The second feature of a night of pre-code musicals comes in a film adaptation of Earl Carroll’s Broadway show Murder at the Vanities. Carroll was a famed Broadway producer of the time and all around “troubadour of the nude.” The film is framed as a backstage murder mystery at a stage production of a fictional Vanities Review (A celebration of chorus girls in undress). Two young stars and lovers Anne Ware and Eric Lander (played by the lovely Kitty Carlisle and middling Carl Brisson) sing and dance their way through the picture with the singular hope of making it alive to the end. Borscht comedian Jack Oakie acts as a frustrated director, Scot Victor McLagen is a girl crazy police lieutenant, and a fiery Gertrude Michael takes a turn as the brassy vamp: Rita Ross.
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Producers: E. Lloyd Sheldon
Writers: Carey Wilson, Joseph Gollomb, Earl Carroll, Rufus King, Sam Hellman, Jack Cunningham
Cinematographer: Leo Tover
Editor: William Shea
Music: Howard Jackson, William e. Lynch, Milan Roder
Cast: Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglen, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Dorothy Stickney, Gertrude Michael, Duke Ellington
US Theatrical Release: May 18, 1934
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Like The Vanities Review, this film is largely dedicated to the showcase of, ahem, bared feminine skin, and the strange stage sets that unfurl over the course of long musical numbers border on the absurd. In its best moments, the film recalls early Marx Brother’s, (Carlisle also plays the leading lady in A Night at the Opera) and offers an interesting look at some of the theater that informed the vaudevillian humor of directors like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Several costumes would resurface in Springtime for Hitler, the fictional Broadway hit in Brooks’ The Producers (1968).
Although the theater setting feels insular, one of the most interesting aspects of the film might be its casual cosmopolitanism. Many of the leading actors were Jews of Western Europe. The film has accents from all over (McLagen has one of the weirdest I’ve ever encountered) really cementing the notion of New York as a global city. There are hints of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau in the portrayal of modernist grind; some of the camera work too, recalls German expressionists of the period. It’s a bittersweet note, that along with the crippling Hayes code, the intervening decade of fascism and war would cripple this cosmopolitan ardor.
The film’s music is largely unmemorable, but a few of the performances really crackle. Duke Ellington makes an appearance and Gertrude Michael sings a love song to Marijuana.
French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette developed his own code for writing book blurbs, “whatever a work’s content might be, he would invariably use the words “sex” and “money” in his description of it.” These always led to “an act of killing.” Whatever the code, Murder at the Vanities covers all the bases.