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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 36 - Filmic odyssey from a festering Gehenna of crime and corruption

I HAVE never been to Chicago, but its tough town reputation has lingered through the years. As the writer, James Morris, observed: “‘I will’ is the unofficial slogan of Chicago, or ‘I Will’, as the American columnist, Max Royko, added, ‘If I Don’t Get Caught.’”

I believe that Royko’s comment is a gross calumny on the Windy City, now a prosperous, sophisticated and culture-sodden citadel of civilisation that has buried a gangster-ridden past when the scent of bootleg liquor and the staccato rattle of the “Chicago piano”, the Thompson sub-machine gun, were in the frenetic and fearful air.

It is to these tumultuous times that the recently-released film musical, Chicago returns. Again, it is a festering Gehenna of crime and corruption in the rip-snorting Twenties when bullet-blasting the living daylights out of someone was as natural as breathing or ceasing to breathe, as the case might be.

As a veteran musical-watcher, my peepers have seen high-kicking choruses, fair as the moon, clear as the sun and terrible as an army with banners, and dancing acrobatic performers more versatile than those in chimpanzees’ tea parties, and heard marshmallow-mush melodies draining audiences’ tear tanks dry.

Seeing Chicago, I was as a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. In this mercenary, cynical and almost completely immoral musical, the dancing, singing, conniving, tough-as-teak, ruthless and talented heroines – I use the word loosely – played by Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger, are murderers who escape death sentences with the aid of a lawyer so crooked that he probably sliced bread with a corkscrew.

In other musicals – even in dark, dynamic Cabaret, the direct progenitor of this dazzling but ethically empty offering – there tended to be streaks of exuberant good nature, ranging from hard-boiled but golden-hearted characters to the saccharinal mawkishness of lovers signalling affection in tap-dancing Morse code.

Chicago’s bleak message is to the coldly-calculating ambitious. Palms are greased, newshawks are sensation-seeking automatons, betrayers in love have Chicago daylight shot through them, courts are lied to, there are heterosexual overtones and lesbian undertones – and vice versa – and the only character possessing even the skimmed milk of human kindness is the lovelorn husband (John C Reilly) whose rejection by Zellweger almost equals the brutal brush-off by Shakespeare’s Henry V of Falstaff.

Chicago, with chilling lack of moral principle, is the antithesis of the classic 1933 musical, 42nd Street, in which Ginger Rogers, as a tough-talking but tender-hearted chorus girl, offered the lead role in a new Broadway musical, selflessly suggests that wispy, spindly, fellow hoofer, Ruby Keeler, is the one to pull the crowds and Bebe Daniels, the lead performer, hors de combat because of a broken ankle, offers last-minute advice and best wishes to her substitute. The money-grubbing, murderous Millies in Chicago could never conceive of such kindness.

Keeler, visibly wilting, is given, by the show’s director, a verbal kick-start, calculated to put her entirely at ease.

“Now listen to me and listen hard – 200 people, 200 jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grinding blood and sweat depend upon you – it’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on and you have to give and give. They’ve got to like you. Do you understand?

“You can’t fall down. You can’t, because your future’s in it, my future’s in it and everything all of us have is staked on you. So keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours. You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star.”

Great stuff; as stirring as a bugle.

Miss Keeler had, in my essentially-biased view, a voice like steam escaping from a pipe and danced like a badly-manipulated marionette but the show was dazzlingly successful; everyone behaved decently, life glowed like the rainbow’s end pot of gold and audiences felt good.

Life is not like that and Chicago, in tours de force opening and ending numbers, with somewhat-stagey singing and dancing sequences depicting the sordid swamp of Chicago life, brilliantly delivers the point.

In this stony-hearted, possibly trend-setting musical, one yearns for some trace of moral rectitude – call it goodness. But apart from the dimbulb glow of the faithful but feeble husband, goodness, as Mae West observed about her career, has nothing to do with it.

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