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Monday, February 18, 2013

MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934) -- movie review by Squashpants


Tonight's movie is


This is the first so-called "pre-Code" movie we have looked at here, and the first musical. It was made in the last year before the Hayes Board brought the censorship boom down on filmmakers in the US and ushered in the drabness of Forties cinema.

So, not unexpectedly, this one really pushes the envelope on naughtiness, and it is my favorite pre-coder for that reason.

The basic story is well telegraphed by the title. It is about a night at the world famous Earl Carroll's Vanities stage show, and the murder of a minor character, which brings in tough detective Bill Murdock (played wonderfully by Victor McLaglen) who has already been stiffed for a ticket to the night's performance by his pal Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie mugging it up), the stage manager.

At the same time, the male and female leads in the show, Carl Brisson as Eric Lander and Kitty Carlisle(!) as Ann Ware, are trying to get through one last night before they go off to marry. Mix in Eric's mother as wardrobe mistress and the main suspect for the murder, a songstress jealous of Ann and Eric's love, and her mistreated maid, and you have a great cast. Oh, but let's not forget Charles Middleton (FLASH GORDON's Ming the Merciless), Toby Wing, and Duke Ellington and orchestra.

You get some great production numbers, including the Sweet Marijuana(!) number and the Duke Ellington breakout of a faux classical lead-up (more about this later). And while they are not of the scope and ambitiousness of a Busby Berkley production, they are well done and well photographed. And the music is wonderful.

You are led to believe that the wardrobe mistress is the murderess, but you will not believe who actually is the culprit. Well, you probably will because you are smarter than me. The banter between Jack Oakie and Victor McLaglen is great fun, the best part of the whole comedic side of the pic. And Toby Wing as Nancy is an absolute doll in her bit part as a flirty chorus girl.

Now, the thing that really recommends this movie (to me, at least), besides the overall quality of it, is the amount of skin on display in it. I was shocked to discover as a teen that movies made before 1935 and the advent of the tough Hayes Production Code were actually sexier and more adult that a lot of the films I was seeing from the 1940s and 1950s.

Sexual innuendos dotted the dialog and slinky lingerie-like gowns were the order of the day. Murder at the Vanities takes this one step further by having a production number with topless chorines as cactus flowers and basically using their hands as bras. Pretty risque for the day, yes, but the most unbelievable bit of revealing costuming is that of the black dancers on the Duke Ellington number.

Dressed up like maids(!), it is not altogether apparent during the number that the bodices are sheer netting basically, but when the number is over, and the camera is on the dancers milling about (as people begin to realize that yet another person has been murdered), you can plainly, if briefly, see the breasts and the nipples of the dancers.

Talk about a shock. It is no wonder that this one didn't show up on TV when I was a kid.

Musicals may not be your cup of tea, but I have found that pre-Code musicals are really quite entertaining and the music, though dated, is catchy and enjoyable. The comedy is not as corny as you might expect, and the musical stars of those days really did deserve to be stars.

This is a good one to start with if you are interested in getting into the genre. I give it a Weirdo rating of 3.75 out of 4 stars!

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