I love the movie CHICAGO!! It is probably one of my favorites ever! How can you not like Richard Gere tap dancing, Catherine-Zeta Jones singing and dancing in Cell Block Tango, Renee Zellweger belting out “Jazz” in the opening number All That Jazz, and all the beautiful costumes and music.
But did you know that the movie was based on two real life women murderers? And two others were characters on Murderess Row? Read on Chicago – The Story behind the movie.
Maurine Dallas Watkins
Maurine Dallas Watkins was a small-town girl, daughter of a minister in Indiana. She was a college graduate, which was just becoming a thing at the turn of the century. Maurine was a playwright from an early age. She won an award for a play she wrote when she was just 11. After graduation from Butler University in Indianapolis, she went to Radcliffe to study Greek. There she met George Pierce Baker who taught playwriting at Harvard. During the class Baker urged his students to get experience in the larger world and suggested newspaper reporting. She left Radcliffe and went to Chicago to work for Standard Oil in advertising. Then she went to the Chicago Tribune as a crime reporter.
In the 1920s, women murderers were becoming more frequent, so much so that a wing of the Cook County Jail was set aside for the women and was nicknamed Murderess Row. Also, the juries were all male. One of the Chicago prosecutors was quoted saying, “You can’t convict a woman – a good looking woman – of killing a man.” The women in Murderess Row had a “beauty school” of sorts cutting each other’s hair into fashionable dos, giving each other manicures and makeup lessons, obviously they were aware that beauty and fashion were the keys for getting off.
Enter Maurine. There were several women reporters covering the women’s cases. These reporters were commonly known as “Sob-Sisters”. Mary Sunshine in Chicago is an example of this. These women reporters were sympathetic to the murderers believing that they were forced into killing by the men they killed, liquor and jazz. Maurine was both more realistic and cynical in her reporting. She wanted the women she reported on to be convicted. She was horrified when her reporting had the opposite affect! The women she reported on received flowers and candy, and even restaurant meals in the jail while they awaited trial. After eight months at the Tribune, she left her job as a reporter after having about 50 stories printed. She went to Yale where George Baker had been recruited to start the Yale School of Drama. Baker in his 47 Workshop course gave them a writing assignment.
Sabella Nitti, Belva Gaertner, Kitty Malm
Maurine wrote a book The Brave Little Women about 4 of the cases she had reported on. The book was a satire on the criminal justice system in Chicago and the emergence of the “Celebrity Criminal”. The four cases that she wrote about became:
Roxie Hart – Beulah Annan
Velma Kelly – Belva Gaertner
Katalin Helinsky – Sabella Nitty
Go-To-Hell Kitty – Kitty Malm
Billy Flynn – mixture of Beulah’s and Belva’s attorneys
Later she changed the name of the book to Chicago and wrote a play also called Chicago . The play premiered in where else Chicago in 1926 and went on to Broadway on December 20, 1926. It then toured for two years, with get this, Clark Gable was Amos Hart! Several movies were made from the play, the first Chicago which was produced in 1927 and was a Silent Movie. In 1942, Ginger Rogers starred in the adaptation Roxie Hart.
In the 1960s, Maurine was approached by Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon to buy the rights to the play and turn it into a musical. Maurine refused, she felt that a musical would make the murderers seem too sympathetic. In 1969, Maureen died from lung cancer. At that point, her estate sold the rights to Bob Fosse. He hired John Kander and Fred Ebb to write the score. It was first produced in 1975 and revived in 1996. The revival holds the record for the longest running musical revival and the longest running American musical in Broadway history. Chicago surpassed Cats on November 23, 2014 with its 7,486th performance!
The movie was filmed in 2002 and won the Oscar for Best Picture as well as an Oscar to Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Art Design- Set Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.
The next few weeks we will be looking at the real stories behind the characters in this well-loved story!