Murder At The Vanities Reviews
January 30, 2012
Murder mystery with a musical backdrop shows its age but has some interesting numbers in particular Duke Ellington's orchestra's production and the now infamous Marijuana number with discreetly covered but unquestionably topless showgirls. Lost in amongst the hundreds of hopeful showgirls and chorus boys are Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan and Alan Ladd all still years away from any kind of fame and hard to spot. The acting is okay but this is more of a curio as a good example of some of the things that were common before the code, implied or actual nudity, drug references and occasional swearing that would disappear for almost 3 decades when the Hayes code took full effect within a very short time after this film premiered.
October 7, 2004
In the 1910s through 30s (and into the 40s), the Broadway musical was largely made up of big splashy revues named after their respective producers. Flo Ziegfeld had his Follies, George White his Scandals and Earl Carroll his Vanities. [i]Murder at the Vanities[/i] takes place backstage at a production of the latter, allowing for a muder mystery to slowly unfold among a [i]Vanities'[/i] worth of unrelated production numbers. As it happens, the mystery is pretty weak, but some of those numbers are just marvelous. So, let's get the mystery out of the way. Gail Patrick (Carole Lombard's bitch sister in [i]Godfrey[/i]) is killed and if you're honestly interested in that sort of thing, rent Wellman's [i]Lady of Burlesque[/i] (1943). The story is more fun, it's got Barbara Stanwyck and it's available on DVD.
I sought out [i]MatV[/i] because of one song, "Sweet Marihuana." I've read about this number in at least three books on the Pre-Code Era and my curiosity was, to say the least, piqued. (A musical number about marijuana in a movie from 1934?!?!?) Turns out, "Sweet Marihuana" is not the most interesting number in the show. Sure, she sings about the drug while topless girls covering their nipples with the hands pop out of giant marijuana leaves. And sure, at the end of the number a murder victim is discovered when her blood drips down onto the breast of a topless chorus girl... Okay, I guess it was kind of interesting. I guess I was hoping more something along the lines of that giant banana number in [i]The Gang's All Here[/i].
So what did I find more interesting? "Live and Love Tonight" was set on a tropical island shore. Carl Brisson began the number uptage, on an island set. The stage itself was covered with chorus girls, each holding large feathered fans that I assume were blue with white tips. The number was choreographed so that the girls moved the fans to simulate the ocean, complete with waves crashing against the shore. It was an astonishingly conceived number and must have been heaven to witness onstage. Er, soundstage.
But the best was yet to come. The second act of [i]MatV's[/i] Vanities opened with "The Rhapsody and the Rape." The first half of the number was done very Viennese. Brisson was Liszt, composing his "Second Hungarian Rhapsody" to his beloved Kitty Carlisle. They sang to each other while chorus girls dressed as the Viennese nobility looked on. The set changes, and Liszt is now leading his orchestra in his Rhapsody. [indent][i]But wait! What was that crazy jazz sound? [/i]
[/indent]Every time Liszt/Brisson turns his back, black musicians pop out from behind the white orchestra, playing a blue note, a riff or some kind of crazy bebop. Slowly, the black orchestra supplants the white orchestra, black chorus dressed as maids shove the white nobility to the back and Brisson/Liszt is replaced by Duke Ellington. The number has segued into "Ebony Rhapsody," with the white Kitty Carlisle replaced by the white (and not very talented) Gertrude Michael. That's right. A song called "Ebony Rhapsody" featuring Duke Ellington and his orchestra and an all-black chorus still features a white woman in the star spot.
And that, Bettie, is why I love movies from the 1930s.