter their apartment, their neighbors go back into their abodes. Some show awkward body language and seem affected. Some of the young at the party look more amused by the outburst and want to go back to partying. One young man guides his date back into the party by saying, “Let’s go back in. Just a little dog.”

But it’s that little dog that convinces Jeff he was right to suspect something. If Thorwald had never killed the dog, Jeff would have gotten re-absorbed into his life and his personal dramas and written off previous clues as the imaginings of his bored mind. It’s the dog’s death that makes Jeff and Lisa go further in their investigations. Jeff realizes the one person who had no reaction to the outburst, who didn’t go to his windows or even put his light on was Thorwald.

Even before Jeff thinks he can prove Mrs. Thorwald’s death, he knows he can solve the murder of the dog. Hitchcock lets the dog propel the plot forward, and Hitchcock lets the dog be avenged. When the murderer is caught and status quo is reverted to, the married couple have a new dog, and he can begin his basket-training. Domesticity has been resumed, even in Jeff’s apartment where it is denied, but nonetheless exists.

If you enjoyed my post, please consider donating to the For Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. All funds raised go to the National Film Preservation Foundation to enable them to stream The White Shadow, a silent film featuring the work of a very young Alfred Hitchcock. This will allow people the world over access to a film that was long considered lost, and it helps share and preserve our international film heritage. To donate, please click on the banner below.


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For the Love of Film (Noir): The Mechanical Man of CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953)

City That Never Sleeps (1953) Poster

John H. Auer‘s CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS is an odd hodgepodge of a film. It crosses noir with docudrama with the guardian angel film. Its villains, Hayes StewartLydia Biddel, and Penrod Biddel, are far more compelling than the lead Johnny Kelly. He’s a cop dissatisfied with his life. His hardworking wife Kathy Kelly fears he’s distant due to her higher earning potential, and that may be, but there’s a burlesque dancer Sally “Angel Face” Connors who’s stolen his attention with her shimmies, and she’s tired of sharing him. Johnny hatches a mad plan to pull one shady deal and bring in enough tainted money to run away with his honey. One side character gets drawn into all their stories, and he’s the mechanical man. He’s a great example of how a city can tear down a man, make him lose his humanity, yet offer redemption.

City That Never Sleeps (1953): Mala Powers

There’s a lot of frustration in this film. Everyone wants more than “what they got.” Sally seems like a harlot for stealing another woman’s man, but she’s not satisfied with her life, and she knows her situation isn’t right. She wants to get out of the club and be a decent girl. She once had dreams. She went to the big city to become a ballerina. She ended up a stripper. Johnny, representing law and order, must be a break from all the jerks that ogle and hassle her, but her time with him and whatever respite it offers are brief. He has to go home at some point to Kathy. She couldn’t get the career she wanted, and she doesn’t even own her own man, and she needs something to change.

City That Never Sleeps (1953): Mala Powers & Gig Young

Johnny doesn’t seem to realize that no good comes to men that romance women named Angel Face, and he can’t keep away from her, so Sally finally issues her ultimatum. He has to choose between her or Kathy. Johnny’s dissatisfied enough with his life to hatch his crazy scheme. He’s second generation cop, and he’s watched his father work hard for little payoff. Johnny’s wife works, and she likes it, but Johnny seems a traditionalist. He fantasizes about running off with his doll and being the one to save them from the city. Life elsewhere will be better despite how it’s earned or started.

City That Never Sleeps (1953): Mala Powers & Wally Cassell

Gregg Warren pines for Sally. He’s a failed actor turned mechanical man. He performs nightly and repeatedly in the club’s front window. Instead of portraying great or funny characters, he’s reduced to imitating an animated mannequin. The less human he seems the more successful he is at his job. He wants more than that. He dreams of stepping out of his glass coffin and onto the stage with Sally. He’ll save her from bumping and grinding by putting her in his comedy act, and she’ll save him. He doesn’t seem to have enough confidence or desire to do it solo, so he’ll hitch his star to Sally to get the gig. While she provides the pulchritude and presence, he’ll provide the brains behind the routine. Sally repeatedly turns him down. She prefers Johnny.

Warren doesn’t realize it, but a third triangle will affect him. Penrod Biddel is a corrupt lawyer, and he’s getting antsy about his number two, Hayes Stewart. Penrod thinks Hayes is getting too big for his britches, so he wants him out of town. Penrod hires Johnny to take care of his problem. Hayes can cool his heels in jail in another state where there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Penrod doesn’t realize his wife Lydia’s been romanced and won by Hayes. Mirroring Johnny and Sally, the two of them are planning their own new life also funded by Penrod’s money. Then their plans go awry.

The City That Never Sleeps (1953): Wally Cassell Performing Mechanically

Gregg is completely oblivious to their drama until he gets to view the second act. He witnesses a murder from his window box. All he can do is be as robotic as possible to save his own life. He needs to keep the murderer thinking that Gregg’s not a real man. The aspect of his job that has dehumanized him the most is what saves his life temporarily. He keeps performing until he can take a break. Meanwhile the murderer isn’t one hundred percent convinced that a dummy was in the window, and he’s going to hang around until he finds out.

City That Never Sleeps (1953): Gig Young & Wally Cassell

The murderer causes more trouble in the club, and this act hits close to home for Johnny. He’s angry, and he needs to catch the criminal now. Gregg isn’t willing to help until Sally explains what has happened. Then Gregg, who’s been the chump of the film until now, commits his act of heroism. He will resume his performance in the window and become live bait for the killer. Gregg needs to commit the best performance of his life in order to keep his own.

Sally finally realizes that Gregg is a good man, and her feelings for him surface. She freaks out about Gregg risking his life. She begs him to stop, to get out of the window, and to save himself. She offers to join his act. Gregg wavers between exhaustion and exhilaration. Sally cares for him! He’s overwhelmed, and he breaks character in one small, but important way. He lets tears fall down his face. His tears are noticed by a couple, and when they comment on them, the murderer overhears. He has to get rid of this witness.

You’ll have to watch the film to learn whether Gregg survives, but if you’ve enjoyed reading my piece, please consider giving to a great cause, the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon hosted by The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, which benefits the Film Noir Foundation. Your contribution will help restore another great film noir. Please click on the Maltese Falcon below to make a donation.

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