Mitchell Leisen’s second feature, Murder at the Vanities, is one of the unsung gems of pre-Code film. The fact that it got very little TV play certainly enters into the reason for its relative obscurity. Showing it on TV was always problematic. The skimpy costumes might have gotten by, but during the days of broadcast television, the “Marihauna” song wasn’t happening. There are other instances of drug songs in movies — notably Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” in International House (1933) — but they were usually cut from TV prints. “Reefer Man” was easily removed from International House, since it was merely a specialty number seen on a TV screen. “Marihuana” was another matter. The first murder in Murder at the Vanities is discovered during the song and cutting the number would have rendered the story incomprehensible. Any other solution to the censorship problem would have been just too much trouble for a movie noticeably lacking in star power. In 1934 Victor McLaglen, Jack Oakie and Kitty Carlisle would have counted as star power — 20-plus years on, not really. The film’s actual star, Carl Brisson, never was a star. He was a Danish singer (and former boxer) who had gained some popularity in British movies. This was an attempt to sell him in America and it just didn’t come off. There’s nothing really wrong with him, but he’s not that exciting.
Based on Earl Carroll’s stage show of the same name, it’s essentially a murder mystery built around a musical revue. If the name Earl Carroll is unfamiliar to you, he was like Florenz Ziegfeld with less taste and more skin. (Ziegfeld had his Ziegfeld Follies, while Carroll had Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Ziegfeld’s slogan was “Glorifying the American Girl.” Carroll’s claim was “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world.”) The idea of the stage show was to boost the Vanities’ sagging Depression era popularity by giving nearly naked girls and an actual show rather than sketches. (The original production even imported Bela Lugosi.) It was successful enough that Paramount decided to buy the film rights and commit it to film (minus Lugosi, unfortunately). They had Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow write the songs — including the famous “Cocktails for Two,” the infamous “Marihuana” and the Duke Ellington show-stopper “Ebony Rhapsody” (which concludes with Charles Middleton as an outraged classical musician machine-gunning the band and the performers). Leisen (who has a cameo as the orchestra conductor) lays on the atmosphere and the glamour, while keeping everything moving at a breakneck pace — and showing more skin than any other Pre-code I can think of. The mystery is no better than it needs to be, but it’s entertaining enough — and has a terrifically over-the-top confession from the killer at the end. Plus, there’s a terrific running gag with Toby Wing as a ditzy chorine who keeps trying to tell Jack Oakie something, but keeps getting brushed off — and the payoff to this is priceless. This one’s a keeper.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Murder at the Vanities Tuesday, Aug. 20, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.