Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Murder at the Vanities (1934). 89 minutes. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Starring Carl Brisson (as Eric Lander), Victor McLaglen (as Lt. Bill Murdock), Jack Oakie (as Jack Ellery), Kitty Carlisle (as Ann Ware), Dorothy Stickney (as Norma Watson), Gertrude Michael (as Rita Ross), Jessie Ralph (as Helene Smith), Gail Patrick (as Sadie Evans), Toby Wing (as Nancy), and Donald Meek (as Dr. Saunders). Featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Songs by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow.

Murder at the Vanities is a late pre-Code film that merges the backstage musical elements of 42nd Street (1933) with a violent whodunnit. Putting firearms, dripping bottles of lethal acid, flying sewing shears, and deadly hat pins aside, however, Murder at the Vanities is largely about flesh and the display of flesh at every possible opportunity under the pretense that this is what the tuxedo-wearing hordes that pack the Vanities musical theater chiefly crave. We never see the audience properly, but if the police detective who enters the backstage world and peers at the show from the wings is meant to be representative of the people seated in the theater, then the act of leering and drooling at half-naked female performers is part of the plan–or perhaps all of the plan. Yet in spite of the movie’s emphasis on titillating views, it manages to distinguish itself from other musicals by maintaining a fairly earthy central perspective in contrast to the glitz of its scenes on stage. It also contains one of the best songs in any musical of the 1930s, “Cocktails for Two,” the performance of which attempts to elevate what has come before not merely through Sam Coslow’s tasteful lyrics about small, personal moments but also by exercising the radical notion of presenting all of its performers fully clothed from head to toe. It is a delightful and unexpected surprise, proving that a late pre-Code film can have things any way it chooses.

The film opens on the Vanities musical theater, where stage manager Jack Ellery tries to keep his cast on track on opening night. As the show unfolds and the performers sing and dance, a murderer is on the loose in the wings, and dead bodies turn up left and right. Lt. Bill Murdock is on the case to track down the backstage killer, but he spends more time watching the parade of lovely ladies that passes before the curtains than solving crime. All signs point to the singer Rita Ross as the culprit, but then she, too, is murdered. Everyone appears to be hiding secrets, including lead singer Eric Lander and the seamstress Helene Smith, causing our suspicions to grow. In the end, Murdock arrests Eric for the murders, but Rita’s maligned maid Norma comes forward and announces that she and Rita are both guilty—Rita killed because she was malevolent, and Norma killed to rid the world of Rita. As she is handcuffed and taken away, Jack and Eric assure Norma that with the legal representation they will provide, she will not be in jail long, and the cast rejoices.

As a murder mystery, Murder at the Vanities offers much in the way of lurid and violent displays, but it does not allow us to have confidence in the goodness of its central characters as other entries in the genre do. Pre-Code films tend to have complicated moralities, and Murder at the Vanities lives up to pre-Code standards in its lack of a solid moral center and of any sense that traditional justice prevails. This becomes clear when we examine the ethical constitution of the movie’s two central and guiding figures: stage manager Jack Ellery and detective Bill Murdock. Jack runs the world backstage, but as a kind of god-like orchestrator of the show, he covers up the murders that take place in order to keep the show going—moving bodies, hiding evidence, and outright lying to downplay the significance of wrongdoing behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, Murdock is girl-crazy to distraction, and his obsession with the female form gets in the way of his detective work. In his first scene, we learn he “was getting somewhere” with a girlfriend but is prevented from taking things further when gratis passes are not left for him at the Vanities ticket office. Back at the police station, he complains about this slight to his fellow cops, who sit around playing cards rather than solving crimes. He openly devalues what they do as a department, exclaiming (incredibly) at one point, “Oh, justice! What stupidities are committed in thy name?” Once he takes on the Vanities murder case and shows up backstage still dressed in his tuxedo, we see him ogling the chorus girls in scene after scene, more interested in them than in pursuing the murderer. If he is representative of the audience (whom we never see except at the ticket office), then it is the case that like him, the audience is imagined as a theater full of of slack-jawed men in sex-inspired trances.

It is too bad that the law is not more active, because it appears that the backstage world is crawling with murderers—three to be exact: Helene, Rita, and Norma—and all three evade legal consequences (or in the case of Norma, serious legal consequences) for their actions. There is no punishment for Helene (her role in the murder of what we are told was a bad man back in Austria, although known to Eric and us, remains a secret to the rest of the cast at the film’s end), and everyone assures Norma not only that her admission that she killed Rita is good (for it spares Eric from being arrested and prosecuted) but also that she will not have to suffer long in prison; it is clear in other words that no one was a fan of Rita’s. Eric will get Norma the best attorney money can buy, and Jack assures her that everything is going to be just fine and she has nothing to worry about. The ending has all the markers of a happy one, and no one mourns the dead.

If the murder mystery were all that Murder at the Vanities offered, perhaps the movie’s laissez-faire attitude towards death and crime would be more disruptive, but murder is not the film’s true focus. Instead, we are treated to musical number after musical number filled with luscious, barely clothed women. The opening song, “Where Do They Come From (and Where Do They Go)?” overtly substitutes feminine mystery for the murder mystery with its parade of scantily clad young beauties, displayed in Ziegfeld style via oversized cutouts of magazine covers and assorted vignettes. As singer Ann Ware poses the title question repeatedly in song and the camera pans across the models and (later) dancers, it is clear that the film is pushing hard on the idea of women as puzzle. At one point a circle of women is shown hog-tied for an unknown reason with a powerful cowboy standing at their center, who whips a lasso around and around. The circle is a faint ode to Busby Berkeley with none of the sweeping imagination, but it makes up for its lack of epic scope with sufficient amounts of kink.

Perhaps the most obvious, sustained, and fantasy-oriented display of nudity in the stage numbers is the island song, “Live and Love Tonight.” Eric and Ann belt out a pompous love song to each other on a tropical cliff, but the real attraction is the copious lines of girls below them who hold large feather fans that they use to imitate waves. The girls undulate their bodies, and the waves make a rippling whoosh, washing up a group of girls onto the shore, who it becomes immediately evident are only clad in long hair, pasties, and thongs. In the stage world, bountiful girls are growing everywhere, even under water. They peek out plentifully from the waves, waiting to erupt on shore, forming a sea garden of women that seems reminiscent of a fairy tale or an adolescent dream but here is being marketed as a sex fantasy for adults.

There are nude women in “Sweet Marijuana” as well, an ode to the well-known drug (yes really, that one) set against a vaguely Mexican backdrop. It is the wildest song in the film due to its subject matter, with bewildering lyrics that seem to imply that marijuana acts as a hallucinogen:

Soothe me with your caress,
Sweet marijuana, marijuana.
Help me in my distress,
Sweet marijuana, please do.
You alone can bring my lover back to me
Even though I know it’s all a fantasy.

Compare this take on marijuana and its comforting qualities with the nearly contemporaneous Reefer Madness (1936), which makes marijuana out to be a lethal substance that both drives people mad and compels them to kill, and perhaps you will register how different the approach of Murder at the Vanities is. The softer take on marijuana as a recreational drug is underscored by the appearance of soft flesh in the background: nestled in flowers atop giant catcuses as part of the backdrop, we see smiling women who are nude from the waist up, draping hands carefully over their breasts to barely conceal them. The women’s placement in the backdrop is gratuitous, but it speaks to the extent to which the film goes to insert the nude female form into as many moments as it can get away with.

While it is lined wall to wall with fantastic, sexualized female bodies and elaborate musical numbers governed by strange conceits, nevertheless Murder at the Vanities repeatedly points out the real, quotidian, and even cruel aspects of life in contrast with the glossy stage displays it creates. I should note, however, that even though the musical performances are extravagant, they are clearly confined to the limitations of a real theatrical stage and thus cannot be confused with the more fanciful routines directed by Busby Berkeley from the same period. His productions typically begin on stage and expand until they fill the world outside of the theater in the form of giant shadowy sound stages, train yards, and cityscapes in films such as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames (1934), and Gold Diggers of 1935. In comparison, Murder at the Vanities is considerably more grounded, even though its plot is fairly ludicrous.

Consider that even though the backstage entrance for the chorus girls has a lit-up sign that says “Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in the World,” the only person we actually see pass through those doors is an older washerwoman in dark shapeless clothes, wearing a knitted shawl and carrying a pail of water. In contrast with the singing and dancing girls that we see passing under the sign when it is recreated on stage for the number “Where Do They Come From (and Where Do They Go)?” this washerwoman is presented outside of the glamour of stage life as a very real counterpoint to the makeup-caked make-believe of the theater world.

We see an emphasis on sober details offstage, but we also see those details spill into the performance area, spoiling the fiction of its conceits. For example, at the end of the “Sweet Marijuana” performance, one of the topless women resting in an enlarged cactus flower finds blood dripping from the rafters onto her nude flesh. The blood originates from the slain body of the private detective Sadie Evans, who has been stabbed above the stage and is dripping onto the performer below her. Sadie’s blood on the nude girl’s shoulder directs our attention to the reality of the crimes taking place backstage as they leak into the fantasy world of the musical numbers.

Finally, in “The Rape of the Rhapsody,” Murder at the Vanities outdoes itself by performing not one but two acts of deflation that guide us past the veneer of the musical pieces and back to, in this case, the cruel and precarious backstage world. The number begins with Eric, dressed in a wig and breeches, playing piano in an eighteenth-century scene. The performance expands to include an orchestra in similar attire, and then Duke Ellington and His Orchestra suddenly appear and “rape” (as in “seize”) the performance, transitioning it out of its classical context and into the modern jazz milieu. Black dancers then enter and mingle with white performers in a convivial musical scene. The inflated presentation of the original setting is thus punctured and liberated via Ellington’s intervention. But there is a second deflation when the cast discovers that Rita, who was dancing onstage, has been shot and is dead. In this way, the free-flowing racial picture this performance evolves into is whittled away to reveal a harsh reality. By not permitting us to view the harmonious stage routine without the interference of the outside world, Murder at the Vanities eschews the tidiness that we might find in another musical from the same period and insists that we confront the more sinister elements of human behavior even as we rejoice in a scene that elevates humanity.

Although it may not seem like it at first, the movie’s penultimate song, “Cocktails for Two,” while elite in terms of its presentation, actually builds on the penchant in Murder at the Vanities for deflating extravagant spectacles. But whereas many of the other performances are punctured to reveal a dissonant or less attractive reality backstage, “Cocktails for Two” specifically encourages us to celebrate humble routines and everyday life, extolling the virtues of a world away from theatrical glamour.

It is true that the lyrics, sung by Eric in top hat and tails, and the performance context exude upper-crust European elegance, with its potential to appear lavish and unobtainable to a Depression-era American audience (although this aura of international wealth and cosmopolitanism was precisely what so many studios attempted to convey through film at the time). The song begins as follows:

In some secluded rendezvous
That overlooks the avenue
With someone sharing a delightful chat
Of this and that
And cocktails for two.

As we enjoy a cigarette
To some exquisite chansonette,
Two hands are sure to slyly meet beneath
A serviette
With cocktails for two.

The song’s commitment to escapism, however, in the form of allusions to the French “rendezvous,” “chansonette,” and “serviette” is matched by its celebration of the universal and the everyday. For as much as a performance like “Cocktails for Two” caters to the escapist Depression-era mindset, it also expresses an appreciation for small, personal moments here at home that feels timeless. Accordingly, Eric removes his overcoat, scarf, hat, and cane as he sings, diminishing the formality of the musical number. As he does so, note that the details of the lovers’ time together, in spite of the fancy dressing, are actually rather quotidian: the nouns include the minor, casual “chat,” the ubiquitous “cigarette,” and the singular and humble (albeit exotic-sounding) napkin (“serviette”).

But the song locates loveliness not merely in such humble accoutrements but also in the banal fact of repeated everyday routine—perhaps both are unexpected points given the performance context, but the latter is a special Depression-appropriate surprise. “Cocktails for Two” transforms the custom of having an afternoon drink (not just at a Parisian café, but possibly in an American home at the end of the day) into a grand tradition that confirms the very value of life:

Most any afternoon at five
We’ll be so glad we’re both alive,
Then maybe fortune will complete her plan
That all began
With cocktails for two.

With this stanza, the lyrics detach themselves from Eric’s tuxedo and become about the universality of enjoying a lover’s company and feeling gratitude for small things. It could be “any afternoon” and presumably anywhere, and the wealth and luxury of Eric’s tuxedo might be an unobtainable pipe dream to the drinkers, but the ritual he describes comes to reinforce the whole wonderful scope of existing with another person and celebrates something accessible enough to viewers during the Depression: liquor and one other. “Cocktails for Two” thus takes the commonplace—that is, the plain and blasé end of the day—and elevates it to something exquisite. In the tradition of the best 1930s musicals, as Eric undresses, he brings the setting back to earth, but once there, the lyrics send us to the stars.

“Cocktails for Two” demonstrates that Murder at the Vanities has Fred Astaire-like potential even though it is not a film that Astaire would ever have appeared in. But that potential is only evident in its final minutes as Eric sings. The rest of the movie is a stunning exercise in pre-Code mores run amok, a bizarre mixture of cheesecake and death that is notable as a possibly great Freudian warning to us all. The fact, however, that Eric can sing “Cocktails for Two” at the end of it and still be credible as he glides across the stage suggests that Murder at the Vanities can be all of these things and still come across as coherent and believable.

Had Murder at the Vanities been conceived of and released even a few months later, it would not have been the same movie, or possibly would not have existed at all. The Code was enforced on July 1 of 1934, only a month and a half after the film premiered, and like other pre-Code films such as Smarty (1934), Baby Face (1933), and The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Murder at the Vanities serves as a powerful reminder of how risqué film could be before internal Hollywood censorship was implemented. Unlike those other films, which focus primarily on suggestive sexual themes and plot points, Murder at the Vanities is less concerned with offering lewd storylines and more devoted to the provocative, outright display of female flesh. If you are registering that this means the intellectual content of Murder at the Vanities is not as challenging as Baby Face’s, for example, you would be correct. But it pushes the envelope in its own way, is filled with musical sequences that still feel imaginative today, and is a great deal of fun.