Pity poor Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie). He’s got a new show about to open on Broadway, an extravaganza featuring two orchestras, 100+ singers and dancers (many of whom are wearing the minimum legal amount of clothing), and a collection of temperamental stars engaged in all sorts of extracurricular hijinks. As if managing all that drama weren’t enough, on opening night several attempts at backstage murder fail, and then several succeed. Because the show must go on, Ellery brings in police lieutenant Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) to try to figure out what in the world is going on backstage, while onstage the show proceeds apace.
Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities is a bit of an odd fish in cinematic history, a pre-Code combination of a musical comedy (based on a popular stage musical of the day) and a murder mystery. The #1 draw for this film is the cast, which includes, among others, Kitty Carlisle in her first film appearance, Danish star Carl Brisson (who appeared in several early Hitchcock films), Dorothy Stickney, Gertrude Michael, Jessie Ralph, Toby Wing, and Donald Meek. If that’s not enough for you, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra make an appearance in a stage number (which also unfortunately includes blackface, but such were the times), and, in the chorus, you can spot Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan, and Virginia Davis.
A big chunk of Murder of the Vanities consists of elaborate musical numbers, staged in a sort of proto-Busby Berkeley style (they have the elaborate sets and costumes but not the genius). The songs, for the most part, aren’t that great either, and the workaday cinematography of Leo Tover doesn’t help to make the stage numbers appear better than they are. There are plenty of twists and turns in the murder plot, but they’re not all that fascinating, nor have you had much of a chance to care about any of the characters. When the truth is finally revealed, it’s simply stated, Thin Man-style, by one of the theater people, which does spare the author the effort of planting a series of clues and thus giving viewers a fair chance to figure it out for themselves.
Despite those criticisms, Murder at the Vanities is interesting enough to be worth your while, both for the cast and as an example of just how nuts Hollywood, and stage musicals, could be in the old days. Musical numbers include a song praising marijuana (which was legal at the time, although some later prints of the film omitted it), the cheesiest tropical paradise number ever (with, for once, a male actor showing some flesh), and a backstage performance of the then-topical “Cocktails for Two,” a celebration of the end of Prohibition (which is better known today in the parody version by Spike Jones and the City Slickers). Snippets of classical music are also worked into some numbers, the way the Tom and Jerry cartoons used the likes of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. There’s even a plot-significant role for a wardrobe woman, the only instance I can think of outside of All About Eve. | Sarah Boslaugh
Murder at the Vanities is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, from a new 2K master. The main extra is an audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide; the disc also includes the trailers for five films.