Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016

"Review of Merry Murderers: The Farcical Refiguration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations" by Emma Bálint

Emma Bálint is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include American cinema, fairy tale studies and adaptation studies. Email: emma.balint@ieas-szeged.hu

Merry Murderers: The Farcical Refiguration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations
Zsófia Anna Tóth
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
pp. 278
ISBN (10): 1-4438-3171-9
ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-3171-0


The femme fatale is one of the most iconic and most easily identifiable tropes of the twentieth century cinema. The (in)famous character and its representations both in fiction and in film have become a popular subject for analysis since the 1990s from Mary Ann Doane’s Femmes Fatales (1991) to Elisabeth Bronfen’s article “Femme Fatale – Negotiations of Tragic Desire” (2004).

More recently, as Zsófia Anna Tóth demonstrates in her book Merry Murderers: The Farcical Refiguration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations, there are still aspects that have evaded the scrutiny of scholars. Tóth defines the farcical femme fatale as an active version of the infamous trope, who not only has agency, but can even escape her traditionally inevitable punishment via her manipulative ways and her comic-grotesque performance of feminine ideals. Besides the farcical femme fatale, Tóth introduces the term humorous homme fatale, which she uses as a modern refiguration of the allegorical figure of the Vice in Renaissance drama. She applies these terms in her examination of the works of Maurine Dallas Watkins―who composed news reports on the court cases of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan in Chicago in 1924 and created their dramatic adaptations in 1927. Tóth shows that Watkins, having used a satirical and humorous approach to these real life femmes fatales with the aim to expose the power of corruption in the court system at the time, managed to show more beyond the familiar binary opposition in the representation of women as either evil or angel by contributing significantly to the increasingly more authentic and diverse representation of women in twentieth century America.

The book begins with a foreword by Elisabeth Bronfen, who, in a concise and direct manner, introduces the book by listing the most important keywords in Tóth’s argumentation. The author’s introduction provides a historical overview of the development of the visual representation of female characters throughout the twentieth century, from vamps and ingénues, to flappers, the new woman, and the lethal women of the 1970s, from the classical Hollywood era to contemporary visual culture. The introduction also features the main theories that shape Tóth’s arguments including Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, Bronfen’s theories of the femme fatale, Joan Riviere’s and Judith Butler’s theories on masquerade, Mario Praz’s theories of the homme fatale, and M. H. Abrams’ classification of the different types and aspects of humor.

The first four chapters examine the main characters of the four adaptations referred to in the title of the book: the first filmic adaptation of Watkins’ original play titled Chicago (dir. Frank Urson, DeMille Pictures Corporation, 1927), the second filmic adaptation, Roxie Hart (dir. William A. Wellman, Twentieth Century Fox, 1942), the first musical adaptation that premiered on Broadway, Chicago: A musical vaudeville created by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse (1976), and the most recent filmic adaptation that follows the 1976 musical very closely, Chicago (dir. Rob Marshall, Miramax Films, 2002). The fifth and last chapter provides a detailed analysis of each adaptation. The segments of the book are logically organized, examining the same characters from multiple aspects and viewpoints, and the numerous subchapters make it easy for the reader to navigate through the book.

The first chapter (“Femme Fatale”) is a close reading of the different representations of the character of the classical femme fatale, “the figure of the female transgressor” (7) in American fiction, film, and other cultural representations, with a focus on its immensely complex and endlessly ambiguous nature. The extensive historical overview begins from “Aristotle’s corrupted vision of women” (9), through medieval religious texts and philosophy and the feminine ideals of Victorianism, in order to arrive at the 1970s, when new, more complex, overtly aggressive representations of women began to emerge. This type of far-reaching and detailed treatment of topics is typical of Tóth’s book. What is more, in this truly interdisciplinary work, besides film history, Tóth also relies, for example, on literary history―when she argues on the ways in which Victorian ideals influenced and manifested themselves in the representations of women at the beginning of the twentieth century―and on psychoanalysis―when she convincingly argues for the distinction between the New Woman and flapper femmes fatales, among other disciplines. This chapter also includes a detailed account of the various aspects of the femme fatale’s appearance, such as her perfect and irresistible body, which is her most important aspect because it functions as her weapon to manipulate, her long and uncontrollable or bobbed hair as a symbol of female empowerment, her knowing Gioconda smile and uncontrolled laughter, and her vastly adorned clothing, which masks her body similarly to how her mysterious smile masks her intentions. Tóth shows how “the comic-grotesque-carnivalesque performativity of the femmes fatales of Chicago” (54) disrupts order even more so than their classical, tragic counterparts. Throughout this chapter, Tóth positions herself against Doane’s description of femmes fatales as objects and mere carriers of power, and rather sides with Bronfen, arguing that femmes fatales are possessors of power and active agents.

The next chapter titled “The Comic,” discusses various comic genres, such as comedy, satire, irony, or burlesque. The comic aspect of the femme fatale is crucial in Tóth’s analysis because it is what ultimately helps these femmes fatales remain free and go unpunished. All versions of Chicago portray a satiric corrective comedy that ridicules the American judicial system but presents the immoral characters in a grotesque way in order to maintain the clear difference between good and bad. Moreover, the genre of the last two adaptations transforms into musical comedies on stage or on screen, also featuring elements of vaudeville, which shows numerous similarities to the mood of the carnival, and includes sexually-charged and easy-going types of humor. Closely connected to this is the third chapter, which sets out to discuss farcical femmes fatales from the aspect of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, with a great emphasis on its performative nature (“The Carnival and the Carnivalesque”). In Watkins’ reports and its later adaptations, laws, norms, and values becomes subverted, especially during the trial scene, which demonstrates that what the narrative actually portrays is a comic-grotesque “spectacular modern(-day) carnival in an urban setting” (92). Besides the setting, the mocking and abusive use of language, the danse macabre, involving symbolic death and (re)birth, and scapegoating, as seen in the fate of the Othered immigrant, Hunyak, also occupy significant and carnivalesque roles in the narrative. As a joyful master of ceremonies, a literal puppet master during some of the trial scenes, and the uncrowned king of this carnivalesque realm, it is Billy Flynn, the lawyer, the farcical homme fatale, who secretly conducts and manipulates the show before and during the trial scene. Following this discussion of the carnivalesque aspects of the main characters, chapter four goes into more detail about the “Farcical Femmes Fatales and Humorous Hommes Fatales, or Vice Figures” within the scope of two clearly delineated subchapters. The farcical femme fatale is an oxymoronic character in-and-of-itself, since it is “a unique combination of the originally tragic and dangerous/deathly femme fatale figure and a comic-grotesque-carnivalesque, yet, also satirical mode of performativity and discourse” (137). What is more, this figure also satirizes the Victorian ideals of women as fragile, passive, and silent, which were still prevalent in the 1920s. Nevertheless, although farcical femmes fatales manage to evade their deadly fate, they remain deadly to other characters. The character of the humorous homme fatale is very similar to farcical femmes fatales in that he is just as ambidextrous, the embodiment of the theatrical and comic devil of the carnival.

The fifth and final chapter of the book, titled “The Farcical Femmes Fatales of Chicago,” analyzes the different adapted versions of Chicago, with frequent references to the elements which have been discussed in the preceding theoretical chapters. While the whole of each film is discussed in detail, it is the iconic and carnivalesque trial scene that gets most of the attention in each subchapter. The first subchapter deals with the origins of the original articles and the original play. What Watkins wanted to achieve with her reports and her play was to use a sensationalist work to expose the absurdity of the injustice taking place in courtrooms with the help of humor, and she was greatly disappointed with how lightly the first two adaptations dealt with what she deemed to be a serious problem in society. Due to its historical context, the first filmic adaptation of Watkins’ drama, the 1927 melodrama narrated from Amos’ point of view, clearly reinforced the vamp-ingénue dichotomy; while the 1942 version was turned into a screwball comedy, or rather a “farcical noir story” (221) starring Ginger Rogers, which was immensely hindered by the restrictions of the Hays Code, which prohibited the light presentation of criminality and the failure of the judicial system, two key elements in Watkins’ narrative. Although the 1975 Broadway adaptation tried to follow Watkins’ play more closely by showing some progress in terms of the representation of women, having been influenced by the tumultuous times of the 1960s in America, it was only in the 2002 adaptation that the story reached its full potential. The 2002 Chicago, the most complex adaptation of Watkins’ story, follows the 1927 and the 1975 plays very closely, and it presents "the palimpsest of the previous [adaptations] culminating as well as enhancing their potentials and accentuating the comic-grotesque-carnivalesque performativity of the farcical femmes fatales of Chicago" (251-252). In the concluding pages, Tóth finishes the overview of violent women in film that she started at the beginning of the book with the 2000s, providing a frame for her book from the “Introduction” to the very end.

As Tóth summarizes towards the end of her book, "The femmes fatales of Chicago manage to evade their tragic fate because they turn into farcical femmes fatales under the ‘command and guidance’ of a (comic) Vice or a humorous homme fatale, within the realm of the heterotopic space of the carnival, through the comic-grotesque performance and masquerade of femininity" (252). Tóth provides a truly multidisciplinary and wide-ranging book, with etymologies of the main terms as well as a concise history of women in American film and culture. She approaches the same characters from numerous aspects and thus successfully locates the term she coined, the farcical femme fatale, in the context of existing theories on femmes fatales. Tóth also demonstrates her acquaintance with numerous scholarly fields by providing multiple well-chosen examples from various areas of culture and setting them in their greater contexts, while keeping all of them relevant, justified and amply elaborated on. Though the book is fascinating and comprehensible, it would have been more convenient if the reader could have seen illustrations of the film scenes and character representations that are discussed; moreover, the reader could have had a smoother text to enjoy if Tóth hadn’t (admittedly) reiterated some of the same aspects in both the theoretical and in the analytical chapters. Nevertheless, the author’s proficiency in and passion for the topic is supported by her inclusion of the analysis of a 2010 Hungarian production of the play―but unfortunately only in the endnotes. What is more, she has managed to include all of her research interests in this book (including Jane Austen and the androgynous representation of women). In sum, Merry Murderers: The Farcical Refiguration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations is a valuable contribution to the literature on Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its adaptations, adding a Hungarian contribution to the existing research on the historical and cultural contexts in which these special adaptations came into being.


Works cited

  • Allen, Virginia M. 1983. The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon. Troy: Whitston.
  • Doane, Mary Ann. 1991. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.
  • Bronfen, Elisabeth. 2004. “Femme Fatale – Negotiations of Tragic Desire.” New Literary History 35:103-116.
  • Ebb, Fred and Bob Fosse. 1976. Chicago. A musical vaudeville. New York: Samuel French INC.
  • Marshall, Rob, dir. 2002. Chicago. Written by Bill Condon. Miramax Films.
  • Urson, Frank, dir. 1927. Chicago. Written by Lenore J. Coffee. DeMille Pictures Corporation.
  • Watkins, Maurine. 1997. “Watkins’s Chicago Tribune Articles.” In Chicago, With the Chicago Tribune Articles That Inspired It by Maurine Watkins, edited by Thomas H. Pauly, 115-157. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • —. 1927. Chicago. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
  • Wellman, William A., dir. 1942. Roxie Hart. Written by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century Fox.