Out of Tune: Murder at the Vanities

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“The last thing she said over the phone was, ‘You were going to take me to the opening of the Vanities. Now you want to shove me off on a cheap picture show. Nuts!’ ”

—Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen), Murder at the Vanities

What happens when you put Agatha Christie in a blender with the Ziegfield Follies and some kind of powerful hallucinogen? 

You’d probably get Murder at the Vanities, a film that offers more proof, if needed, that Paramount was the most head-scratchingly, jaw-droppingly, self-destructively, censor-defyingly cuckoo bananas studio of the pre-Code era.

In fact, if this movie has one virtue, it’s the ability to offer up every major motif of the unbridled early 1930s in one big, flamboyant sampler. It might accurately be retitled Pre-Code-O-Rama or the Hays Capades.

A terrific reminder that egregious mash-ups didn’t originate in the 2000s, Murder at the Vanities combines two popular genres of the 1930s: the backstage musical and the complex murder mystery. “What an intriguing premise!” I hear you thinking. No dice. Unfortunately, nearly all of the characters can only be described as shrill and unlikable. (I strongly suspect that a previous incarnation of Seth MacFarlane had a hand in this movie.) Yep, that’s right, folks. I subject myself to some bad movies, too—and all for you!

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Interestingly, this film was directed by the much-maligned Mitchell Leisen who’s behind at least two films that I love (Death Takes a Holiday and Midnight), but whose real talents may have resided in his gifts as a production designer. Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder thought so too, although not quite that kindly. Both of those talented gentlemen decided to direct their own films because they so despised what Leisen did with their writing. As Wilder vituperated, “All he did was he f**ked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you.” Ouch!

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(Because I try to be a gallant soul, I do encourage you to read Mark Rappaport’s attempt to resurrect Leisen’s reputation. Just don’t tell Wilder or Sturges I told you.)

Well, in this case, Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities lacked even the backbone of a coherent screenplay, much less a script by luminaries like Wilder or Sturges. However, the movie didn’t have to be such a hot mess. A similar musical-murder genre mashup of the 1930s, Charlie Chan at the Opera managed to be much more tautly paced, interestingly shot, and emotionally involving than Vanities.

Trust me, though, if you can stomach some nastiness, racism, sexism, and general vulgarity, the kitsch value and sheer weirdness of Murder at the Vanities makes it worth watching.

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On to the plot—which I found as skimpy as the costumes. The usually huggable Victor MacLaglen plays dim-witted policeman Bill Murdock who decides to investigate some backstage hoopla, such as falling stage lights and potentially lethal bitchiness, at the musical extravaganza Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

The Vanities, as an attraction, aren’t fictional, by the way. They were a real musical review which rivaled the Ziegfield Follies for popularity on the early 20th century variety/exploitation scene. Many of the dancers, billed as “the Most Beautiful Girls in the World,” were brought over to Hollywood especially for this film. Poor dears.

Anyway, since Detective Murdock couldn’t get tickets to the show for his date, he agrees to do some ineffectual sleuthing on the other side of the curtain in order to leer incessantly at a parade of nubile, virtually naked chorines. He bares his teeth like a gorilla during mating season and exhibits even less grace and charm as he stumbles through the backstage mayhem.

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King Leer gets a backstage pass…

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You see, a catty blues belter named Rita Ross (perennial pre-Code mean girl Gertrude Michaels) had a thing going with leading man Eric Lander (Carl Brisson). Ross flies into a jealous rage when she finds out that he’s going to marry operatic brunette Ann Ware (played by the golden-voiced Kitty Carlisle who’s wasted in an irksome nicey-nice role).

Why two women are going head-to-head over Lander is anyone’s guess, since smiley, stocky, heavily-accented Carl Brisson doesn’t exactly light up the screen, despite a fine crooner voice. Seriously—where’s Maurice Chevalier when you need him? I think even a Great Dane could’ve filled out Brisson’s role better.

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Eric Lander tries to talk reason to Rita Ross—who fully deserves the epithet of “Vanity.”

Anyway, mayhem and murder ensue. Who were the writers kidding with the plot? The insane Murder at the Vanities exists for two reasons—and they may be summarized as follows: T and A. The nutty musical shamelessly flaunts the assets of its girls, girls, girls who wear even less than we’re used to for pre-Code dancers. Unfortunately, these dames aren’t anywhere near as rhythmically gifted as their Warner Brothers counterparts. I mean, a lot of the time they’re just standing there like a magazine centerfold! Paramount tried to cover up the dancers’ lack of coordination (well, not cover up… distract) with the most insubstantial outfits short of birthday suits. We’re talking fronds and fig leaves.

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Now, I don’t necessarily object to objectification. For instance, while Busby Berkeley objectified the female body, that genius also abstracted it to the point of sublime unreality and harmony to stimulate a kind of audiovisual ecstasy. Berkeley created the closest thing to avant-garde cinema that Hollywood ever produced. By contrast, Murder at the Vanities is basically a peep show with a few dead bodies.

Art never gets off the runway in its static, unimaginative panoplies of flesh, arranged by Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz. And Prinz—who later worked on Yankee Doodle Dandy and South Pacific—should’ve known better! We watch a bunch of dangerously odd musical numbers transpire on a revolving stage—there’s none of the inventive, dynamic, extradiegetic spaces of Berkeley musicals which tend to flood into sets that couldn’t possibly exist on a single stage.

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The musical variety show within the movie opens with a tone-deaf, hammering musical number about the women who perform in these shows. “Where do they come from and where do they go?” Mary Carlisle asks, as a series of poses give us a few ideas. The half-naked girls pose on cigarette boxes, work in artists’ studios, or pop out from perfume containers.

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Women bought and sold, women as commodities. Women on display for easy purchase and consumption. Hmm. Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, every other pre-Code movie.

Then, for no good reason, a bunch of cowboys show up and there’s a mini-orgy of lassos. So, are you freaked out yet?

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The next number takes place on a desert island, swaying to the languorous strains of “Live and Love Tonight.” Whatever my feelings about the movie, I personally adore this wistful tune of the “sweet music” genre. The staging adds to the lulling, dreamy quality of the song. This time, we watch a stage full of recumbent ladies waving feather fans to make the whole floor ripple and undulate.

Meanwhile, Lander, wearing a ripped romper, sings the dreamy song and practically lies on top of his duet partner. That’s right about where I wanted to go all Oedipus on my eyes.

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Don’t you DARE splay any more or I WILL turn off my TV set…

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Just when the viewer is starting to wonder what the Paramount executives were smoking, we get the answer with the musical number—and, no, I am not making this up—“Sweet Marijuana.”

In this novelty rumba tune, Gertrude Michaels pines away for the wacky weed, actually singing to it, as though it were a person: “You alone can bring my lover back to me, though I know it’s only just a fantasy.” (Kitty Carlisle later claimed that she had no idea what Michaels was singing about. I bet she didn’t inhale, either.)

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We also savor shots of a bunch of stationary chorus girls dressed as cactus blooms—naked from the waist-up. And if that weren’t the kicker, one of them suddenly notices something dripping on her shoulder from the catwalk. Blood. She screams just as the number is closing and the cops discover the first body.

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The next musical number, “The Rape of Rhapsody,” lives up to the inflammatory suggestiveness of that name, though not as you might think. In the first part of the number, “The Rhapsody,” Lander, in unfortunate Beethoven breeches, plays a classical ripoff melody at a piano as superimposed dancers swirl around him. Okay, that’s standard fare. Nothing too weird there.

Just you wait.

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Part two takes place in some vaguely Napoleonic salon, where a classical orchestra is presenting the rhapsody as a dull, plodding march. Suddenly, a bunch of black jazz musicians show up in the orchestra, peacefully hijack the tune, and swing it like mad.

And, out of nowhere, Duke Ellington—yes, really him—pops up, filling the screen with his exuberance and refinement as he jams away, giving us an intimate mini concert. We get to look over his shoulder and watch him tickle those ivories. His genuine performance is, without doubt, the best part of the movie. Duke’s glowing celebrity persona and incendiary talent gives us a moment of respite from the trite flatness and flashiness of the film. It seems that he’s the one living thing in it.

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Meanwhile, a bunch of maids of color jump up and start dancing. Gertrude Michaels, in a matching maid outfit, leads the gang and sings the “Ebony Rhapsody,” despite being about as ebony as Snow White. They tap around and everybody has a good time to the new swingin’ tune led by Duke and his ensemble. This might be an uprising, but it’s a fun, friendly one. Jazz babies of the world—unite!

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Until the disgruntled white conductor comes in with a prop machine gun and “shoots” them all for taking over his rhapsody.

Um… are we supposed to find that funny? The gleeful laughs of the audience within the movie suggest that we are—but in what way? Funny as in “Oh, it’s funny to watch black musicians get killed for distorting white music”? Or funny as in, “How exaggerated and ridiculous that was! We all love black jazz as well as white music”? And the whole idea of black musicians, moreover respectable, widely acclaimed black musicians, “raping” white classical music throws us right back to Birth of a Nation territory—albeit in a symbolic, quasi-humorous fashion.

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So, again, the question presents itself: if this is humorous, at whose expense? Is “The Rape of Rhapsody” a musical spoof of the black-versus-white tensions that movies melodramatically portray or is it feeding real aggression?

I suppose that it’s aiming for an innocuous parody, since, after all, the excellent African American jazz musicians do elevate posterthe artistry of the scene—anyone can see and feel that.

They’re part of the attraction and Ellington received prominent billing on the poster, even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes! Nevertheless, the unexpected violence of “The Revenge” leaves a bad taste in our mouths

How did they pitch this bit to Duke Ellington? What did that genius think of all this absurdity and his complicity in it? I have no idea. And the film doesn’t seem to want to answer me. Which is pretty damn disturbing.

But, then again, Vanities is a disturbing film. When we finally discover who the murderer is (SPOILER!), if you didn’t guess in the first reel, like I did, she’s not a self-interested monster, but a victim lashing out against her tormentor. Perhaps the most sympathetic member of the cast, Norma, the maid who scurries around backstage, taking abuse from leading ladies, finally flipped out and killed the tyrant queen of her world.

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This demented, simple-minded killer launches into a long speech about how she was glad she killed the wicked Rita (who actually bumped off the first victim—don’t ask). As Norma whips herself into a frenzy with her confession, she looks right into the camera, breaking the escapist confines of the film.

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Her gaze creeped me out, I must say, almost as though she were accusing me and the audience of being complicit in her abuse, as if by watching the show, we were ignoring some other big problem.

We feel deeply sorry for plain, put-upon Norma—she only killed a really terrible person who beat her and wanted to destroy everyone else’s happiness. This kind of sympathy for a murderer as a victim, of course, was a total no-no as soon as the Production Code came into full potency. But here, as the police lead Norma away, the lead characters promise to help her with her legal defense and actually call out, “God bless you!” Don’t expect to see THAT after 1934!

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Nevertheless, in a way, the excesses of Murder at the Vanities make me (almost) feel as though the end of the pre-Code era may have been due. For every Temple Drake, Scarface, or Black Cat, for every blasphemously brilliant pre-1934 film, there were probably a lot more movies like Vanities: largely mindless, insulting, lecherous spectacles. Ultimately, I would still argue that the impact of the great pre-Code movies outweigh the gratuities of the rest, but Vanities is hard to swallow.

And yet—always I hesitate to condemn a film—because in spite of the painful musical numbers and creaky plot, this movie, perhaps unintentionally, tells us something about the time and the issues churning under the surface of even blind entertainments.

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“Cocktails for Two”: the least bizarre musical number in Murder at the Vanities

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This crazy musical also gave us an enduringly popular hit, “Cocktails for Two,” and includes (briefly, though) the unusual plot element of a female private eye! Although it fails to develop any kind of engaging conflict, it does scratch at the surface of a lot of economic, sexual, racial, and legal tensions in society.

Like the chorines in Murder at the Vanities, the truth may not be naked, but enough certainly peeps through.

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