Maurine Watkins, in an ad promoting Fox studios’ writers in the Motion Picture Herald.
Journalism and screenwriting have one thing in common: telling a good story in order to get the audience hooked. Both depend on excellent observation, character development, and a telling phrase to really keep readers’ and viewers’ interest. Maurine Watkins learned a lifetime of storytelling skills in her six months as a crime reporter for The Chicago Tribune in 1924, talents she would employ as screenwriter for various Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s after writing one of the most important plays of the 1920s, “Chicago.”
Born July 27, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, prim, pretty Maurine Watkins, the daughter of a preacher for the Christian Church, excelled in her schoolwork. Disciplined and precocious, she wrote her first play, “The Heart of God,” at 15, and co-founded her high school newspaper. She entered Transylvania University, affiliated with the Disciples of Christ to study Greek and Latin languages and the Bible, before graduating from Butler University. Watkins next entered Radcliffe for graduate work in the classics before switching to playwriting under long time professor George Pierce Baker.
He suggested students use their talents to make the world better in some fashion. Maurine dropped out of school and decided to combine her writing skills with her Christianity to gently preach morality, hopefully at a major newspaper covering the crime beat. Taking her chances, she wrote a strong letter to Tribune city editor Robert M. Lee, who scheduled an interview with her, though most women in journalism at the time covered only the female angle. Stunned at her old-fashioned and simple appearance though Impressed with her gumption and strong moral fiber, Lee hired her February 1, 1924 for the police beat, believing her soft vulnerability and petite size would help grieving families open up and confide telling details of their loved ones to her.
During this time, Chicago newspapers competed for the most readers by featuring the most scandalous, attention-grabbing stories and headlines they could spread across the front page. If a little added color or spice could jazz the story, more was even better. The toddling town was drowning in crime at this time, not only from rival gangs gunning down others over alcohol smuggling but also from red hot jazz mamas shooting their lovers/boyfriends/husbands in cold blood.
Watkins spent her first few weeks covering petty crimes and car crashes at local police stations, but hit it lucky one night when twice-divorced saloon singer and socialite Belva Gaertner was hauled in after shooting her lover to death in her car, an empty gin bottle and gun found at his feet. Drunk after a night of partying, Gaertner was found with blood-soaked clothes in her apartment, admitting she was drunk but couldn’t remember what happened. Watkins would thus describe Belva, “”whose pursuit of wine, men, and jazz music was interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger.”
She joined several other women on murderer’s row in Chicago’s main jail, all locked up for murder. A few days later they were joined by stunning Beulah Annan, a young but manipulative married woman who shot her lover in cold blood in her own apartment while both were drunk and while a jaunty tune played on the Victrola. Annan confessed three times in less than 24 hours, each a different telling of who did what, coldly calculating.
“The Strange Love of Molly Louvain,” Photoplay.
Her good looks earned her the most important slots on Chicago’s front pages, as well as the most publicity of all the women in the joint, taking away Gaertner’s role as top dog. Watkins called her “…the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago.” When Annan realized her story was pushed off the front pages by another woman’s crime, she conveniently claimed she was pregnant. The jailed women quickly learned how to play the game of publicity, flirting with journalists, dropping telling phrases, employing makeup and fashion consultants, all to gain the most news space in a state where juries contained only men, hoping to win themselves freedom with their beauty, brains, or braggadocio.
Watkins quickly found the entire journalism and legal systems rotten to the core – publicity hungry inmates, shyster lawyers, corrupt police, the sob sister press, and sex-crazed juries out for their 15 minutes of fame. Fame seemed to be an aphrodisiac in Chicago at the time – with all members of these dirty little circles addicted to keeping their names in print. She played up these aspects in her front page stories. As she wrote after Annan was first arrested, “Thursday afternoon Mrs. Annan played ‘Hula Lou’ on the phonograph while the wooer she had shot during a drunken quarrel lay dying in her bedroom.”
From the moment she realized the sleaziness of the crime game in Chicago, Watkins employed her strong writing skills to puncture the hypocrisy and sordidness of the situation, hoping to open readers’ eyes to a better way of living. Unlike most female crime reporters who focused on the poor little victim, the murderer sitting in jail, Watkins saw through the superficial charms of Annan and Gaertner, playing up their unsympathetic natures. She used derision of those who chased notoriety and sensation rather than what really mattered. With male reporters, she put down the women murderers as “little sisters of Lady MacBeth, Salome, and Lucrezia Borgia,” as reported by the book, “Girls of Murder City.”
Ann Dvorak in “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain,” Picture Play.
Her sarcastic, cynical tone played up the cunning, black cores of Annan and Gaertner, and Watkins was stunned when the all male juries bought the incredulous stories of the two women, freeing them. Though she covered a few more trials, including Leopold and Loeb’s, Watkins was transferred to movie criticism after only six months on the crime beat.
Soon tiring of that, she moved on to the newly opened Yale School of Drama, studying playwriting under Baker, her old professor. Watkins had already begun a ripped from the headlines version of Annan and Gaertner’s trials, which she was calling “The Brave Little Woman.” Watkins liberally quoted from her own stories, employed testimony and dialogue straight from the trials, even copying some of the telling details about the two women, now called Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.
Impressed with Watkins’ final product, Baker sent it off to top theatre producer Sam Harris, who quickly bought it and changed the name to “Chicago.” The dark satire earned rave reviews on Broadway and played to packed houses when it opened in 1926. Novelist Rupert Hughes considered it an important work, a story both profound and powerful for how it captured the zeitgeist of the period, with its hilarious but pointed zingers hitting the ugliness of society right on target.
A female Billy Wilder, Watkins sometimes bitter, sometimes cynical words slashed the hypocrisy and and calculation of all involved, employing the sometimes gutter language of participants, a rarity at the time. She herself acted as an extra in courtroom scenes in the show, and even understudied some of the roles. Her first play became a cultural phenomenon.
“Chicago” played to standing room audiences in its namesake, earning accolades as well as knowing winks from audience goers. The play ran 11 weeks at Hollywood’s Music Box Theatre in March and April 1927, with a young Nancy Carroll starring as the plotting Roxie and a young Clark Gable making an appearance.
The March 25 Los Angeles Times described it as “bristling with wicked satire,” featuring beautiful women “getting away with murder,” and stated its satire focused on people “famous for being famous,” celebrity paparazzi, sob sister press, publicity mad jurists and attorneys, all reveling in the orgy of notoriety. Times also wrote, “The public is treated to a caricature of itself as a nation of gum-chewing, sensation-seeking addicts who must incessantly be fed faked pictures and hysterical interviews,” all long before Confidential, National Enquirer, Entertainment Tonight, and TMZ came on the screen.
Cecil B. DeMille bought the rights to the play, producing it under the direction of Frank Urson and shooting it in Chicago itself. Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver enacted the role of the soused but sordid Roxie Hart, this time abandoned by her strong, upstanding husband, a part rewritten for the screen. Haver called it one of the best of her career, a meaty part unlike any she had been given before. While some reviews pointed out the cleaning up of the role, others found the movie bracing and stinging, with some calling it “the sensation of 1928.”
Unfortunately, Watkins’ attempts at further playwriting fell flat. Her adaptation of Samuel Hopkins’ novel, “Revelry,” “…the story of political corruption, …showing the disastrous consequences which can befall when chance and the democratic catapult a small-time politician into the Presidency,” per Alexander Woollcott’s March 6, 1927 review in the Los Angeles Times, closed on the road. Many called it flat and odd. She stopped working on other adaptations, too overloaded. No play of hers ever reached Broadway again. Watkins turned to short stories in solace.
She soon found a way to turn what she knew of the criminal justice system, journalism, and human nature into a profitable enterprise – writing for the screen. The Fox Film Corporation brought Maurine Watkins to the West Coast in May 1930 to adapt “Up the River,” a dark but hilarious melodrama off prison life starring new to the screen Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, directed by John Ford. Film Daily stated it contained sparking dialogue in a story about criminals escaping from prison to help a former prisoner in trouble. Reviews called it “a clever and amusing satire” as well as “refreshingly different from all the others.”
Watkins began adapting others’ plays as well for the screen. She adapted “Doctors’ Wives” for Frank Borzage at Fox, which Film Daily called “Original as sin and as rare as virtue,” a good “gin and tonic” for the soul, and also worked on reshaping Preston Sturges’ stage play, “Child of Manhattan.”
Watkins continued to write plays, only to see them purchased by studios for adapting into films. Warner Bros. acquired her play “Tinsel Lady,” before eventually retitling it “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain.” Young sensation Ann Dvorak was cast in the lead opposite fast-talking Lee Tracy, as a scandal-sheet reporter in the story of a woman who falls for the wrong men and almost fails in the attempt to make something of her life before a reporter saves the day. It too once again featured brash, sarcastic reporters fighting tooth and nail to nail top stories, even if it required fudging the facts or inventing juicy details.
Maurine worked freelance, moving from studio to studio whenever one purchased her works or hired her to rewrite others into a more cynical, hard-nosed style. Over the next several years, Watkins adapted or wrote for the screen such works as “No Man of Her Own” starring Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, “The Story of Temple Drake” starring Miriam Hopkins, and “Search for Beauty,” featuring a young Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino. Her sarcastic and snide words perfectly fit the Pre-Code era, in which most people sought to get themselves ahead at any cost, damn the consequences.
In 1933 Watkins wrote “Professional Sweetheart” for RKO, which featured Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster in a black hearted look at the radio industry. The story burlesqued radio sponsored shows that employed artful publicity to create myths about the show’s performers which actually contradicted their real lives. Rogers played “The Purity Girl” for Ippsie Wiippsie Wash Cloth Radio Hour, a perfect lady who neither smoke, drank, partied, or even dated. She vows to break her contract unless given the opportunity to find a real sweetheart and live an independent life. The show sets her up with the man who becomes her sweetheart, which leads to all sorts of complications before the happy ending.
In 1936, MGM hired her to help write the “Libeled Lady” screenplay, in which another fast talking newspaperman fending off a possible libel suit hatches a scheme with his jilted fiancee and lawyer to arrange sham marriages. Four of MGM’s top names – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow – starred in the film, a breezy, witty story of deception, love, and romance. Motion Picture Daily called it a “semi-sophisticated, hokum-tinged farce comedy, noting its brisk, fast, sparkling fun. Watkins artfully employed what she knew of the journalism and legal fields to skewer both reporters and attorneys who worked to manipulate the system.
Over the next few years, she helped adapt “Saratoga” and “Too Hot to Handle” for MGM before penning “I Love You Again” for MGM, another frothy concoction combining love, romance, mistaken identity, and amnesia featuring MGM’s top romantic couple on screen, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
At the same time, Fox began remaking some of her earlier work. In 1939, the studio remade “Up the River,” this time with Preston Foster, Tony Martin, and Slim Summerville. Their 1942 version of “Chicago,” called “Roxie Hart,” cleaned up the story to pass the Production Code, converting Roxie into an innocent, put up victim and making her husband the cold-blooded killer. Though Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou give fine performances, the film turns the real story on its head.
“The Story of Temple Drake,” in Close Up.
Slowly over the years, Maurine Watkins reached the conclusion she didn’t fit in in Hollywood. Her politics and values differed from most of the people in the industry. Writer Tony Slide’s book, “It’s the Pictures That Got Small,” a compilation of screenwriter Charles Brackett’s diaries, reveals that on May 8, 1936 he asked her about joining the Screen Writers Guild. Watkins replied she’d better not, as she was “a rabid Nazi and Jew hater.” She might have used black humor to evade the situation or indeed indulged in deplorable values.
After the travesty of the 1942 “Roxie Hart,” Watkins abandoned Hollywood and screenwriting, moving to Florida to live near her aging parents. A practicing Christian her whole life, she began promoting and providing scholarships in Greek and Bible studies to various universities. She never married, enjoying her independence and believing she wasn’t the marrying type. Over the years, Watkins turned down various individuals seeking to buy the rights to “Chicago” for new theatrical productions. Several years after her death, her family finally sold theatrical rights to Bob Fosse, who recognized the biting look at societal mores, realizing how little had changed. He created a splendid musical version of the work, one which revealed the cold-hearted values of the two female killers, a musical considered a classic today.
Maurine Watkins attempted to use her writing talents and spiritual values in her works to point out society flaws and suggest a better way of living. She achieved lasting fame with her play, “Chicago,” one which zooms in on the gullibility and immaturity of people seeking out sensation and notoriety, and those who lust after the superficiality and nothingness of these matters instead of focusing on real life issues.