When ‘Jazz Babies’ Kill

12Feb10

This is going to be a long post. We’re talking about Chicago–you know, the recent musical?–and its many versions, focusing on how hollywood and the media presents women murderers, and how that has changed over the past century. Should be fun. Spoilers ahead, as always, if you haven’t seen the recent movie.


Chicago was originally written as a play, based on a couple of real-life murders. Maurine Dallas Watkins (you’ll know her as Mary Sunshine, from the movie), was the reporter who wrote about two “jazz babies” corrupted by men and liquor. I love these two stories.

Beulah Annan, the inspiration for Roxie Hart, was a bookkeeper for a laundry. She had an affair with one of her coworkers, and she ended up shooting him in the back. Apparently she changed her story repeatedly, so the details are unclear (and I’m working on tracking down the original news articles–I have the exact dates and everything, but I can’t get at the Chicago Tribune archives without a subscription). Beulah and her beau had been drinking, and, of course, they both reached for the gun. She then sat drinking cocktails and playing a foxtrot record, “Hula Lou,” over and over for about four hours as she sat watching Kalstedt die.

Belva Gaertner, on the other hand, who you’ll know as Velma Kelly, was a cabaret singer with a string of divorced husbands. From wikipedia: “[Her lover, Walter Law] was found sprawled out dead in the front seat of Belva’s car, a bottle of gin and a gun with three shots fired lying beside him: Belva, found at her apartment, with blood-soaked clothes on the floor, confessed that she was drunk, was driving with Law, but couldn’t remember what happened. Belva was arrested for the murder of Law in Chicago on March 12, 1924, and admitted drinking with Law at various bars and jazz houses, saying she carried a gun for fear of robbers. One of Law’s co-workers testified that Law had confided that Gaertner was a possessive lover who had threatened him with a knife when he tried to leave her, and that Law believed she would kill him one day.”

I took full advantage of this opportunity to go browse old newspapers. All by Maurine Watkins:
DEMAND NOOSE FOR ‘PRETTIEST’ WOMAN SLAYER
BEULAH ANNAN SOBS REGRET FOR LIFE SHE TOOK Lives through crime again as she awaits trial. “of course I’m sorry! I’d give my life to have Harry Kolstedt alive again! And I never said I was glad. Why, I couldn’t Why–” and tears filled the eyes of Mrs. Beulal May Annan, the “prettiest murderess,” held to the grand jury for shooting her sweetheart in a drunken quarrel…
BEULAH ANNAN AWAITS STORK, MURDER TRIAL
JUDGE ADMITS ALL OF BEULAH’S KILLING STORIES They Differ; Which Will Jury Believe?
Jury Finds Beulah Annan Is “Not Guilty” SELF-DEFENSE PLEA GAINS HER FREEDOM Thanks Each Member After Verdict. Beulah Annan, whose pursuit of wine, men, and jazz music wan interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger, was given freedom last night by her “beauty proof” jury.
MRS. GAERTNER HAS “CLASS” AS SHE FACES JURY Demure but with an “Air” at Murder Trial.
JURY FINDS MRS. GAERTNER NOT GUILTY Verdict found after eight ballots. Belva Gaertner, another of those women who messed things up by adding a gun to her fondness for gin and men, was acquitted last night at 12:10 o’clock of the murder of Walter Law. “So drunk she didn’t remember” whether she shot the man found dead in her sedan at Forrestville avenue and…

No wonder it became such a phenomenon, right?

Moving on with the post, the play that Watkins wrote (three years after her newspaper articles) was a satire, loosely based on events of the Annan and Gaertner murders. The play’s out of print, and the movie’s deep in archives at UCLA, only being let out for the occasional history or film festival event. I’ll update this post if I can actually find a copy of either. The original tagline read “DRAMATIC STORY OF A JAZZ CRAZED WIFE.” From what I can gather, the original play and the movie are meant to be a satire on the media sensationalism that takes the story and gallops madly away with it. Roxie’s guilty, no question, but she gets away with it because she’s blond, pretty, and–as we all know–they both reached for the gun. I did find one reference that she didn’t do too well for herself in the end, because the cinema didn’t want to depict criminals benefiting from their crimes.

Skipping ahead to 1942, you may or may not know that there was a second version of the film. This one was called Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers. Because of the Production Code in power at this time, the story had to have a few changes (although I was still shocked with what they get away with). I’m amazed it got through at all.

In brief, the Production Code dictates:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Roxie Hart, uh, liberally bends all three of those principles. Because the Code prohibits criminals getting away with a crime, and prohibits sympathizing with a criminal, Roxie Hart … is innocent! Yep. Hands clean. Didn’t do it. The scenario’s the same one you’ll recognize in the other versions: all the evidence points to Roxie, whether or not they both did reach for the gun, and that’s even the story that Roxie tells. Catch is, she repeatedly states (off the record) that she’s innocent. On the record, she says she did it, with the “both reached for the gun” story. The only other possibility is her husband, Amos, is guilty, which is briefly hinted but never explored, and most of the movie brazenly acts like both Roxie and Amos are innocent and the murdered boyfriend Casely was shot repeatedly by … I don’t know, ghosts?

In this version, Roxie confesses to the murder because several people convince her that it’ll make her career as a dancer, since she currently can’t even get auditions. I still don’t understand how this version got past the Production Code, because she spends the whole movie lying extravagantly and making a mockery of legal process, and is rewarded for it with glamour, fame, and a romantic interest. Bonus points for her being rampantly violent: there’s an early scene in the movie where she tackles one of the other murderesses in jail, and the two of them roll around on the floor tearing at each other (to sound effects of angry cats) while the jail matron sips alcohol and ignores the wanton violence.

Seriously, someone explain to me how this movie got past the Production Code restrictions.

Back in the 21st century, Chicago is a glitzy musical, and the murderesses are guilty again. Shamelessly, unapologetically guilty. In the modern version, their crimes are excused to the viewing audience because these women were the victims of lying, cheating, abusive men. The only character who’s shown with any shade of remorse is the Russian (oops, my mistake) Hungarian ballerina, who is presented as being innocent. She’s the one who gets executed, while all of the remorseless murderesses are rewarded with fame and careers on the stage. There’s very little time spent in the actual courtroom, which is presented–literally–as a three-ring circus.

We sympathize with the murderesses, who treat their crimes like street cred, and use their media coverage to further their theatrical careers. Their crimes aren’t necessarily excused, but they are certainly marginalized to make room for the glamour and newspaper headlines.

Thing is, I actually think this is an unusual treatment of women murderesses in modern movies and news media, and I prefer it to the more common dehumanizing of women criminals. (I’ll spare you all my rants on the brutally anti-feminist themes in Fatal Attraction.)

Real-life murderess Pamela Smart, in 1990, conspired with her 15-year-old lover (coincidentally named) Billy Flynn and his friends to kill her 24-year-old husband. In the media, “Assistant Attorney General Diane Nicolosi portrayed the teenagers as naive victims of an ‘evil woman bent on murder.’ The prosecution portrayed Pamela Smart as the cold-blooded mastermind who controlled her young lover.” Smart’s defense was that “she had had an affair with the teenager, but claimed that the murder of her husband was solely the doing of Flynn and his friends, born as a reaction to her telling Flynn that she wished to end their relationship and repair her marriage.” (From Wikipedia)

She also argued that the media had influenced her trial and conviction. Probably true. Her trial was the first fully-televised case in the U.S., watched by millions. Despite being given a life sentence without hope of parole, she has never wavered on her claims that she’s innocent, and apparently has spent her time in prison gaining two masters degrees (literature and legal studies), and is a member of the National Organization for Women, campaigning for rights for women in prison.

In the movie version (To Die For, with Nicole Kidman), she’s unquestionably guilty, and presented as a manipulative psychopath who uses her sexuality to further her ruthless ambition. She specifically decides to kill her husband because he wants her to abandon her career and start a family. (Yet another movie in which ambition turns women into inhuman monsters, because everyone knows that’s what happens if you let women have a real career, instead of a part-time job as a secretary or elementary school teacher.) She’s acquitted in court, despite proof of her guilt, which frees up the movie makers to write in a more brutal punishment than the courts would allow: she’s murdered by a mafia hitman, and her body is dumped unceremoniously under the ice in a frozen lake.

Can anyone else think of examples of how women murderers are presented in movies and media? Aside from Chicago, are there any modern movies that let them get away with it, and even glamorize the crime; or are most of them dehumanized as evil and manipulative, and brutally punished at the end?



7 Responses to “When ‘Jazz Babies’ Kill”

  1. I haven’t seen it, but in the Wikipedia article, it sounds like the main character in Monster isn’t dehumanized: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monster_%28film%29 Though a conventionally attractive actress changing her appearance in order to play an unattractive character is pretty icky.

    I think the ballerina in Chicago is Hungarian, not Russian–the character is called “Hunyak.”

    Also, I don’t know if this is how the stage version is done or if it was just the version I saw, but when I saw the stage musical of Chicago, Mary Sunshine was revealed at the end to be a man in drag!

    • You’re the second person to point me towards Monster, but I am very unconvinced that the main character isn’t dehumanized. She’s referred to as “monster”, for starters? Then, like you pointed out, the conventionally attractive actress is made very unattractive. More unattractive than the “real life” woman she’s supposed to be portraying, actually: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aileen_Wuornos Sure, she’s not a looker, but that’s the mugshot, and no one looks good in mugshots. It seems to me that Charlize Theron is more unattractive, in the final make-up, which certainly is dehumanizing (our society is more sympathetic to pretty people).

      Plus, she’s still killed at the end, like the women in To Die For and Fatal Attraction: she is punished for daring to kill men, unlike the women in Chicago.

      Thank you for the correction on the ballerina’s nationality, that was my mistake.

      I’m pretty sure that Mary Sunshine is usually a girl, but now I wanna see the version with her in drag!

  2. 3 Anna

    Mary Sunshine is traditionally a drag role in the musical. :) The movie changed it because . . . well, it’s a movie.

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