Pre-code Music and Murder Marks Mitchell Leisen’s racy take on Earl Carroll’s Stage show.



Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world!”  That’s right, movie buffs- the sign over the door of The Vanities doesn’t lie!  From the bustling stage of Broadway impresario Earl Carroll to the big screen (and now to your esteemed Blu-ray shelf) comes this notoriously racy bit of musical pre-code sauciness, Murder at the Vanities.  

Murder at the Vanities’ 1934 release date places it just under the wire in terms of Joseph Breen’s Hays Office crackdown on much the kind of content that this film entirely basks in.  Boundaries-pushing Paramount, however, didn’t flinch.  By its measure, it isn’t so much a hot potato as a hot patootie; one aptly and jazzily orchestrated by director Mitchell Leisen for maximum bang-for-the-buck entertainment value.  

The murder mystery may be lightweight, and the biggest enduring stars on the bill are merely Kitty Carlisle as a prominent singer and a blustery Victor McLaglen as a perpetually one-step-behind police detective all too happy to land a case in a setting populated by scores of extremely scantily clad chorus girls.  But when the half-dozen or so numbers (most of the songs, including the prominently featured post-prohibition exultation, “Cocktails for Two” are penned courtesy of Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow) land as swimmingly as they do, this eye-popping backstage musical has it where it counts.  And back then, when you got, you flaunt it!

Duke Ellington and his orchestra serves as the in-house musicians of choice, another prominent way that Paramount managed to harness the enduring jazz craze of the time.  (Also see: Cab Calloway’s cool collaborations with Paramount’s contracted animation house, Max Fleischer Studios).  Ellington nabs plenty of screen time, even as it’s his predominantly Black orchestra’s playful insurgence upon a snooty Caucasian classical symphony that constitutes the performances’ maybe-cringeworthy title, The Rape of the Rhapsody.  In any case, Ellington’s presence only enriches the proceedings.  

The mind-bogglingly casual audacity of Murder at the Vanities culminates in the first half when Gertrude Michael infamously sings the praises of “Sweet Marijuana” in the song of the same title while flanked by decorative topless chorus girls embedded into the scenery and strategically cupping their assets.  One blonde is surprised to discover blood dripping on her shoulder from the rafters, drawing initial attention to the first murder.   Among the film’s reoccurring array of ladies are not-yet-knowns Ann Sheridan, Lynn Bari and Lucille Ball.

The ominous near misses of crashing stage lights and falling sandbags give way to hurled scissor blades and intentionally shattered mirrors.  That’s enough to warrant a call by the manager to his old acquaintance police detective (McLaglen), but not enough to stop the show.  Then the first murder occurs.  Still, the show must go on!  Then another murder happens, this one on stage!  Was it the top-billed cardboard star of both this film and the production therein, smiling prettyboy Carl Brisson?  Or maybe the cranky backstage matron (Jessie Ralph)?  Or possibly the ever-present mousy maid (Dorothy Stickney)?  Or the angry, icy would-be ingenue (Gertrude Michael)?  Or is it the unwavering man running the show (an assuredly cocky Jack Oakie)?

“Judas H. Priest!”, Oakie shouts every time anything happens.  At one point, it sure sounds like he drops an f-bomb.  All the while, his honey-in-waiting (played by the beloved Toby Wing, a prominent chorus girl who’s rarely granted screen credit, but is here) keeps turning up to woo him away from whatever he’s preoccupied with.  Will he ever give her the doggone time of day, and give in to her persistent advances?

With a new 2K transfer on display, KL Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray edition of Murder at the Vanities is a must for any pre-code collection.  The fabulous Art Deco stage sets pop all the more, not to mention the costumes… what there is of many of them.  Back in the day, this airy, dead white women hoofer proved controversial enough to command debate within The League of Nations in Geneva. That’s just one of many interesting facts put forth by bona fide film historian Anthony Slide on his astute, newly recorded audio commentary track.  Slide gives informed observations, facts, and even opinions throughout the film.  It’s well worth the time of any curious viewer.  

Whether one is inclined to dress up for a night on the town or dress down in front of everyone for a lavish song and dance, the pre-code classic Murder at the Vanities has you covered… or uncovered, as the case may be.