Ebony Rhapsody

Sorry it's been so long since my last blog posting, folks! I've been super busy myself getting ready for our chorus girl team, Sister Kate, to head on down to New Orleans, LA for the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown... we're lookin' forward to struttin' our stuff in the birthplace of jazz!

For this blog posting, I would like to discuss the clip Ebony Rhapsody, from the film, Murder at the Vanities (1934).

This clip really is a pleaser to not only the jazz dancer, but the jazz music enthusiast - there is truly some memorable footage here of Duke Ellington playing on the white grand piano... what a performer he was! That warm smile and energy that exudes from him as he taps his fingers along the piano keys... A really lovely part of this clip is at around 3:47 when the dancers all stop and focus their attention on a solo played by the Duke.

The vocalist in this clip is Gertrude Michael.
A tiny bit about Gertrude's career:

Born as Lillian Gertrude Michael in Talladega, Alabama, she reportedly graduated from high school at the age of 14. She became a radio singer on the radio. She attended the University of Alabama and Converse College, Cincinnati.

In 1929 in Cincinnati she made her stage debut in a stock company. She subsequently appeared on Broadway in Rachel Crothers' Caught Wet (1931). She entered the movies playing Richard Arlen's finaceƩ in Wayward (1932), but her best-remembered role is probably as Rita Ross in Murder at the Vanities (1934), one of the last pre-Code films, in which she sang an ode to marijuana (Sweet Marijuana).

She had an affair with writer Paul Cain (aka Peter Ruric). After they broke up, Cain wrote the role of the alcoholic lover (based on Michael) in his only novel published during his lifetime, Fast One.

She died, aged 53, of undisclosed causes, in Beverly Hills, California.


The movie is based on Earl Carroll's Broadway play. I don't want to go to in depth about Earl Carroll, but I thought his bio was just too interesting to pass up. Here's his bio from Wikipedia.com:

Earl Carroll (September 16, 1893 – June 17, 1948) was an American theatrical producer, director, songwriter and composer born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carroll produced and directed numerous Broadway musicals, including eleven editions of Earl Carroll's Vanities, Earl Carroll's Sketch Book, and Murder at the Vanities, which was also made into a film starring Jack Oakie. Known as "the troubadour of the nude", Carroll was famous for his productions featuring the most lightly clad showgirls on Broadway. In 1922 he built the first Earl Carroll Theatre in New York, which was demolished and rebuilt on a grander scale in 1931. He built a second theatre on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, California in 1938.

In 1926 Carroll became involved in a scandal due to a party he threw in honor of Harry Kendall Thaw, who came from Pittsburgh and was a potential investor in Broadway shows. During the private party a bathtub was brought out in which there was a nude young woman bathing in illegal liquor. One of the guests at the party was Philip Payne, editor of the New York Mirror. Although Carroll expected his guests would be circumspect about what happened at the party, Payne published a report. This was noted by federal authorities, and they subpoenaed Carroll to appear (with others) before a grand jury. The authorities were apparently determined to learn the source of the illegal alcohol. Carroll denied the incident happened, but others at the party confirmed it. The federal government prosecuted Carroll for perjury, and he was convicted and sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary for six months.

Earl Carroll died in the crash of United Airlines Flight 624, which also took the life of his companion, Beryl Wallace, on June 17, 1948, in Aristes, Pennsylvania.


Indeed, even though the theme of this scene is set in what appears to be the Victorian-era, it is clear where Carroll's influence comes in with the sheer skirts worn by the black chorus girls in this clip (dressed as the stereotypical servants of course - very common costume for black stage performers during of the time). Towards the end, the white chorus girls, too, lift up their layers of petticoats and show us their long and slender legs - oh my!

Of course all of the dancers in this movie clip are credited as the "Earl Carroll Girls." I was quite surprised when reading the credits list of names to see some familiar ones, namely Seattle-native Ernestine Anderson & 50's sitcom favorite Lucille Ball.

This clip definitely reminds me of the "Chool Song" soundie featuring Dean Collins & Jewel McGowan (for all you lindy hoppers out there). Like the Chool Song, this clip begins with a traditional classical setting, but eventually the jazz/swing beat takes over. At around 4:43 seconds into the clip, the music starts to speed up, and everyone becomes intoxicated by the jazz... Duke's bass player spins his instrument around between plucks as the white chorus girls kick their legs up with skirts hiked up, just like you would have seen in a can-can routine....

And now finally, for your enjoyment, I'm happy to present the clip Ebony Rhapsody, from the film, Murder at the Vanities (1934).

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