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A Murder investigation goes on back stage while The Vanities, on its
opening night, plays on to an unknowing audience. Odd combination of
musical and murder mystery is worth a look for its cast, its production
numbers, and the sheer novelty of the film.
Gertrude Michael has the showy role of a bitchy actress intent on stopping the marriage between the show's stars, Kitty Carlisle and Carl Brisson, as well as starring in the infamous "Sweet Marijuana" number (which was also on a 70s Bette Midler album). So while the chorus girls shuffle around backstage, bumbling detective Victor McLaglen ogles the girls while he tries to solve the backstage murder of an unknown woman.
We quickly learn that the maid (Dorothy Stickney) loves Brisson from afar, that the wardrobe lady (Jessie Ralph) is Brisson's mother, and that the stage manager (Jack Oakie) butts into everything. Lots of plots twists among the musical numbers. The show's best-known song is "Cocktails for Two." Kitty Carlisle also sings the haunting "Where Do They Come From?" And there's a weird rhapsody that erupts into a Harlem specialty number featuring Duke Ellington! Quite the cast.
Some terrific acting here, especially Gertrude Michael and Dorothy Stickney. Kitty Carlisle is quite good as well. Brisson is a total zero though.
Charles Middleton plays Homer, Toby Wing plays Nancy, Donald Meek plays the doctor, and also see if you can spot Ann Sheridan and Lucille Ball among the show girls.
Released just before the Production Code crackdown in July, 1934, Mitch
Leisen's all-star Paramount musical is leeringly suggestive -some even
claim misogynistic- and highly entertaining. Two murders occur on the
opening night of "Earl Carroll's Vanities" (one on-stage), but that
doesn't stop the manager (Jack Oakie) from putting on a show as a
lascivious police detective (Victor McLaglen) investigates. Everyone is
hiding something and Gypsy Rose Lee must have seen this backstage
murder mystery before she penned "The G-String Murders" as the
denouement is similar (although more satisfying here). Gertrude
Michael, as a vicious diva, stops the show (in more ways than one) with
her exotic "Sweet Marijuana" number and Duke Ellington finishes with
the truncated "Rape Of The Rhapsody". The hit song, "Cocktails For
Two", came from this film. A bizarre and bawdy camp classic highly
recommended! Here's Louella O. Parsons in the "Los Angeles Examiner" on
May 17, 1934:
Earl Carroll's hand-picked beauties' pirouette about on the Grauman United Artists screen in a fig leaf and not much else. But September Morn herself never had a better figure than these charmers, who are made up to please the eye, especially the eye of the tired businessman. But don't for a moment think Mr. Carroll's girls, au naturelle, are the only attraction. Believe it or not, MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a musical comedy thriller, if you know what I mean -a murder mystery incorporated in a musical show. It all happens on the opening night at the time the play is in progress and a search is on for a murderer. Just by way of suspense, a cop threatens to stop the show every few minutes. Victor McLaglen is something new in cops. All the time he is trying to track down the murderer, he keeps his eye fastened on the chorus beauties. The murder mystery is good with the exception of the denouement, which is pretty flat. Probably faulty direction. Dorothy Stickney, who plays the maid, is about as melodramatic as the heroine in a ten, twenty, and thirty show. For no good reason, she rates a never-ending closeup in the big dramatic scene. The girl ensembles are good, and it's a positive relief to get away from the inevitable overhead shots. The costumes are beautiful; in fact, this is a musical that Paramount can feel is really to their credit. As for Carl Brisson -well, he would be an addition to any show. Good-looking with a delightful singing voice and an easy, assured manner, he is all his press agents claim for him. I also like Kitty Carlisle, who plays the leading lady in the show. Gertrude Michael, as the deep-eyed villianess, gives an interesting if rather fictional portrayal. Jack Oakie, as the stage manager, is the same old wisecracking Jack, but we wouldn't change him. Jessie Ralph is excellent as the seamstress. Others in the cast are Charles Middleton, Gail Patrick, Donald Meek, Barbara Fritchie, Toby Wing and Lona Andre. The screen play is by Carey Wilson and Rufus King, and the direction by Mitchell Leisen. The music is by Arthur Johnstone and the lyrics by Sam Coslow. In addition to MURDER AT THE VANITIES, there is a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a Paramount Newsreel, and a two-reeler, THE WRONG DIRECTION.
I disagree with Lolly on the denouement, it's satisfying if over-the-top. Why would she blame the director? Was she displeased with the story's ending -or the way it was staged? And what's a "ten, twenty, or thirty show"? Note the swipe taken at Busby Berkeley and his "overhead shots". As hard as it may be to believe today, the public was tiring of Buzz' schtick by May, 1934. Mitch Leisen said, "if you are showing a stage show that's supposed to be in a theater, you should stay within the bounds of the proscenium arch, and not do a Buzz Berkeley routine with a stage set that's acres big."
Q: Don't you think Berkeley's spectacular effects justified taking this liberty? ML: Apparently they did because they're reviving all of his pictures and none of mine, but personally I don't like it.
Earl Carroll's MURDER AT THE VANITIES (Paramount, 1934), directed by
Mitchell Leisen, from the stage work by Earl Carroll and Rufus King,
marked the studio's contribution to the stage musical of the precode
era. Almost in the league as Warner Brothers' WONDER BAR (1934), with
plot set in a single night revolving around an handful of sinful
characters, VANITIES contains its own assortment of odd characters,
great interplay between Jack Oakie and Victor McLaglen, risqué dialog
and semi-nude chorines listed in the opening credits as "The Most
Beautiful Girls in the World," makes this particular production
something to consider.
Producer Earl Carroll is ill and unable to attend the opening night of his Vanities, which leaves Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie), former reporter turned stage director, in charge. Eric Lander (Carl Brisson) and Anne Ward (Kitty Carlisle), the show's leading couple, plan on getting married after the performance, much to the dismay of temperamental blues singer, Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael), who wants Eric for herself and will stop at nothing to get him. Before the curtain goes up, Anne finds her life being threatened by falling props and sandbags that nearly miss her, causing Ellery to notify his friendly rival, Police Lieutenant Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) to investigate. Sadie Evans (Gail Patrick), a female investigator hired by Eric, arrives to return valuable information stolen from him by Rita. Because Miss Evans has learned more than she should, her life is threatened by Helene Smith (Jessie Ralph), a wardrobe woman with a mysterious past of her own. During a performance, blood is felt dripping upon a chorus girl, causing her to scream and Murdock to trace the dripping blood to the body of Sadie Evans, stabbed by a large pin. When Rita threatens to expose what she knows about Eric in Vienna, she, too is murdered by a mysterious bullet. The show goes on as Ellery and Murdock work together in hope of rounding up the usual suspects.
Other members of the cast include Charles Middleton as Shakespearean actor Homer Boothby; Donald Meek as Doctor J.T. Saunders; and Barbara Fritchie as Viven. Notable performances go out to the comic-strip appearance of Dorothy Stickney as Norma Watson, Rita's abused maid; and Toby Wing as Nancy, the giggly blonde wanting desperately some time alone with Jack Ellery, who constantly casts her aside until later. Kitty Carlisle, best known for her role opposite the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (MGM, 1935), and as TV's panelist on the 1960-70s quiz show, TO TELL THE TRUTH, performs well in her motion picture debut, especially opposite Carl Brisson who, at times, resembles Carlisle's NIGHT AT THE OPERA love interest, Allan Jones, but minus the Danish accent.
A well-crafted murder mystery with an abundance of fine tunes by Arthur Johnson, Sam Coslow and Johnny Burke, include: "Cocktails for Two" (sung by Carl Brisson); "Where Do They Come From and Where Do They Go?" (sung by Kitty Carlisle); "Lovely One" (sung by male chorus); "Where Do They Come From and Where Do They Go?" (concluded by Carlisle); "Live and Love Tonight" (sung by Brisson); "Sweet Marijuana" (sung by Gertrude Michael); "Cradle Me With a Hatcha Lullaby" (instrumentally performed by male dancers); "The Rape of the Rhapsody" (sung by Brisson, orchestrated by Duke Ellington and his Band; reprized by Kitty Carlisle); "Doing the Ebony Rhapsody" (sung by Gertrude Michael); "Cocktails for Two" (sung by Brisson, chorus); and Finale: "Live and Love Tonight," "Sweet Marijuana" and "Cocktails for Two."
While "Cocktails for Two" became a song hit that that was later spoofed in the 1940s by band-leader Spike Jones, "Live and Love Tonight" is actually one of the better and nicer tunes helped by its production number treatment set on an island with Brisson as the sole male surrounded by under-dressed island girls (Carlisle included) and others using ostrich feathers as water waves. Gertrude Michael's rendition to "Sweet Marijuana" surrounded by dancing shadows, appears to be the sort of tune 35 years ahead of its time, fitting more into the 1960s hippie generation than 1934. Franz Liszt's "Second Hungarian Rhapsody," the longest of the production numbers, is an interesting attempt turning slow tempo classical composition to upbeat jazzy orchestration with Duke Ellington at the piano. Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz are credited for their impressive (or suggestive) choreography.
Rarely televised possibly due to its subject matter that make precode movies all the more worth seeing today, MURDER AT THE VANITIES, having been one of an assortment of rare classic films aired Sunday nights (1974-75) on Hartford, Connecticut's WFSB, Channel 3, did become available on home video in the 1980s (retail price: $59.95) and finally DVD in 2009. Its availability should add to the rediscovery of buried treasures such as this. (***)
Detective Victor McLaglen has to investigate a backstage murder and not mess up the debut of pal Jack Oakie's musical revue. You won't care about the rather hum-drum murder, the musical numbers will floor you. During a performance of "Sweet Marijuana", (this virtual lullaby to reefer has topless back-up dancers!) blood from the murder victim in the rafters drips down on the dancing girls! Toby Wing is fun and cute as the flirty chorus girl with a crush on Oakie. Loads fun here!
There are moments in the film that are so dreadful, your teeth ache.
But knowing that there were only weeks left before the Code made movies
innocuous and bland, Paramount rushed this into production before
innuendo and leering went out of style. Vanities is so horrifically
anti-female that it's delicious. As Kitty Carlisle sings, women are
displayed with price tags that would insult a Bronx hooker. They emerge
from clams (nudge,nudge;wink,wink) in postures of absolute submission.
Minions of the law, so stupid they cannot find the door, get to look up
their skirts and snicker. Bare-breasted chorus girls sit uncomfortably
in giant cacti (Could they be a source of hallucinogens, perhaps?)
while we listen to "Sweet Marijuana" and watch as blood falls on a
Sure, Carl Brisson learned his lines phonetically and doesn't seem to have a clue what he is saying. But it's all worth it as Norma steals the show while no one is looking.
Taking one moment of this fragile fluff seriously is missing the point of the whole exercise. Watch this with a charter member of NOW and prepare to justify the whole Hollywood machismo sch tick between body blows.
Toby Wing, by the way, is the icing on the cake. And Duke Ellington doesn't hurt either.
A must stroll down Memory Lane.
I just viewed MURDER AT THE VANITIES in the newly-released Universal Pre-Code set, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the vehicle end to end. Most of the other commentators have covered the story, a murder mystery within a musical, but I wanted to add a few additional notes. Brisson and Carlisle are relatively bland, compared to even most of the minor players, and neither one really seems to have the proper voice for what they're singing (Carlisle being a trained opera singer, Brisson a bit wobbly on some of his high and low notes). The great Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie play well off each other, with an excellent sense of timing that keeps the ball rolling between musical numbers. Yes, Lucille Ball and Ann Sheridan are Vanities girls, but let's not forget the splendid jazz singer Ernestine Anderson in the "Ebony Rhapsody" number. Gail Patrick makes one of her early appearances, sounding a bit like Eve Arden; Patrick would go on to become the executive producer of the Perry Mason TV series. Then there's Jessie Ralph as the wardrobe mistress--you'll spot her also in David COPPERFIELD (as Aunt Peggoty) and THE BANK DICK. The music is very good--Brisson introducing the standard "Cocktails for Two" in two different scenes; "Sweet Marihuana" with barely clad peyote button girls in the background (blood dripping on one chorine's white skin was wonderfully chilling); the "Ebony Rhapsody," with Duke Ellington's Orchestra and a bevy of beautiful dancers, both black and white, mixing it up. And I believe this is one of the only early musicals to feature such a mix--and the costumes leave nothing to the imagination.
Thus sumptuous Paramount art deco musical is almost a definitive pre code extravaganza and is on per with WONDERBAR and FASHIONS OF 1934 and TOP HAT as the glittering perfection of code- cusp risqué showgirl and nightclub sophisticated sexiness. Made at Paramount in late 1933 and clearly designed to outshine the WB Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, this one does it with nude showgirls, drug references, weapons, a slinky killer, murder in the ceiling and dripping blood, and big stage show numbers all crammed over the orchestra pit on the opening night of a big Broadway show. I was reminded of almost every Busby Berkeley film but clearly on a lower budget with the difference being made up by having spectacular costumes. In color this film would be an enduring musical of its time. In gorgeous B&W it still rates but one can see how colorful the costumes are even in monochrome. One startling song SWEET MARIJUANA manages the unparalleled feat of including nudity drugs murder and blood all on screen during the tune. There is a hilarious and nutty island mermaid number and a fantastic and simple art deco staging of COCKTAILS FOR TWO. This film clearly influenced THE GREAT ZIEGFELD made at MGM in 1936.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I doubt anyone had ever tried anything like this before - a musical murder mystery - and probably very few tried it afterwards; I did see a film with a similar recipe about a month ago ("Murder In The Blue Room", from 1944), but that one was a low-budget production with only three musical numbers; here, the numbers are many, long and lavish. The songs themselves are not especially memorable, with the exception of "Sweet Marijuana", and the astonishingly titled "The Rape Of The Rhapsody"!! The mystery is complicated enough to make you wonder just what the hell is going on, and the film also captures the hectic backstage atmosphere of the premiere night of a grand-scale theatrical show; there are even some touches of surrealism ("Mildred LaRue! Mildred LaRue!"). Gertrude Michael sinks her teeth into the role of a bad-to-the-bone diva and is more fun to watch than good-girl Kitty Carlisle. Probably considered racy in 1934, the film is rather tame by today's standards, but it's still worth your time. **1/2 out of 4.
This murder mystery with musical numbers is long on atmosphere and
character but rather short on suspense and plausibility. Based on a
stage play by Broadway showman Earl Carroll and others, it combines a
whodunit plot with a backstage ambiance (a homicide investigation takes
place on opening night at the theatre where a musical revue is being
The cast is impressive and varied: tough-goofy Victor McLaglen as the police officer who leads the investigation and never fails to leer idiotically at whatever showgirl happens to be in sight; Jack Oakie (the prewar Jack Lemmon or was Jack Lemmon the postwar Jack Oakie?) as the harassed director who must coordinate the staged performance as well as the chaos behind the scenes; the ever-homely Jessie Ralph as a wardrobe mistress with deep, dark secrets; Dorothy Stickney, who has a stunning close-up monologue near the end, as the tremulous maid madly in love with the male lead; Carl Brisson, the Danish star, as that very male lead, warbling the classic "Cocktails for Two" not once but twice; Kitty Carlisle, operatically delivering "Where Do They Come from and Where Do They Go" and other Johnston-Coslow songs; the glorious Gertrude Michael, who parted from us too soon, as a mean-spirited showgirl whose love for Brisson is spurned; the usually ridiculous Toby Wing who here at least is the center of a laugh-getting running joke.
When the plot complications get out of hand there is always an interesting performer or fun and tuneful musical number to distract the viewer. The film's most celebrated sequence is the "Marahuana" number, led by Michaels, but aside from its controversial history, it's really one of the lesser musical offerings. All of the songs here are staged as if they could actually have fit into a standard proscenium theatre space, as opposed to the cinematic fantasy setup of the Busby Berkeley style.
Since this is Black History Month and I'm reviewing the achievements of many African-Americans on film in chronological order, I got this movie on VHS from the library because Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were in it. Their jazz version of Franz Liszt's "Rhapsody" was the highlight of this mostly overlong murder mystery-musical comedy mixture. Many other numbers I liked were Kitty Carlisle's especially "Sweet Marijuana", Carl Brisson's "Cocktails for Two" as well as his duet with Carlisle on that earlier, and the ones by Gertrude Michael who's great as the woman you love to hate. Jack Oakie and Victor McLaglen probably go a little too long with their love/hate banter as the producer and detective but they grow on you. And Toby Wing is a sexy dumb tease as Nancy who keeps trying to say something to Oakie but gets a "Not now" from him every time. While many of the characters have a motive for the murders that happen, I wasn't surprised by the revelation of who done it. And get a load of how naked the women here are (though of course their breasts are covered, either by their hands or some flimsy top). This was very obviously pre-Code. Worth a look for any film buff interested in this sort of thing. P.S. As a long-time Louisiana resident, I like noting when someone was born here as Carlisle was a New Orleans native.
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