This 1934 musical mystery has girls, grins, guns, and Duke Ellington, too
“Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world.”
That was the legend above the entrance of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, a Broadway institution for decades. Like Flo Ziegfeld before him and Hugh Hefner to follow, Earl Carroll was a gent with an eye for the female form. Things didn’t always go his way – he served a stretch in the slammer in the twenties for throwing a party that included, among other things, a 17-year-old girl taking a bath in a tub of wine1 – but Carroll always bounced back. Though forgotten today, his Vanities were potent enough to inspire four movies: Murder at the Vanities (1934), A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1945), and Earl Carroll Sketchbook (1946). Only the first, which is almost undoubtedly the best, is available on video.2
Murder at the Vanities is an intriguing cross between two genres, the murder mystery and backstage musical. Remarkably enough, it enjoys the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither. The basic conceit of the film is that the murder (two of them, actually) must be both committed and solved during the course of the premiere performance of the Vanities.3 The result is one of the fastest-paced musicals, and one of the fastest-paced mysteries, you’ll ever see.
The focal point of Murder at the Vanities is stage manager Jack Oakie,4 who’s determined to see the show through despite falling sand bags, stage lights, and blood, along with an occasional corpse or two. He spends most of his time yelling at his cast and stiff-arming flatfoot Victor McLaglen,5 who naturally wants to shut the place down.
Oakie’s leading lady is Kitty Carlisle, who became Kitty Carlisle Hart in 1946 when she married Broadway playwright Moss Hart. Carlisle was born in New Orleans and raised in Paris, but by the time she hit the big screen she was pure Upper East Side.6 Carlisle kicks things off musically with “Where Do They Come From and Where Do They Go?”, a number introducing us to the Vanities girls. (Strangely, we never really do find out where they come from or where they go.)
Kitty and her newly announced fiancé Eric Lander (Danish tenor Carl Brisson) plan to get married after the show, and Eric’s ex-main squeeze, Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael), doesn’t like it one bit. Ross, a chanteuse so tough she kicks her maid in the tits just for the hell of it, has hired a female private dick to check up on Lander, but the dick ends up in the rafters, dripping blood on the showgirls below.
Carlisle and Brisson have a funny desert island number together, “Live and Love Tonight,” which features chorus girls covered with ostrich feathers pretending to be waves. They also sing “Cocktails for Two,” a salute to the demise of Prohibition.
Gertrude Michael7 gets two big numbers of her own in the show, “Sweet Marihuana” and “Ebony Rhapsody.” The first features her singing before a backdrop of giant cacti, whose blooms contain naked women. To anyone who grew up in the sixties, marihuana and cacti together can only mean peyote. Whether the set designers of Murder at the Vanities were that pharmacologically advanced is anyone’s guess.
“Ebony Rhapsody” is the real reason for seeing Murder at the Vanities. It’s the centerpiece of a bizarre production number called “The Rape of the Rhapsody.” Franz Liszt (Charles Middleton8), struggling to write his Second Hungarian Rhapsody, is inspired by a troupe of waltzing ghosts. At the rhapsody’s premiere, however, the orchestra Liszt has assembled is put to rout by Duke Ellington and his band, who play “Ebony Rhapsody” while Michael sings – “it’s got those tricks, it’s got those licks, that Mr. Liszt would never recognize. It’s got that beat, that tropic heat, you shake until you make the old thermometer rise.”
In the ensuing production number we get a number of good shots of Ellington and the band, mostly hamming it up rather than actually playing. Liszt then returns, with a machine gun, and proceeds to massacre the entire cast. This grotesque finale is necessary to the plot, because while everyone on stage is pretending to die, Ross/Michael is actually murdered. It looks as if Eric is headed for the chair, but at the last minute, a deliciously wide-eyed, hysterical confession by Ross’s maid, still sore about the tit-kicking, saves the day, at least for Eric and Kitty.
Ellington recorded “Ebony Rhapsody” and “Cocktails for Two,” taking a pass on the other three tunes in the show. They’re available on Jubilee Stomp, a CD from RCA Victor, one of three dedicated to the early days of the Ellington band. For more on Ellington, the Duke Ellington Society provides an excellent site here, with many links.
- Knowing Carroll, he probably discarded neither the babe nor the bath. [↩]
- The casts of the other three are distinctly low rent. Murder at the Vanities, on the other hand, is full of stars. [↩]
- Opening night at the Vanities is portrayed as the hardest ticket on Broadway, which probably provoked snickers in the Big Apple. [↩]
- Oakie was a little too chubby to play a romantic lead, but he was a perfect fit for the knockabout musical farces that flourished in the early thirties, like Million Dollar Legs (also starring W.C. Fields and Lyda Roberti). Oakie made six pictures in 1930, five in 1931, and nine in 1932. Too few of these films are available on video. Oakie’s greatest role was “Benzino Napaloni” (Mussolini) in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. [↩]
- McLaglen, who seems to be phoning it in here, is best remembered for his deservedly Oscar-winning performance as Gypo Nolan in John Ford’s classic The Informer. [↩]
- Carlisle was 20 when she made Murder at the Vanities. She had her biggest role a year later, playing the ingénue in the Marx Brothers classic, A Night at the Opera, appearing, along with the rest of the cast, in the famous “stateroom” scene, which compacted about 50 people into Groucho’s eight by eight by eight stateroom. But Carlisle preferred New York to Hollywood, and appeared in few movies after the mid-thirties. She made her major imprint on the American psyche via TV panel shows, starting with “Celebrity Time” in 1949, and continuing on “I’ve Got a Secret” and “To Tell the Truth” until 1969. Woody Allen, that Manhattan romantic, used her as a singer in Radio Days. She also appeared in Six Degrees of Separation as an Upper East Side hostess. [↩]
- Michael apparently made a specialty of bad girl roles, appearing in such films as Prisoner of Japan, Women in Bondage, (aka Hitler’s Women), Flamingo Road (hyped as “the ultimate Joan Crawford picture”), Caged, and Women’s Prison. She finished her career in 1961 as “Letitia Klunker” in The Continental Twist, which starred Louie Prima and June “the Bosom” Wilkinson. (Talk about excess!) Fortunately, none of these films, with the exception of Flamingo Road, is available on video. [↩]
- Middleton’s gaunt features won him the role of Abraham Lincoln in three different pictures, and he also once played Lincoln’s father. But he’s best remembered as Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serials. [↩]