“Sweet Marijuana” and Murder at the Vanities: The Opium Advisory Committee vs. The Department of State vs. the Production Code Administration (PCA) vs. Paramount
A rather aimless musical spiked with one murder investigation, two dead bodies, and plenty of cheeky asides, Murder at the Vanities debuted just weeks before the Production Code went into strict effect on July 1, 1934. For all the bawdy, bewildering and blasphemous imagery that inhabits this picture (looking at you, “The Rape of the Rhapsody”), I was surprised to learn that the film’s main censorship battle, waged a year after the picture’s release, was focused elsewhere: on a number featuring the tune “Sweet Marijuana” (referred to in PCA files as “Marahuana”), sung by ‘villainess’ Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael). Though we’re talking an illegal narcotic here, I stand by my ‘surprised’ comment, considering the insane amount of near-nudity that abounds in this movie. Witness:
Excuse the quality of this screenshot, but I assure you those ladies are wearing clothes – made of the sparsest, most translucent material Paramount could find, no doubt.
The “Sweet Marijuana” set-up exudes a south-of-the border vibe, yet firmly keeps in line with the rather static, objectifying mode the numbers in this picture follow: a fleet of men donning sombreros and strumming guitars join Rita in a few quick steps before the curtain rises to reveal a giant cactus plant budding with topless chorus girls. All is fine and dandy… until some dripping blood puts a damper on the proceedings. (Yes, that dripping blood is from a dead body, but I’m not going to get into that little detail in this piece. Sorry.)
According to the film’s Production Code Administration (PCA) file, the lyrics for “Marahuana,” as submitted to the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in February 1934, read:
“Soothe me with your caress
Sweet Marahuana, Marahuana
Help me in my distress
You alone can bring my lover back to me
Even tho I know it’s all a fantasy
Put me to sleep
Part 1 of “Sweet Marijuana”: Rita (Gertrude Michael) and company serve up a starkly lit song and dance number with a Latin American flair.
Future PCA chief Joseph Breen reported that while the SRC expressed some apprehension about the lines, the studio claimed there is “no need for us to concern ourselves greatly about the reference to this deadly drug,” as Paramount assured the SRC the song was merely incidental and would emanate from the theater wings as a background tune. The studio’s A.M. Botsford even defended the song choice by stating that “many thousands of people” who were unaware of the drug would fail to pick up on any subversive slant. (Question: Why would he say that unless he knew the lyrics did in fact accentuate some of marijuana’s effects?)
Prior to Murder at the Vanities‘ May 18th US release, the song was approved, and the completed picture was bestowed a certificate from the SRC. But either Paramount executives fibbed a little when discussing this composition with the censor entity, or the structure of the scene genuinely changed from page to screen. In the studio’s favor: Besides the lyrics, nothing in this sequence highlights marijuana. (The cactus the nude ladies sprout from isn’t even the same genus and species as marijuana.) On the other hand: The melody is clearly performed center stage, not as background or from the sidelines as Paramount confirmed would be the case.
Part 2 of “Sweet Marijuana”: Lovely chorines (who you can’t really see well here) adorn a gigantic cactus plant… for some reason.
On the censorship front, Breen affirmed the movie officially conformed to the Code, but he expected censor reaction to be “highly problematical” – so much so, in fact, that he forewarned Paramount: “It will be interesting to all of us to study that decision of the boards after your picture has been submitted to them.” A short study session that turned out to be: just days later, Paramount gaily conveyed the news that the New York State board, one of the toughest censor entities, passed the picture without a single cut. While state censor board feedback didn’t turn out as debilitating as Breen predicted, his premonition of trouble indeed proved true – albeit overseas more than one year after Murder at the Vanities‘ US release.
July, 1935: PCA staffer – and Breen’s future successor – Geoffrey Shurlock received notice from the Foreign Department’s Colonel Herron that the Department of State was worked up over Murder at the Vanities‘ “Sweet Marijuana” lyrics. But why now? Well, Murder at the Vanities happened to be screening in Geneva, and apparently, an Italian representative cited the picture when he inquired what the US government was doing to curb propaganda for marijuana during an Opium Advisory Meeting in that same Swiss city. According to the committee, marijuana posed a danger greater than opium or morphine, in part because it “causes people to go crazy very quickly” and speedily puts them to sleep.
Those who referred to the picture claimed the “Sweet Marijuana” scene featured “a chorus of cigarette smoking girls to emphasize the affects [sic] of this drug.” Now, unless an alternate version exists that I’m unaware of – or I’m losing it – I can affirm those girls are not smoking anything.
Serious question: How could these ladies be smoking when they are using their hands and arms to cover their bare torsos? And did no one care that they were topless?
But the State Department dramatically insisted this roughly two minute scene – in a film that had made its way halfway around the globe, no less – posed immediate danger. If no statement or promise of change was made regarding the scene, they stressed the likelihood of publicity circulating in Geneva on the propaganda for marijuana in the United States.
Once the State Department shared this matter, Breen swiftly covered his bases. “This unfortunate repercussion should serve to fortify us in this office in our belief that our first hunches are generally right,” he defended, but Paramount didn’t agree, nor were they about to take the news without a fight. In staunchly upholding the number, Botsford affirmed that 1. the girls aren’t smoking, 2. there’s no indication of narcotic use (in action, this is true) and 3. the point of the song is “indistinguishable.” He went so far as to claim that the tune would be as effective if the word ‘Manuella,’ for instance, were swapped for ‘Marijuana.’ (…What?)
By this point, however, Paramount was obliged to comply, so in mid-September 1935, Botsford informed Breen that the song was removed in all prints and it would also be excised from the original negative, which does not seem to be the exact action taken, since the number still exists in the version circulating today. Botsford griped: “This elimination is done under protest, as a matter of friendship and policy. It is not to be taken to indicate that anyone at Paramount agrees in any part with the thought that the song, as used in the picture, either deliberately or unconsciously conveys any effect whatsoever in connection with narcotics.” I’d still argue the lyrics certainly suggest an effect, but whatever. PCA: 1, Paramount: 0.
So case closed, right? Sure, to appease the PCA, the Opium Advisory Committee and the Department of State. But there’s an encore…
The debacle reared its head two years later in November 1937 when a debated Spanish lyric in Paramount’s The Big Broadcast of 1938 conjured ugly memories of the Murder at the Vanities incident. The PCA wasted no time in shooting this one down, reminding the studio of the time they assured the SRC that Murder at the Vanities’ “Sweet Marijuana” number would serve mostly as off stage music while it ended up “definitely emphasized with a group of girls, smoking cigarettes.” Man, there’s that smoking girls claim again, which Paramount denied once more. Did a version like this ever exist, or did everyone simply hallucinate it? If they did, one could argue the “Sweet Marijuana” sequence certainly lived up to the hysteria the Opium Advisory fussed about.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.