“Pre-Code” isn’t an accurate name for movies made in the early 1930s. The Hays Office Production Code was initially introduced in 1930, outlining what could and couldn’t be shown as well as said in the new, talking pictures, but the Code wasn’t rigidly enforced. In fact, it was pretty much ignored during those early years as filmmakers continued to test its limits and see how far they could go. Only in 1934, when Joseph Breen organized a boycott with the Catholic Legion of Decency, did the film studios concede and start making movies that conformed to one specific vision of a world where nobody swore or used illegal drugs, criminals received their just deserts, and even married couples always kept one foot on the floor.
These so-called Pre-Code movies are often crude and sometimes still have the power to shock, but they also have a breezy freedom and brash cynicism that feels more natural than their later, more heavily censored counterparts. They seem to me to reveal a more honest picture of what people in the early 1930s were really like.
Murder at the Vanities was released in the summer of 1934, just before censorship of films became more stringent. It’s not a great musical of the era, like 42nd Street or Golddiggers of 1933, but there’s a lot going on here that wouldn’t be allowed in movies even a few months later, plus a murder mystery that occurs between (and during) the musical numbers.
It’s opening night of the new show at the Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and the two big stars, Eric and Ann (Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle), are planning to get married as soon as the show is done that evening. Not everyone is happy to hear their news.
The show’s other star, Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael) has an obsessive thing for Eric herself and doesn’t plan to let go of him easily. She’s stolen an old photograph from his apartment, of a Viennese opera singer who was implicated in an unsolved murder at the turn of the century. What’s more, she’s written to the Vienna police about the woman in the photo and received their answer.
The woman is Eric’s mother (Jessie Ralph), who now works at the theater as the wardrobe mistress and goes by the unimaginative name of Mrs. Smith. Their true relationship is a secret known only to one or two close friends… and now to Rita, who threatens to see Mom arrested for murder unless Eric breaks off his intended marriage.
Eric has hired a private detective (Gail Patrick) to retrieve the stolen photo. This she does, returning the photo and giving the letter from Vienna to him that evening while Ann is onstage for the show’s opening number.
Before the show, several “accidents” have befallen Ann. The mirror in her dressing room is smashed by someone outside in the corridor, and a sandbag nearly falls on her head as she is about to go on.
The show’s wisecracking manager Mr. Ellery (Bill Oakie) phones the police, and Lt. Murdoch (Victor McLaughlin) only shows up reluctantly. The two have a long-standing, antagonistic relationship, and Murdoch is more interested in ogling the chorus girls than investigating the threat to the leading lady.
In the meantime, the show must go on. The show will go on, no matter what happens.
The first number is reminiscent of the “Dames” sequence at the end of the Busby Berkeley musical of the same name, with a song about where the Vanities girls come from that’s entirely forgettable. Lots of women wear extremely scanty costumes, leaving the impression that the Vanities were only slightly less risque than Mrs. Henderson’s Windmill.
Keep an eye on the girls and boys of the chorus: according to IMDB, Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan, and Alan Ladd are supposed to be in among them.
After hearing Rita’s ultimatum, Eric waits for Ann to come offstage and tells her they won’t be getting married tonight after all. He doesn’t tell her why.
The second number features an equally forgettable song by the two leads, but it has some lovely imagery. Eric in tattered clothes is stranded on a desert island, with the waves of the ocean simulated by women in water-nymph costumes using large, ostrich-feather fans. There’s a very nice effect when Ann appears amid the “waves” and is washed up on the island shore.
It’s the third number that’s the most surprising, and finally gets the plot going. Rita, accompanied by chorus-boys dressed as gauchos, sings a languid song in praise of marijuana. Its sweet dreams bring back the man she loves in her fantasies. She doesn’t mention getting the munchies.
Behind Rita as part of the set decoration are huge cacti with women on top of them dressed as cactus flowers. Half-dressed. The flower petals unfold around their waists, but above that all they have to cover themselves are their strategically-placed hands.
It is onto the bare shoulder of one of these flower-girls that blood drips down from a catwalk high above the stage.
When Murdoch and Ellery investigate, they find the body of the detective lying on the catwalk, stabbed by a dagger-like hatpin. In her clenched hand is a small bottle of acid, unopened.
Who could have killed her?
- The hatpin belongs to Rita. She wears one like it as part of her costume for the “Sweet Marijuana” number. But she’s still wearing her costume when Murdoch questions her and shows him that she has a pin in her hat. She tells him that the wardrobe mistress would have a duplicate pin, and that she saw the dead woman alive half an hour ago, arguing with the old woman.
- Mrs. Smith denies this when questioned, but we saw how hostile she was to the detective, afraid that she’d read the letter from the Vienna police before giving it to Eric.
- One of the people in on Mrs. Smith’s secret is an actor-friend, Mr. Boothby, also in the show. He might kill to protect her, but surely Rita would be a more reasonable target?
- And what about Rita’s spooky maid, who seems devoted to Eric in her own way?
Eric comes under suspicion when Murdoch finds a phone message from him in the dead woman’s pocket. He’s the only one who can identify her and explain what she was doing in the theater–but of course he doesn’t tell the police everything.
It’s Rita who says that she’ll tell Murdoch what she knows and “blow the whole thing wide open.” Right after her next number.
One of the elements in Pre-Code movies that surprises modern viewers is how they deal with issues of race. One moment, you’ll see something remarkably sensitive or progressive for the era, and the next moment something jaw-droppingly offensive.
Case in point: the next big musical number in this film is titled “Rape of the Rhapsody” and is presented in three parts.
First part: Eric appears in stylized Regency garb seated at a piano. In the role of Franz Liszt, he plays the Bohemian Rhapsody and sings words to fit the melody, while men and women in similarly exaggerated Regency fashions descend a ramp behind him and do a minuet.
Second part: Mr. Boothby conducts a small orchestra playing the Rhapsody. The ladies from the previous part stand dreamily on two wings of a flanking staircase and a gallery above. As the white classical musicians play, black musicians pop out from behind them to play their own jazzed-up version of the same tune. Black women in semi-transparent maid outfits pop out from behind the Regency ladies. Eventually, the conductor and his orchestra flee, leaving the stage to the jazz band. Duke Ellington takes over on the piano. All the women, black and white, get down and boogie-woogie-woogie.
Rita, who is white but dressed in a fancier transparent outfit similar to the black dancers, comes out to sing about the “Ebony Rhapsody”. This is quite fun and easily the best number in the movie in terms of the actual music. (Although I have to wonder what a “dirty Hosanna” is. Do I want to know?)
Now comes the jaw-dropping third part. The conductor returns for his revenge. Brandishing a tommy-gun, he “shoots” Duke Ellington, the jazz musicians and the chorus line of dancers with a spray of blanks. They all fall down. The audience cheers and applauds this faux-massacre of the uppity black folk who dared to have fun with a piece of classical music.
As Rita rises from the stage with the rest of the chorus girls, she looks pained and puzzled, and falls again. She’s really been shot, not by the machine gun, but by a .32 revolver fired by someone offstage under the cover of the blanks.
The revolver is soon discovered backstage. Ellery conceals it from Murdoch until he learns who it belongs to.
It belongs to Eric, who claims that it was also stolen from his apartment. While he didn’t have much reason to kill the detective, he had more than one good motive to get rid of Rita before she had a chance to talk.
Murdoch arrests him, but that’s no reason to stop the show. They didn’t stop it for the two murders, so why should they now? Eric has the big finish to perform with Ann, and he does it in handcuffs. It’s this that prompts the real murderer to come forward.
I’m not going to give the ending away. I’ve listed the suspects, but when you’re watching the movie, it’s fairly obvious early on who did what. This isn’t a murder mystery you watch for the clever solution.
This isn’t a musical that you watch for the music either. The songs for the most part aren’t catchy enough to be memorable. After watching 42nd Street, it can take me days to get “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” or “Young and Healthy” out of my head. But even after viewing this movie several times, I couldn’t recall the tune or lyrics to any of the first three numbers described above. Apart from the Ebony Rhapsody, none of the songs seem to me to have any energy or sense of rhythm. The only song from the film that I was familiar with beforehand, “Cocktails for Two,” is sung twice by Carl Brisson, but with a peculiar stress on the wrong syllables that rob it of its charm.
So, what is Murder at the Vanities worth watching for?
The musical scenes impressed me visually. It’s obvious that the director had seen the Busby Berkeley musicals and was attempting to emulate them to some extent, except that the Vanities never leave the stage. Everything is performed as it would be in front of a theater audience. There’s never that break into all-out fantasy that you see with Berkeley.
The leads are innocuous, but scheming Rita is fun to watch and the brassy dialog between Ellery and Murdoch is entertaining. So is the dark comedy in the way they carry up the bodies into the manager’s office, telling the cast and crew that “she’s fainted”, and go on with the show at all costs.
Most of all, it’s worth watching because it’s a last-gasp Pre-Code movie that shows you just how much they were actually getting away with before they were no longer allowed to get away with anything.
Murder at the Vanities is one of the films in the Pre-Code Hollywood DVD collection. There are no extra features with it, but on the same disc is another Pre-Code movie titled Search for Beauty. It’s the somewhat sleazy story of a couple of con artists who buy a health-and-beauty magazine to turn it into borderline pornography with salacious stories and nudie pictures.
Unfortunately for them, they’ve hired two 1932 Olympic medalists, Buster Crabbe and a very young Ida Lupino, to manage the magazine. This athletic couple are honestly interested in promoting physical fitness. When the con-artists start a “health club,” bringing in a bunch of Olympic contenders from around the US and British Commonwealth countries as staff with the intention of making these fit and attractive young people sexually available to wealthy older types who aren’t really interested in any kind of exercise, the clean-living youths turn tables on the sleazoids and take over the club.
The film is interesting in that, unlike so many films of the era and every film era since, it isn’t focused exclusively on the Male Gaze. There are just as many scantily dressed, strapping young men as there are pretty girls, and scenes of skeevy women eyeing them.
Near the end, the young people put on a show that’s extremely reminiscent of Busby Berkeley in its close-order precision, except that Berkeley never used so many men in little shorts.
What else do Search for Beauty, Murder at the Vanities, and 42nd Street have in common? Chorus-girl Toby Wing. She doesn’t have any lines in 42nd Street, but looks ready to pounce on Dick Powell as he sings “Young and Healthy” to her. In Murder at the Vanities, she basically has one line, appearing at intervals throughout the movie to say “Oh, Mr. Ellery!” and then giggle when he shoos her away; only at the end does it turn out she’s been trying to tell him something that would have helped to solve the first murder. In Search for Beauty, she finally gets something to say.