The History of Chicago: Not the Town, But the Show

More people should know the name Maureen Dallas Watkins (ca. 1896-1969) but at least now YOU do. Her name honestly ought to be as well remembered as Ben Hecht’s, not just because as a journalist and playwright she was the creator of the nearly century long pop culture phenomenon of Chicago, but because, like him, she went on to be a prolific screenwriter.

Watkins was by any measure a remarkable person, a creature of that great midwestern literary Renaissance of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, she was a classical Greek scholar, a graduate of Radcliff and Yale, and a pupil of that influential playwrighting guru George Pierce Baker, who also taught Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Wolfe, Sidney Howard, S.N. Behrman, Philip Barry, and Hallie Flanagan. She was also a journalist, and worked for several months at the Chicago Tribune, which is where she made a name for herself by covering more than one “Trial of the Century”. Among those stories were those of two Jazz Age vixens, Beaulah Annan Sheriff and Belva Gaertner, each of whom stood trial for allegedly shooting their extramarital lovers in 1924. (Beaulah and Belva!) It was the beginning of the modern age. Thanks to heavy national press coverage, both trials were circuses, and in spite of the extreme likelihood that both women were guilty, both were acquitted. They dined out on their notoriety for a time, though Sheriff was dead within four years of TB. But that did give her enough time to know about this:

Watkins adapted her articles about the two murders and their trials into the play Chicago, or Play Ball, which opened on Broadway in late 1926 and ran five months. Produced by Sam Harris, directed by George Abbott, it was originally to have starred Jeanne Eagels as the Sheriff character, now renamed Roxie Hart, though Eagles was replaced by Francine Larrimore, a niece of Jacob Adler. Also in the cast were Charles Bickford and Dorothy Stickney.

There’s something about the title of this play that captures the imagination. Chicago flourished during the twenties, associated with the brand new musical form of jazz, speakeasies, gangsters like Al Capone. Theatre buffs know it as “the Third Coast”, the second most important vaudeville town after New York (Roxie Hart was an aspiring vaudevillian), and a place where lots of important musical shows premiered and played, often without going to Broadway. Inevitably the name of the city evokes Fred Fisher’s 1922 Tin Pan Alley song. Watkins’ take on this story seems to touch all the bases. It was inevitable that it would have a long shelf life in whatever form. The first screen adaptation happened right away.

The show had hardly closed on Broadway when Cecil B. DeMille optioned it and produced a silent movie version in 1927 starring Phyllis Haver, and featuring Eugene Pallette, T. Roy Barnes, Julia Faye, and May Robson. Long unavailable, it’s now on Blu-Ray!

At around the same time, sound came to the pictures, perfect timing for Watkins, who went on to be a hardworking screenwriter, amassing two dozen credits, most of them during the Pre-Code era. The titles of her films tell the whole story in brevis, racy stories with female appeal. Libeled Lady (1936) is the best remembered of the movie scripts she worked on. Others included Doctors Wives (1931), Sob Sister (1931), Play Girl (1932), The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), No Man of Her Own (1932), Hello Sister (1933), the notorious The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Professional Sweetheart (1933), Search for Beauty (1934), and A Wicked Woman (1934). One of the last screenplays to carry her name in the credits was of course:

The first talkie adaptation of Watkins’ story was the 1942 film Roxie Hart. And speaking of the Code, this story really suffered because of it, turning the eponymous character into an innocent woman played by Ginger Rogers (whose turn is excellent nonetheless, one of the reasons this film would be remembered by buffs anyway, even if there had never been a musical.) Nunnally Johnson did the screenplay (along with, not surprisingly, Hecht), with William Wellman directing and an all-star cast that includes Adolphe Menjou, George Montgomery (who would be shot at himself one day!), Lynne Overman, William Frawley, Nigel Bruce, Spring Byington, George Chandler, Iris Adrian, and a very young Phil Silvers! The movie turned 80 years old this year.

I can think of few things more “right” than Bob Fosse being attracted to this story for his own purposes (as I’ve written before I’m very much convinced that he was possessed by the ghost of Joe Frisco — the ULTIMATE Jazz Age Chicago dancer and performer). Watkins had retired around the time of the Roxie Hart film, and she turned down Fosse’s overtures a quarter of a century later. But after she passed away he was able to secure the rights, adapting it into a show with songs by Kander and Ebb of Cabaret and getting it on the boards when his calendar cleared in 1975. Subtitled “A Musical Vaudeville”, the scenes and numbers were staged as vaudeville acts. So, shame on this vaudeville writer for taking so long to include it in these annals! The original cast included Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, and Barney Martin as the four principals. The original run played a little over two years, a respectable success, although, odd to contemplate, it didn’t quite resonate as it would two decades later:

The 1996 revival gave the show the monster success that has now firmly ensconced it in the public consciousness and the annals of legendary Broadway classics. By this time, America was in the grip not only of tabloid publications but of tabloid TELEVISION. There were even sexual scandals and whispers of murder surrounding the PRESIDENT. Fosse protege Ann Reinking oversaw choreography and played Roxie Hart, with a supporting cast that included Bebe Neuwirth (best known then from Cheers), James Naughton, and Joel Grey. Many other stars have subsequently jumped in and out of the show since then, because — gasp — it is STILL running. It has been on the boards for over a quarter of a century. And naturally there have been a gazillion other regional and touring productions, and this —

The inevitable film version of the musical, directed by Rob Marshall, and starring Renee Zellweger, fresh off the success of Nurse Betty (2000) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and paving the way for her later tour de force as Judy Garland (Related digression: Cabaret star Liza Minnelli had also gone into the Chicago cast back in the day). The film’s cast also featured Catherine-Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, and Lucy Liu. A box office and critical smash, the film won six Oscars. Inevitably it has a much wider reach than any previous version. And it’s already 20 years old!

Anyway now when you watch it I hope you will think of its lengthy provenance, beginning with the savvy instinct of writer Maurine Dallas Watkins. (BTW, the centennial anniversaries of the murders themselves will be in just two years: 2024).

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,