Murder at the Vanities (Mitchell Leisen / U.S., 1934):

"Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world," announces the sign above Earl Carroll’s Vanities revue, and Mitchell Leisen can’t resist pricking the tacky fantasy by having a frowzy cleaning lady shuffle out right on cue. The endless supply of "glorious, glorified creatures" kicks off as Kitty Carlisle’s warbled ode to "eyes and lips and hips and ankles and dimpled arms and knees" echoes through a procession of rotating tableaux, with starlet after half-dressed starlet pinned to life-sized French postcards as stenographers and cowgirls. The salacious pageantry is where Leisen’s apprenticeship under De Mille comes into play, the vaginal imagery includes gigantic jewel boxes opening like clams to reveal the nymphs splayed within and an ocean of undulating feathers surrounding the erect palm trees atop a cardboard island. Running the show is Jack Oakie, not a madcap visionary à la Busby Berkeley but more like a traffic cop scrambling to keep the show-biz lava flowing through the proscenium. Eros must be spiked with a little Thanatos, thus somewhere in all this a couple of murders take place, one of which (droplets of blood sprinkled over a showgirl’s bare shoulder) gives a foretaste of Argento. Carl Brisson models a look for Liberace, Gertrude Michael pays musical homage to reefer madness ("Sweet marijuana, you alone can bring my lover back..."), Dorothy Stickney in a feverish close-up somehow suggests Charlotte Corday dropping in from Marat/Sade. The nutty tessitura of this "investigation set to music" encompasses everything from Toby Wing’s giggly squeal to the astonishing blend of classicism and hot jazz in "The Rape of the Rhapsody," where Duke Ellington attacks the piano keyboard before being machine-gunned by Liszt. For his part, the detective (Victor McLaglen) looks up the chorines’ dresses, barks orders ("Go rivet some panties on your cuties, will ya?"), and finally sits back and enjoys the surrealism of it all. With Jessie Ralph, Charles Middleton, Gail Patrick, and Donald Meek. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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