Mitchell Leisen: Murder at the Vanities (1934) | poster excerpt
Poster excerpt

What Was Paramount Smoking When It Released ‘Murder at the Vanities’?

There are wild numbers in the raunchy pre-code 1934 musical Murder at the Vanities but “Sweet Marijuana” really stirred up the uptights. Paramount shrugged.

Murder at the Vanities
Mitchell Leisen
Kino Lorber
11 October 2022

Several eyefuls of shenanigans decorate Mitchell Leisen‘s Murder at the Vanities (1934), one of Hollywood’s last major releases before the Production Code crackdown on things you weren’t supposed to say or show in the movies. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray offers a new 2K mastering of all the scandalous details.

Is Murder at the Vanities a musical revue? Is it a whodunit? It’s both at once, and its presiding genius is Broadway producer Earl Carroll, whose name above the title sells the picture. Carroll was famous for revues about one thing: scantily clad women standing around decoratively, sometimes literally, as part of the furniture. If you wish to know what such a show looked like, this film gives every impression of being a fair re-creation.

In its 1933 Broadway incarnation, Murder at the Vanities combined its musical numbers with a backstage murder plot concocted by popular mystery novelist Rufus King. As translated by scriptwriters Carey Wilson and Joseph Gollomb and director Leisen for the 1934 film version, it’s the same story except with new songs and lots of snappy comical patter between stage manager Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie) and homicide cop Murdock (Victor McLaglen). They keep the backstage action hopping as two murders are discovered.

The suspects include the leading man, Eric Lander (played by Swedish singing heart-throb Carl Brisson); his classy leading lady Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle); his jealous ex-partner Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael), one of those characters who treats everyone like dirt as you wait for them to get killed; and an array of vivid supporting figures played by Jessie Ralph (as the fierce wardrobe lady), Charles B. Middleton (glowering actor), Dorothy Stickney (lovestruck doormat maid), Gail Patrick (mysterious woman), Donald Meek (doctor) and Toby Wing (ditzy version of Jean Harlow).

Also featured prominently in the billing and advertising is Duke Ellington and his orchestra, who make a splash in one of the more extraordinary numbers. Called “Ebony Rhapsody” or, less appealingly, “The Rape of the Rhapsody”, this thing is packed with enough text and subtext to drive a cultural interpreter bonkers. At its simplest, the piece conveys a revolution in which African-American jazz artists usurp the stage from staid white musicians to play a swinging hepcat version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2, complete with a bevy of black chorus girls trucking and high-stepping in maids’ aprons until the irate conductor takes his revenge with a Tommy gun!

Arguably, this isn’t the wildest number, even though it ends in an actual murder. The wildest number is probably the other one that ends in murder. Called “Sweet Marijuana”, this ode to the fantasy properties of said herb finds Michael surrounded by Mexican guitarists until a bunch of topless chorines erupts from cactus flowers with their hands poised graciously over their upper torsos. One of the women notices a strange liquid dripping upon her from the catwalk, causing her to lose her sang-froid. In other words, the sequence is jaw-dropping for at least three reasons.

As film historian Anthony Slide points out in his commentary, Paramount made A. Edward Sutherland’s International House the previous year, in which Cab Calloway sang “Reefer Man”, so we have cause to think that whatever the studio’s executives were smoking then, they were still smoking it. The presence of “Sweet Marijuana” in Murder at the Vanities led to such a hubbub that the League of Nations, no less, condemned its promotion of the weed. (Maybe it distracted them from the chorines.) Paramount responded that only degenerates could imagine it had anything to do with illegal drugs, while right-thinking citizens must be unruffled. Only you, Dear Reader, can know into which camp you fall.

Some of the other routines could be politely described as mere cheesecake. All songs have a staged presentation, as opposed to the cinematic excesses of Busby Berkeley numbers. Lucille Ball is visible in one of the tableaus. The most prominent of the songs by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston is “Cocktails for Two”, an elegantly staged celebration of the end of Prohibition that finds Brisson at his most attractive. This song had a lengthy afterlife, being performed by such artists as Spike Jones, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and Betty Carter.

We haven’t mentioned the snappy and saucy dialogue, from Oakie continually exclaiming, “Judas H. Priest!” to zingers like “Listen baby, blues singers like you are thicker on Broadway than brunettes in Africa.” Slide cites three specific lines that Paramount was told to cut by the Hayes Office. Since they’re all here, we must conclude that Paramount simply ignored such orders and suffered no penalty. That, ladies and gentlemen, helps explain the famous crackdown.

Very few viewers will mistake Murder at the Vanities for a masterpiece, and very few should find it boring. It’s so busy, fast-talking, tuneful, socio-historical, Art Deco glamorous and taboo-teasing that something about it hits the spot, somewhere about the torso.