Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pre-Code Parade:MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

"W here do they come from and where do they go?" That lyric from the opening number of Mitchell Leisen's Paramount musical sounds like the intro to a familiar backstage saga. But the plight of chorus girls is of little concern to this adaptation of a musical mystery originally staged by Earl Carroll, the producer of the actual Broadway Vanities. The film focuses its attention on star performers: a European singer (Carl Brisson) and two American rivals for his affections. Adding to the singer's troubles is a simmering scandal involving his mother, once a Viennese opera star, now working incognito as a costumer for the Vanities. It adds up to a bunch of possible motives for someone to kill someone, and things get even more mysterious as one of the prime suspects in one murder becomes a murder victim in turn. Amid the carnage the unseen Carroll's minion Ellery (Jack Oakie) struggles to keep the show going while police detective Murdock (Victor McLaglen) wants to shut it down, almost as much to spite Ellery as to find the murderer(s?). Ellery's notion is if the show goes on the killer(s?) won't know that investigators are closing in. He also doesn't want to have to give people their money back. Ellery and Murdock are arguably the only two characters we can't suspect of murder. This show could just as easily have been called Red Herrings of 1934, and that's even with Paramount failing to import that reddest of herrings, Bela Lugosi, from the Broadway production.

But for all that the hard-boiled byplay between Oakie and McLaglen is amusing, the mystery plot is still window dressing for the musical numbers that have earned Murder at the Vanities its pre-code notoriety. Leisen is widely credited for giving Cecil B. DeMille's Sign of the Cross its look of epic depravity, so he'd seem like a likely candidate to challenge Busby Berkeley at the master's game. But neither Leisen nor dance directors Larry Ceballos and Leroy Prinz are in Berkeley's league of syncopated megalomania. They are Mussolinis to Berkeley's Hitler or Stalin. But they are not unambitious, either. Did Berkeley build a giant fountain of females? Then Murder at the Vanities will have an ocean of women. I mean this only partly as metaphor. There's a desert-island number for our romantic leads in which the ocean consists of feather-waving barely-clad chorines. The costumes are, as a rule, more daring than what women wore at Warner Bros., and at one point, the performers portraying marijuana buds appear to be wearing nothing at all.

If there's anything the general movie fan may know about Murder at the Vanities, it's that there's a song about marijuana (or is that marihuana?) in it. It's actually one of the more modestly staged numbers, apart from the topless she-buds, consisting mainly of Gertrude Michael's performance of the song by Arthur Johnson and Sam Coslow.

Seduce me with your caress,
Sweet marihuana, marihuana.
Help me in my distress,
Sweet marihuana, please do.
You alone can bring my lover back to me.
Even though I know it's all a fantasy.
And then, put me to sleep.
Sweet marihuana, marihuana.

Blood on the Bud

At the time the more famous tune, the show's big hit, was "Cocktails For Two," which has probably been heard in hundreds of cartoons since then. Even more transgressive than "Marihuana" at the time, probably, was the "Rape(!) of the Rhapsody" number, in which a sedate salon performance in Regency style is usurped by Duke Ellington and his orchestra, along with a perhaps-unprecedented army of black chorines. They inspire the crinoline-clad white chorines to strike up a can-can of sorts on a grand staircase until Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton mows down the trespassers with a machine gun. This brings us back to the plot of the show, since one of Middleton's victims doesn't get up after the curtain comes down.

Universal did well to include this madness in its Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, which is conspicuous in its lack of any Universal pictures. It has everything the Catholic extremists who eventually pressured Hollywood into stricter Code compliance objected to, except maybe for sacrilege. But apart from filling a checklist of sins it's fairly entertaining. I like Jack Oakie better as an actor than as a comic, and while he has plenty of funny lines he's not a clown here. I also like Victor McLaglen in parts like these when he isn't in all-out Fordian Irish mode. I can't say more about other performers without giving the mystery away, but I think the mystery will give itself away before the ultimate culprit is revealed. In any event the musical numbers are the main attraction and while they aren't Berkeley some of them are good and crazy enough to stick in your memory.


John said...

Samuel - I had this package in my hands the other days at B&N (it was on sale) then put it back. Now I may have to go back and get it hoping it is still on sale! As well as a fan of pre-code films I also like back stage dramas so this little low-budget work seems like a good fit.

Leisen was not one of the studios great directors, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges both accused him of ruining their scripts, though as a former art director his films always looked good.

dfordoom said...

Murder at the Vanities is definitely one of the more outrageous and fun pre-code movies. And it's really a must-see also for lovers of camp in cinema.

Samuel Wilson said...

John: So far I've watched half the films in the box set. The Cheat was quite entertaining, but Merrily We Roll to Hell was only so-so, and a little against the pre-Code grain in its moralizing against drinking. Watch for more from the set in future posts.

Dfordoom: It is fun for how outrageous it wants to be, and the convoluted mystery plot may be the campiest thing about it.

dfordoom said...

I wasn't terribly impressed by Merrily We Go to Hell either. Bot overall it's a pretty good set.