Sunday, November 15, 2009

Murder at the Vanities (Paramount, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Murder at the Vanities was a 1934 Paramount production directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Carey Wilson, Joseph Gollomb and Sam Hellman based on a play by Earl Carroll and Rufus King. The story of this film really began in 1923, when the success of the Florenz Ziegfeld Follies was inspiring other Broadway producers to start their own series of musical revues with one-word titles whose contents would change every year, with the new edition differentiated from its predecessor just by a change in the year number. Already George White had launched the Scandals, and in 1923 Earl Carroll presented the first of his Vanities and borrowed Ziegfeld’s formula of elaborate sets and stage machinery used to present surprisingly static tableaux of carefully selected chorus girls. The shows were sold on the basis of the girls’ attractiveness — the billing on the film heralds “100 of the Most Beautiful Girls in the World” before it goes on to name the actors who play identifiable characters.

At some point Carroll and his collaborator hit on the idea of writing a murder mystery with the Vanities as a backdrop, and Paramount filmed this in 1934 just on the cusp of the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency’s campaign against Hollywood and the resulting ultra-strict enforcement of the movie studios’ Production Code. The 1930-34 period of relative freedom (especially sexual freedom) in Hollywood has gone down in movie histories under the name “pre-Code,” a whopping misnomer if there ever was one; the Production Code (a copy of which is included as a bonus in the Universal DVD box that contains Murder at the Vanities) was actually written and promulgated in 1930, and it was enforced. Indeed, the American Film Institute Catalog entry on this film largely describes the back-and-forth between Paramount executives and Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration (described colloquially as the “Hays Office” long after its first head, former Harding cabinet member Will Hays, had ceased to have anything to do with it personally), including a comment from Breen to Paramount executive A. M. Botsford, “As a general caution, we call your attention to the fact that, throughout the stage directions in the script, considerable stress is laid upon the almost-nudity of the girls. We assume that in production, you will take care that nothing offensive creeps in from this standpoint.”

Breen also objected to three racy lines in the script — “Crawling out of the minister’s night shirt,” “Those dames have got some clues I’d like to work on,” and “Go and rivet some panties on those cuties of yours,” though all those are actually in the film as it stands (the difference between “pre-Code” and “post-Code” is that after July 1934 Breen could have ordered Paramount to delete those lines) — and to the song “Marahuana” (that’s how it was spelled then), which was allowed in the film when Breen reviewed the final cut in April 1934 but, after the Legion of Decency’s campaign, was deleted from the extant prints (including the foreign-release versions) in 1935. (The song is included in the Universal DVD and was there in the print the American Film Institute’s reviewers screened.)

Murder at the Vanities is, as the title suggests, a murder mystery grafted onto a musical, taking place at the opening night of the latest edition of the Vanities; a never-seen Earl Carroll is laid up sick in Atlantic City and his assistant, Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie), sees this as his big chance to show Carroll what he can do by getting and keeping the show going. Like the 1929 Warners musical On With the Show, Murder at the Vanities takes place in real time — the mystery story and the opening performance of the Vanities are happening simultaneously, and the killers are finally revealed just after the show concludes — and its plot deals with star singer Eric Lander (Danish entertainer Carl Brisson, whose son Frederick later married Rosalind Russell), freshly imported from Europe to star in the Vanities. He’s fallen in love with and proposed marriage to his singing co-star, Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle), in the process jilting Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael), who’s also in the show as a torch singer (Ware, fittingly since she’s played by a fully trained operatic soprano, sings the show’s big operetta numbers while Rita handles the low-down torch songs).

There’s also a maid, Norma Watson (Dorothy Stickney), who has a Liù-like crush on Eric — she knows it’s hopeless and if she can’t have him, she’ll at least make sure he can be happy with the woman he does want — and a backstage dresser, Helene Smith (Elsie Watson), whom Eric fawns over so affectionately that, since a romance between them is impossible given the age barrier, it’s clear they have some sort of family connection. It turns out several reels later that Helene Smith is really the former Viennese opera star Elsie Watson, who murdered a man in Vienna 30 years ago and fled to the United States; she’s also Eric’s mother, and as a matter of filial duty he’s bound and determined to make sure she’s safe from extradition to Austria. Alas for Eric, Rita has discovered the secret by intercepting a letter from the Viennese police to Eric about her. Eric has hired female detective Sadie Evans (Gail Patrick) to get the letter back, which she does by breaking into Rita’s apartment and stealing it; later Sadie is found dead in the catwalks above the theatre. Ellery convinces his friend, homicide detective Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen), to let the show continue while he investigates the killing backstage. Later Rita herself is found dead — also above the stage while the show is being performed (chorus girl Toby Wing notices blood on her bare shoulder and that alerts Murdock to the presence of a second corpse), and in the end it turns out that Rita killed Sadie and the maid Norma killed Rita to prevent her from exposing Helene’s secret or using the threat of doing so to blackmail Eric into jilting Ann and coming back to her.

Interspersed with this murder plot is a great deal of singing and dancing, showing off scantily clad chorines cavorting on massive sets. The songs, all by Sam Coslow (lyrics) and Arthur Johnston (music), include “Cocktails for Two,” which became a standard (though it would have been hard to predict that fate for it from the stentorian performance it gets here; its melody is beautiful but its lyrics are awfully awkward and it’s not surprising that, though a number of jazz musicians have recorded great instrumental versions of it, the best-known vocal version aside from this movie is probably the Spike Jones parody); “Live and Love Tonight” (a song with a beautiful, soaring melody which was probably kept from standard status by a really clunky lyric — there’s a reason that both Duke Ellington and Count Basie recorded it as an instrumental); an elaborate production called “The Rape of the Rhapsody” (more on that one later); a stentorian introductory number called “Where Do They Come From?” speculating on the origins and possible fates of the Vanities showgirls; one called “Lovely One” set to an engaging production number — Carl Brisson is stranded on a desert island (or at least a transparently obvious set representing one) surrounded by girls laying on the floor simulating the ocean surface, moving giant ostrich feathers to symbolize waves (and the illusion is pretty good until bits start flying off the feathers and floating in mid-air); and the “Marahuana” song, which Paramount actually tried to convince Joseph Breen didn’t really have anything to do with drugs. Its lyrics go, “Sweet Marahuana/Soothe me with your caress/Marahuana/Help me in my distress/Sweet Marahuana, please do/You alone can bring my lover back to me/Even though I know it’s just a fantasy/And then, put me to sleep/Sweet Marahuana.” Knowing something about the real effects of marijuana, I was expecting Gertrude Michael to start grabbing any even remotely edible part of the set and chowing it down — and the background for the number, with chorines (so scantily clad that at least two commentators thought they were looking at topless women) dancing around and popping out of flowering cacti, would make any uninitiate probably think marijuana was a form of cactus.

Murder at the Vanities is one of those frustrating movies that’s good as it stands but could have been a good deal better. Part of the problem is the dull filming of the musical numbers, which are staged exactly as they would have been in a theatre and filmed from a good seat in the orchestra; given that this movie was made after 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and many of the other Busby Berkeley extravaganzae, it was surprising to see how dully these spectacularly choreographed (by Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz) numbers were filmed. As we were watching the movie I wondered if Earl Carroll had been involved with the production and had wanted the numbers filmed this way so the movie would depict what it was like to be in the audience at the Vanities and thereby promote his show — but one commentator revealed that it was director Mitchell Leisen who rejected any Berkeley-style camerawork because he didn’t like it. With the sort of idiot judgment for which Billy Wilder ridiculed him (according to biographer Maurice Zolotow, Wilder suffered through Leisen mangling so many of his scripts he determined to become a director himself), Leisen reasoned that Berkeley’s numbers were ridiculous because they were supposedly taking place on a stage but in fact couldn’t possibly be staged live. It was a common criticism of his work then (and now), but it’s really beside the point; Berkeley’s cinematic direction of musical numbers makes them hold up as exciting spectacles even now, while Leisen’s dull, stagy filming of similar productions begins to be more numbing than entertaining after a while.

Another problem with this film is Carl Brisson: he’s a decent-looking leading man but he’s stiff, clearly uncomfortable in English (this was his first English-language talkie, though he’d been in Alfred Hitchcock’s British-made late silent The Manxman) and has a stentorian voice somewhat reminiscent of that of Denmark’s other internationally famous singer of the time, Lauritz Melchior — hardly the right voice to put over selections like “Cocktails for Two” and “Live and Love Tonight.” I get the impression that, with Maurice Chevalier’s contract having just expired, Paramount had the idea of importing someone else from Europe and giving him a similar buildup — but Brisson is about at the opposite pole from Chevalier in terms of charisma, star quality and comfort level with his songs and his role. (Imagine Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in this movie, and Ernst Lubitsch or Rouben Mamoulian directing instead of Mitchell Leisen, and one has a quite different view of what this story could have become.)

Still another problem is Gertrude Michael; she moans her way through the “Marahuana” number quite effectively but falls short when she has to sing “Ebony Rhapsody” as part of the “Rape of the Rhapsody” number. The gimmick here is that the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is first performed relatively “straight,” as an orchestra-and-piano number with Vanities performer Homer Boothby (Charles Middleton) impersonating Liszt as Carl Brisson croaks his way through a set of Sam Coslow lyrics to Liszt’s tunes and a Vanities ballet company dances. Then a few Black musicians sneak into the orchestra and start emitting hot licks that sound a lot like Duke Ellington’s “jungle” style — and Middleton slips away from the piano long enough for Ellington himself to take his place and lead the band in a stirring performance of “Ebony Rhapsody”, the Johnston/Coslow pop song based on Liszt’s themes, in which some dark-skinned chorus girls unexpectedly mix it up with the lighter-hued ones. (At least two commentators gave the filmmakers credit for allowing whites and Blacks to dance on screen together — though I’m convinced that never happened; the “Black” chorines looked all too much to me like white ones with dark makeup.)

As Ellington is wrapping up his number, Middleton as Liszt comes back on the scene with a machine gun and mows down the entire band and all the boogieing chorus girls — and Norma takes advantage of the noise from the machine gun (which supposedly is a real one, loaded with blanks — even blank cartridges would have been too dangerous to use in a live production; more likely a producer putting on a scene like this would have used a prop gun that made noise on cue but didn’t have any shells in it, blank or otherwise) to shoot Rita onstage in the middle of the performance. I wish she had murdered Rita before “The Rape of the Rhapsody,” if only because that means they would have had to do the “Ebony Rhapsody” number with Ellington’s own vocalist, Ivie Anderson — who recorded the song with the Ellington band in 1934 as promotion for the movie and whose hauntingly deep voice and superb phrasing totally aces Gertrude Michael, even though she couldn’t manage Liszt’s name — it came out “Litz.” (She would similarly record “My Old Flame” and “Troubled Waters” from the next movie Ellington’s band was in, Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties — and she’d again out-point the white singer, though with West the margin was at least closer.)

What’s good about Murder at the Vanities are the songs, the envelope-pushing of the production numbers (in the opening scene women are decked out with price tags and enveloped in vagina-like clamshells which slowly open to reveal them) and the winsome sincerity of Kitty Carlisle. One commentator said Carlisle looked like a “train wreck” compared to the Vanities chorus girls, but I couldn’t disagree more; while the Vanities girls were dressed (or undressed) to the nines, Carlisle’s stark, natural beauty outshone all of them — and her opera-trained voice was by far the best in the film, easily encompassing the soaring lines of Johnston’s melodies and projecting the innocence and sincerity of the character.