Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

March, 2024

Paramount, 1934. Director: Mitchell Leisen. Screenplay: Carey Wilson, Joseph Gollomb, and Sam Hellman, based on a play by Earl Carroll and Rufus King. Camera: Leo Tover. Film editor: Billy Shea. Cast: Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglen, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Dorothy Stickney, Gertrude Michael, Jessie Ralph, Charles B. Middleton, Gail Patrick.
            During the golden age of Hollywood, the major studios turned out new movies in such vast quantities that they necessarily produced an uneven range of quality. Most of the true classics of American cinema emerged from those years, but, inevitably, there were also a fair share of misfires. On the other hand, some of the misfires have a fascination of their own. Such a film is Paramount’s Murder at the Vanities, released in the spring of 1934. As if unsure what kind of film they wanted to produce, the filmmakers seem to have lumped together two disparate genres in one picture as an experiment. In early 1934 the backstage musical was a popular commodity in Hollywood, and here Paramount offers such a musical—but what’s happening backstage at this musical is a murder mystery. While frothy, large-scale production numbers are proceeding on the stage, tensions are mounting, bodies are accumulating, clues are turning up, and snappy repartee is being exchanged backstage. The resulting combination has much to offer the film enthusiast, but not always for the reasons intended.
            Underlying all this is real-life showman Earl Carroll, whose annual revue, “Earl Carroll’s Vanities,” had been a fixture in the New York theatre for a good ten years at the time. This film’s fictional story takes the authentic Vanities as its setting—not only with Carroll’s permission, but with his active participation. Carroll negotiated with Paramount for the rights to portray his show on the screen, and ostensibly co-wrote the play on which the film was based. He never appears onscreen, but the opening credits fulsomely acknowledge him, and the film’s action begins with Jack Oakie, as the stage director, fielding a phone call from the master showman on opening night, substantiating his meticulous attention to detail. As a result, the first part of the film amounts to an unabashed tribute to Earl Carroll. Like the revues of Ziegfeld and other impresarios, the Vanities relied heavily on feminine pulchritude, and its showgirls were advertised as “the most beautiful girls in the world.” A troupe of them were loaned to Paramount for the film, and the “most beautiful girls” were proudly featured in the screen credits.
            The musical component of the film is largely devoted to imported Danish star Carl Brisson, making his American movie debut. Brisson was possessed of valid cinematic bona fides, having starred in two of Hitchcock’s silent films, but the attempt to launch him as a sensational singing star in Hollywood was ill-fated. His strenuous efforts to project charm and ebullience were simply too overpowering, especially in giant closeups, and his European success was not duplicated in America. The dance numbers, staged by veterans Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz, provide a nice veneer of lush glamor. Notably, they resist copying the contemporaneous influence of Busby Berkeley’s spectacular numbers at Warner Bros.: a couple of modest overhead shots notwithstanding, all the effects we see in the show-within-the-film would be realistically achievable on a real stage.
            The film’s score is in the hands of studio songwriters Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow, who deliver an assortment of pleasant but mostly forgettable tunes. The featured number, “Cocktails for Two,” did achieve hit-song status, perhaps resonating with a generation that had so recently celebrated the repeal of Prohibition. From today’s perspective, the musical highlight of the film is a too-brief appearance by Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Elegant as always, Ellington and company perform a jazzy arrangement of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody.
            But it’s the murder mystery that dominates the action here, stylishly staged and photographed, and handled (like other mid-30s mystery films) in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner. There’s no shortage of backstage intrigue behind this show; the principals include Brisson and his costar and romantic partner Kitty Carlisle, Carlisle’s jealous rival Gertrude Michael, Gail Patrick as an unorthodox private detective, and other assorted hangers-on. One treat for the film enthusiast is an appearance by familiar character player Jessie Ralph, here, for once, given a three-dimensional role that demonstrates her acting ability. The lead investigator on the case is none other than Victor McLaglen, a scant year away from his Academy Award-winning performance in Ford’s The Informer. Here he’s a clumsy, heavy-handed flatfoot, none too intelligent, and easily distracted by the comely showgirls. He’s the classic “dumb cop” of movie mysteries, but here there’s no Philo Vance or Charlie Chan to provide contrasting wit and expertise. It’s up to McLaglen himself to fumble his way to a solution, all the while trading barbed one-liners with Jack Oakie.
            Released in May 1934, Murder at the Vanities qualifies as a pre-Code film, but just barely. A mere few weeks later, the newly established Production Code Administration would likely have banned it altogether. As it is, the film endured much difficulty with the Hays office and with various local censor boards. Interestingly, most of the fuss was not about the overexposed showgirls, but centered on the song “Marahuana,” sung onstage by Gertrude Michael as a paean to the soothing properties of marijuana. Today this song seems harmless, but it was controversial enough at the time to be bodily removed for the 1935 reissue. Decades later, it was still missing from television prints. Happily, Murder at the Vanities has now been reconstituted in its entirety, and stands as a fascinating artifact of mid-1930s Hollywood history—a filmic hodgepodge, to be sure, but one with more than enough hidden treasures to delight the seasoned film enthusiast.

J.B. Kaufman