Sunday, December 18, 2022

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Paramount’s Murder at the Vanities (1934) is a pre-code backstage musical and a murder mystery.

Earl Carroll’s Vanities was a very popular and sometimes outrageous Broadway revue which flourished from 1923 until 1932. It provides the background to the movie.

Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie) is the manager and he’s just trying to get the first night launched without too many hitches. In fact there will be more than just the usual opening-night hitches. There will for example be a steady accumulation of corpses.

The headliners are tenor Eric Lander (Carl Brisson) and his fiancée and singing partner Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle) and Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael). It’s the fact that Eric and Ann have decided to get married that causes some of the trouble. Rita is insanely jealous. She wanted Eric. In fact she had him and now she wants him back.

Several accidents occur which could be interpreted as attempts on Ann’s life. Jack Ellery is worried enough to call the police. His old pal Lieutenant Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) decides to handle the call himself. He figures it shouldn’t be too unpleasant. The theatre will after all be overrun with beautiful scantily-clad young ladies. Murdock would be well pleased if all police work involve pretty half-dressed young women.

There’s also a lady private detective Sadie Evans (Gail Patrick) hanging around the theatre.

When the first corpse turns up Murdock, much to Jack Ellery’s horror, wants to close the show down. Jack manages to persuade him that he might have a better chance of catching the killer if he lets the show go ahead.

This won’t be the only corpse. There are several suspects and a few red herrings. As a murder mystery the movie is quite passable. There are people hiding secrets from the past and there’s the hint of blackmail.

The emphasis however is on the show. Much of the running time is taken up by musical numbers. This is a full-blown musical. Fortunately the production numbers are quite good. They can’t match the spectacles that Busby Berkeley was providing in contemporary Warner Brothers musicals but they’re still impressive. There’s lot of art deco style. There are also the aforementioned scantily-clad young ladies. Actually some of the young ladies are totally unclad, their modesty preserved only by placing their hands in strategic positions.

This is pre-code Hollywood and it gets rather risqué. And I haven’t yet mentioned the Marijuana song.

Jack Oakie manages to be funny without being irritating and the banter between Oakie and McLaglen works well. They’re the standouts in the acting department although Gertrude Michael is also excellent as the sexy wicked Rita. Carl Brisson is a rather dull leading man while Kitty Carlisle is not bad. Toby Wing provides extra comic relief as the ditzy but sexy Nancy who could provide an important clue if only would take her seriously enough to listen to her.

If you watch really closely you may spot both Ann Sheridan and Lucille Ball as showgirls. You might also spot Dennis O’Keefe. There are lots of future stars in this movie.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra make an appearance as well.

Mitchell Leisen directs with a fair amount of style and energy.

This movie was one of six included in the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that is well worth getting hold of. Murder at the Vanities was also released individually as a MOD disc in the Universal Vault series but I’ve heard terrible things about that particular release so if you want to see this movie grab the DVD boxed set or you can now get it on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

Murder at the Vanities is amusing lightweight fun, it’s very pre-code and quite risqué and the musical production numbers are pretty cool. Highly recommended.

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