Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
A homicide detective with an eye for the ladies investigates a murder during an Earl Carroll’s Vanities show. Starring Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglen, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Dorothy Stickney, Gertrude Michael, Charles B. Middleton, Gail Patrick, and Jessie Ralph. Screenplay by Carey Wilson and Joseph Gollomb. Dialogue by Sam Hellman. Based on the play by Earl Carroll and Rufus King. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Distributed by Paramount.
“On opening night of The Vanities, a music and dance revue, the European star of the show, Eric Lander, learns from private investigator Sadie Evans that his ex-girl friend Rita Ross has stolen articles from his apartment, as he had suspected. Rita, a performer in the Vanities, is passionately jealous of Ann Ware because she is Eric’s fiancée and the leading lady. Among the stolen items is a picture of Eric’s mother, Elsie Singer, who is working as the wardrobe mistress of the show under the name of Helene Smith, although only Eric, Ann and their friend, Homer Boothby, know Elsie’s true identity. Sadie informs Eric that Rita has communicated with Viennese police to determine the true identity of Elsie, who is wanted for a murder she committed in Vienna many years earlier. Rita now plots revenge on Eric. When several attempts are made on Ann’s life before the show begins, producer Jack Ellery calls the police, and his friend, police chief Bill Murdock, arrives with some reinforcements. After a performance, Sadie is found dead in the flies over the stage, killed by a hatpin through her heart. Jack convinces Murdock to investigate without stopping the show. He is charmed by Rita, who leads him to suspect Elsie of the murder. When a machine gun with blanks is fired by Boothby at the end of the production number ‘The Rape of the Rhapsody’ as part of the show, Rita is shot to death.
“A stagehand finds the murder weapon, which he gives to Jack, but Jack conceals it until Eric is identified as the owner. Still unaware that Rita is dead, Eric goes into her dressing room and is met by Norma Watson, Rita’s beleaguered maid who is infatuated with him. Norma gives him a letter to the Vienna police that Rita asked her to mail, and tells him that although she is aware of Elsie’s true identity, she has no intention of exposing her. As Eric burns the letter, Murdock enters and arrests him for Rita’s murder. Although he is handcuffed, Eric finishes the show, and Norma then prevents Murdock from taking him away. Norma reveals that Eric has always treated her with kindness and prevented several beatings at the hands of her mistress. Weary of Rita’s brutality and hatefulness, Norma killed her in a fit of passion, inspired by the tempestuous music and machine gun fire. Norma also reveals that Rita killed Sadie, who had followed her up into the flies. Norma does not reveal Elsie’s true identity and is arrested by Murdock, after which Eric and Ann promise to get the finest lawyer for her defense. Finally, Nancy, a showgirl who has been trying to get Jack’s attention all night, reveals that she saw Rita steal a hat pin from wardrobe much earlier in the evening. With this final evidence, the case is closed, and Jack takes Nancy on a date.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
No one will ever claim that Murder At The Vanities is a cinematic masterpiece because as a narrative, it’s terribly thin and unsatisfying. The murder “mystery” — in the case of both deaths — ain’t much of a mystery, and the lack of complexity in all of the characterizations is troubling, particularly from an era that we’ve celebrated as being more nuanced in its depiction of humanity than most. While the romantic leads — Carlisle and Brisson — are the blandest protagonists we’ve seen on this series in a while, the rest of the ensemble is populated by characters prone to extremes, like the vindictive and plainly evil Rita Ross and her mousy but clearly unhinged maid, Norma. (It’s always the most innocent looking one who did it!) Most of the truer moments in this drama come from the “no muss, no fuss” dynamic between Oakie as the stage manager and McLaglen as the cop, who serve purely functional roles and therefore seem inclined for presentations that merely service the story. It’s the characters around whom this soap revolves, on the other hand, that crave more development — simply for the sake of crafting a more complicated and dramatically relevant arc. However, it’s also clear that Murder At The Vanities has its attentions focused away from its characters, and although this would normally be troublesome, because the film is concerned with elements that are genuinely entertaining, the picture is able to remain engaging and indeed tap into themes that may be surprisingly astute — revelatory for (and of) this particular cinematic era.
There are two elements that make this picture worth noting. The first is, obviously, it’s Pre-Codeness (as I’m sure you must have guessed, considering that this is one of my Essentials). In fact, I might go so far as to note that this is among the most unashamedly “throw it all in there” Pre-Codes we’ve discussed, for the picture’s modus vivendi seems to be shocking its audience — or more aptly, filling itself with moments that would have shocked audiences of five years prior, but now just register as an aggregation of typical Pre-Code fare. For starters, the entire premise (however thin) is situated upon our long-in-the-tooth juvenile’s mother, who herself is on the lam from a murder she committed decades ago, while our protagonist tries to keep her from facing the consequences. By so blatantly presenting a criminal as a sympathetic figure and structuring the conflict as such that we root for her not having to face justice is superbly Pre-Code, for it represents the subversion of traditional moral constructs. And while, to use a tortured metaphor, this is the “cake” of the picture’s naughtiness, the rest of its scandalousness is all “icing” — the creative murders, the innuendos (there’s a great line about where Jack Oakie stashed a gun), the integrated dance sequence (featuring Duke Ellington), along with an entire number about the sweetness of marijuana and copious amounts of scantily clad women who are very close to being (I believe this is the official term) buck naked.
Yes, the marijuana number has made the film particularly notable among Pre-Code enthusiasts, and as with the near nudity (which some scholars posit as revealing the closeness that Hollywood was coming to total nudity had the Code not been strictly enforced just six weeks after this picture’s release), illustrates just how titillating Murder At The Vanities willfully intended to be. This brings us to the second element that makes this picture especially entertaining: the musical sequences. Although this property was adapted from a stage show, in which Earl Carroll (whose productions were always third behind Ziegfeld’s and White’s) mixed a traditional revue with this backstage murder plot, nothing from that original score was retained in the film. New songs were commissioned from Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow, including the elegant “Cocktails For Two,” the noted “Marihuana,” the soaring “Live And Love Tonight” (above) and Ellington’s “Ebony Rhapsody.” These numbers, while impressively staged, are not in Warners’ Busby Berkeley variety, where sequences are filmed so that they transcend their stagebound limitations and invoke notions of fantasy. Rather, these numbers are very definitely confined to the theatre in which the action is set, never letting the audience forget that these musical interludes — with are frequent and extensive (this is most certainly a musical) — are functions of the “reality” we choose to accept alongside the primary backstage narrative.
This focus on realism over fantasy is a very Pre-Code sentiment, while the overstimulation of spectacle — both in the theatrically rendered musical numbers and the perfunctory murders — seems to be hitting a deeper truth about human nature and how we can become desensitized to everything once repeatedly exposed. As our ability to get high (if you will) on the “sweet marihuana” decreases the more we partake, our tolerance for salacity only rises; we need more to get that same shock: more death, more performance, more nudity. By refusing the audience — particularly in the escapist moments of song and dance — its actual retreat into the mindless lull of romanticized pleasure, the film reinforces the medium’s continuing march toward unsatisfying extremes and thus represents a cinematic era in crisis — in which truth is being supplanted by shock value. In effect, Murder At The Vanities tells us that our priories are wrong: no longer do we seek humanity from these films — we seek a high. (The fact that there’s little substance to the characters unintentionally proves this point!) So it’s no surprise that it was just a few short weeks later that Hollywood came up with its own remedy — censorship — which changed the industry’s priorities (specifically from realism back to fantasy), but didn’t necessarily concern itself again with humanity, as the Pre-Code era so revered in its most actualized moments. So even though Murder At The Vanities isn’t a picture with actualized humanity, its whole design — whether intentional or not (and I’m sure I’m overthinking it all; really, it ain’t this deep) — reflects truths worth addressing. That’s why it’s a Pre-Code essential.
P.S. The best song I’ve heard from the jettisoned stage score is “Sweet Madness,” written by Victor Young and Ned Washington, and performed below by Leo Reisman & His Orchestra with Vivien Ruth on the vocals.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in again on Tuesday for my thoughts on the best episodes from the first two seasons of Seinfeld!