Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- The star is a police detective more interested in ladies than solving a murder. And who can blame him?
- One woman gets an erotic thrill out of just thinking about committing murder. And who can blame her?
- There’s a song about how happy they are that prohibition is over. No one can blame anyone! There is no blaming in this movie!
- Oh, and more can-can dancin’.
- None other than Duke Ellington has a big number, which features, yes, blacks and whites dancing together. The horror!
- Someone gets clean away with murder again.
- Another movie with a woman private investigator. Wish that trend had continued.
- Here’s one you really couldn’t get away with saying three months later: “Oh, justice! What stupidities are committed in thy name?”
- And one that’s still pretty risque: “Where’d you hide the gun?” [whisper] “Well, it’s just lucky you found it again!”
- What do ladies wear backstage? Lots of lingerie.
- What do ladies wear on-stage? Sometimes even less. Check out that screenshot above, which happens at the end of a musical number where a bunch of nymphs emerge from flowers. They’re still covered from the bottom down, but from the top up, they just have their paws.
- And, hell, while, we’re on a roll, what song is playing during the so-close-to-nudity-if-someone-just-had-sneezed moment of the film? A musical number called “Sweet Marijuana.”
- No, I’m not kidding about that:
A half an inch from being Showgirls, Murder at the Vanities came out a few short weeks before the enforcement of the Hays Production went into full force. Filled with lewd dialogue, scantily clad ladies, and, oh hey, murder, here’s a movie that has something for anyone looking to see just how outrageous films could be in 1934.
Before I delve too much into the plot, it should be first noted that Murder at the Vanities is very much a musical comedy with a murder subplot than a hard boiled murder mystery by any stretch of the imagination. If you can’t figure out who pulls the trigger within the character’s introduction scene, you’ve missed out on an old maxim of film mysteries: whoever is supposed to look the least guilty by the film’s climax is the killer.
Murder at the Vanities plays with this a little, but it’s obvious where its attention is really focused: flesh. Gobs of it.
We’re presented with a large cast of characters to suss our murderer/murderess from. Eric (Carl Brisson) is the lead of the play and film, and he’s in love with Ann (Kitty Carslisle). Together they’re one of those cloying couples who always come up smiling and can’t keep their hands off each other. This is much to the chagrin of Rita (Gertrude Michael), who also stars in the nightly revue with the pair. Rita has long harbored feelings (and perhaps had good reason for them before), but Ann showed up and threw that through a loop.
Rita’s bitterness extends as far as hiring a private investigator to look into Eric’s past and discovering that, not only is his mother actually the seamstress downstairs, but that she fled Europe because, you know, murderous past and such. The private investigator threatens to turn not just Eric’s life upside down, but also Rita’s, and wouldn’t you know it, she soon ends up dead.
Sorting through all of these wackos is Jack (Jack Oakie), the stage manager, and Lt. Murdock (Victor McLaglen) of the police. Jack’s main desire is to get the show through without a hitch but to also keep his stars safe. It’s here that he ends up hiding some evidence pre-strip search in a place unmentionable in the Pre-Codes. Jack’s fast talking schtick is complemented by Murdock, who is one of those big dumb guys who likes looking at the girls and asking them all on dates.
The role of women in the film is an interesting one, with the chief problem being that the good girl is once again the most boring–Ann’s pretty and can sing and dance, but that’s about it. Rita is shrewish and the other women are nearly (or obviously) psychopathic. I’ll save everyone some guessing and say three different women here are murderers, which is a pretty bad when your gender leads 3-0 in that department.
I bring this up because I recently mentioned in my review of Sleep, My Love that that very sanitized thriller is full of terrible roles for women. There’s a difference, however, and I hope you’ll let me expound upon it briefly: the characters in Murder at the Vanities have actual real motivations. All have obsession eating away at them in one way or another (except poor, saintly Ann, but don’t mind her). Sleep, My Love was the story of a woman using her sexual influence to murder another woman out of not much more than an inhumane desire to simply do evil. For a movie that came twenty four years later–and like a lot of other films from that period–it was invariably a harsher shade of black and white.
Murder at the Vanities definitely delights in the female form and no one will accuse the movie of being feminist, but it least registers that to a degree of self awareness. Every night the entire chorus line must go under a large banner promising the Vanities star “The Most Beautiful Girls in the World.” The first shot we get of this banner it’s hung over a cleaning lady in rags, cleaning the floors.
Some could look at this and see an ironic joke at the cleaning woman’s expense, but I think it fits more firmly into the film’s mischievous desire to constantly poke fun at the difference between stage reality and fantasy. The musical numbers also underscore this, as well as Jack’s constant attempts to keep the show going in spite of a fresh stream of new corpses: we must put on our best faces, for the world needs its pleasures. Not a message that I think would have been subtle to either the filmmakers or audiences back then.
Also consider that all of the men, except the made-from-cardboard Eric, spend the movie ogling women and acting like asses. It’s not much of a noble role, either.
The musical numbers (and there are quite a few) are very much constricted by the stage space they take place on, i.e. whenever you watch a musical number, you are watching it on a stage within the movie. Though this sounds completely logical, it’s antithetical to the then-current and popular movies of Busby Berkeley whose stage-spaces grew and multiplied profusely as the musical numbers went along. This gave Berkeley’s numbers a dreamy, detached sense of reality. Here, with the numbers more strikingly literal, it keeps the viewer firmly planted in the show’s reality. Necessary for the backstage drama (especially for a couple of crucial scenes including an onstage murder), but an interesting difference nonetheless.
Keep in mind that musical numbers from the 30s were always more about spectacle than dancing. Comparing anything here, or in something like Footlight Parade, to the works of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire and they’re entirely different worlds. Take that a few decades in the future, and it’s interesting to see how not just the music has changed, but the idea of what a musical is and should be has changed in the meantime.
Because of the ‘closer to reality’ nature of the musical numbers, we’re left with a gaggle that never really escapes the screen and captures the imagination. Besides the marijuana song I linked to above, we get a rather neat one where beautiful women shake feathers on the ground to simulate the ocean, and one with Duke Ellington playing a rather jazzy tune. By the way, this number is the earliest example I’ve seen of a black musician enter into a stuffy room filled with rich white people waltzing and then playing some energetic music that directly leads to them boogieing out.
Since this scene is right before a murder, we also get an early example of some intense dutch angles. That’s when the camera is turned to an angle slightly, to try and throw the audience off balance. Mixed in with the loud and wild music, it does a pretty nice job of doing just that.
Like I said before, though, don’t come into Murder at the Vanities for an exciting mystery to be solved. It’s a risque relic of its time. Mick LaSalle, in his book Complicated Women points out that this movie makes one thing abundantly clear with the risks it was taking: if the Production Code hadn’t come into force as soon as it had, we weren’t far off from mainstream, on-screen nudity.
This is a film that pushed the boundaries of the world it came from, and still feels alive and mad, like it just emerged shrieking from the womb. There’s a lot of old conventions that keep things moving along, but, as an oddity, Murder at the Vanities is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, and always fascinating.
3guys1movie · October 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm
Nice review I had never heard of this film, I am going to have to check it out. Duke Ellington with a number about marijuana count me in.
JennyG · August 26, 2014 at 4:32 am
The part of this movie I will never forget is the performance of “Ebony Rhapsody”–it even eclipses “Sweet Maijuana” in my memory. I plan to teach the clip in my next modernism class, to discuss the intense ambivalence of the time towards jazz and the Harlem Renaissance in general. At first, I couldn’t believe how progressive it was: Lizst and the 18th century ladies are reserved and dull before they are replaced by the much more lively and fun Duke Ellington and pretty black Jitterbugging maids–even the European ladies can’t help but contribute some can-can. A white woman in kerchief joins the maids to lindy and sing. It’s a veritable integrated party. And then, *spoiler alert,* Lizst returns with a machine gun, mows them all down, and the screen audience leaps to their feet for a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation. Come again?
It takes quite a bit to shock me, but that accomplished it.
Danny · August 27, 2014 at 3:16 pm
It’s a fantastic number for sure. Thanks for this description of it, almost makes me want to rewatch the movie!
Mjm · August 10, 2018 at 8:24 am
This movie is bonkers, but a lot of fun.
A few pre-code moments I spotted:
-Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle are barely wearing anything in the island number
-the Vanities program lists the Ebony Rhapsody number as “The Rape of Rhapsody”
-In the same number, Gertrude Michael and two male dancers are wearing light “high yellow” blackface
-and of course the near topless chorus girls as cacti in the Sweet Marijuana number
Among the chorus girls I spotted Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan and Barbara
Pepper. Theresa Harris is among the black chorus girls in the Ebony Rhapsody number. Alan Ladd (or someone who looks an awful lot like him) has a bit part as a callboy.
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