Tuesday, April 20, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Murder at the Vanities'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first presentation of the new spring season….

I don’t know what modern-day critics think of “Murder at the Vanities” (Paramount, 1934), but the Federal Trade Commission would probably approve of it, and why not? It’s a perfect example of truth in advertising. You have a murder (actually, more than one), and the story takes place at a Broadway show called “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.”

And of course, and as you’ve probably already figured, it takes place on the show’s opening night. (As much as we might yearn for a more original approach, I suppose you do have to grudgingly admit that “Murder During the 13,517th Performance of ‘Cats’” doesn’t exactly evoke a frisson of excitement.)

But if you’re hard up to find an actor who’s name rhymes with frisson (or at least seems to), there’s Carl Brisson, who plays Eric Lander. Brisson comes across as a combination of Laurence Harvey and Allan Jones, but that’s not as gruesome as it might sound because he does have some charm, or at least enough of it to attract Kitty Carlisle, as Ann Ware. Unfortunately, as Mitchell Leisen’s film gets under way, we find that although Carl has fallen for Kitty, heavy objects – such as a sandbag or two – have been falling for but just missing Kitty.

The plot thickens (“congeals” might be a better word) when a Private Detective Who Knows Something is murdered. (The dick – or dickette? – is played by Gail Patrick, years before she produced the “Perry Mason” series.)

This leads Jack Oakie, who is running the show, to reluctantly call in a police lieutenant, played by Victor McLaglen, who spends a lot of the movie trying to lose his Scottish accent.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, the show’s diva gets her just deserts.

Along the way we meet a number of 1930s character actors, a couple of whom seem a bit out of character – Donald Meek, as a police doctor, plays the role without any of his usual fussy, jittery mannerisms, and Jessie Ralph, whom I’ve most often seen in aristocratic roles (I’m particularly thinking of “After the Thin Man”), plays a Wardrobe Mistress Who Has a Secret.

The always welcome Duke Ellington is also on hand.

Although a real-life, honest-to-goodness mystery writer had a hand in the plot (Rufus King, pretty much forgotten today), if you ever see “Murder at the Vanities,” don’t waste your time trying to figure out whodunit, because the plot is resolved by a sort of deus ex murderer who, near the end, confesses to keep the chief suspect from being arrested.

Perhaps “Murder at the Vanities” is best known for two of its songs – “Cocktails for Two,” still a nice standard and often the object (some might say “victim” is a better word) of parodies, most notably the one perpetrated by Spike Jones. My own favorite send-up of it features Steve Allen and his old gang – Don Knotts, Pat Harrington Jr., Louis Nye and Gabe Dell, with assists from Jo Stafford and Tony Randall. You can find it here.

The other famous song – well, maybe not that famous, and maybe “notorious” would be a better word – is “Sweet Marijuana,” which is performed by Gertrude Michael and has to be seen and heard to be believed. And as luck (I’ll let you decide whether it’s good or bad) would have it, you can see and hear it here.

No comments: