« Denver Film Festival - The Line-Up | Main | Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema X »

October 11, 2022

Murder at the Vanities

murder at the vanites.png

Mitchell Leisen - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Arguably, the biggest star in Murder at the Vanities is Travis Banton. No, he is never seen. But his costumes pushed the envelope for what was allowed in a pre-Code film. Breasts appear barely covered. There are suggestions of on-screen nudity. Earl Carroll was most famous for his variety shows presented in New York City between the 1920s and 30s. His best known competitor was Florenz Ziegfeld. But Carroll was known for his more scantily clad chorus girls, and the film would seem to be a close to the live show as might have been allowed, and certainly more than one would see had the film been produced a year later.

The murder is almost besides the point. Stage manager Jack Oakie and police detective Victor McLaglen exchange fast-talking insults while trying to figure out who is killing the unknown woman found bleeding in the catwalk and one of the featured performers, all during the course of the on-stage show. There is a sub-plot that never really gets resolved involving the star tenor and a secret relationship. As long has the film needed something resembling a story, I would have wished there was more Oakie and McLaglen and less of romantic duo Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle.

Coincidentally, both Brisson and Carlisle left Hollywood in 1935 in favor of acting on stage. The two are first introduced singing "Cocktails for Two", with Brisson giving that chestnut a more emphatic treatment in a solo performance. Carlisle would play a somewhat similar role as part of a forgettable romantic couple with tenor Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera. More memorable for Carlisle is a song titled "Sweet Marijuana", which in spite of the male chorus wearing oversized sombreros in front a a giant cactus is exactly what you probably think that song is about.

I do not think there would be a problem with taking a familiar Franz Liszt melody and having Duke Ellington jazz it up. Giving it the title "The Rape of the Rhapsody" may cause some eyeball rolling. Classical musicians in what appears to be early 19th Century costumes are chased off stage by the music of Ellington's band. Black chorus dancers take to the stage and although the camera pans across a line of the chorus girls, they are never filmed with the same prominence as the white chorus girls. Another reminder of the casual racism of the time is when one of the chorus girls compares the number of blues singers on Broadway with the amount of "brunettes in Africa".

Director Leisen even gets in the act, a cameo as an orchestra conductor. Unlike the Warner Brothers musicals, the stage space filmed here does resemble a real stage, if oversized. Unlike the Busby Berkeley fantasies with their elaborate combination of choreography and cinematography, Leisen settles for a few canted angles for a stylistic flourish.

Aside from Jack Oakie and Victor McLaglen, most of the credited cast members are better known as supporting players, including future television producer Gail Patrick, depression era starlet Toby Wing, and the future Ming the Merciless, Charles Middleton. It is the uncredited chorus members that would become stars in the next decade if IMDb can be relied on - Lucille Ball, Alan Ladd, Ann Sheridan and Dennis O'Keefe are listed. Jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson is listed as one of chorus girls.

Providing enthusiastic commentary is film historian Anthony Slide who makes no secret about his admiration for Toby Wing. What is probably the most interesting part of the history of the making of Murder at the Vanities is how Paramount Pictures made it a point to ignore to the production code and the administrators, at least until the code was more firmly enforced. Also of interest is pointing out that the jazz reworking of Liszt as played by Ellington and company was the work of Arthur Johnston. With Sam Coslow, Johnston wrote the songs in the film, and Carl Brisson was the singer who introduced "Cocktails for Two". And if after almost ninety years, "Cocktails for Two" comes across as quaint, there is something to be admired about having the literacy to rhyme chansonette with serviette.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 11, 2022 06:45 AM