Friday, October 14

Good 40s Films: I Wake Up Screaming

1941 Film Noir
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone

Betty Grable
Victor Mature
Carole Landis
Laird Cregar
Elisha Cook Jr.
Alan Mowbray
Allyn Joslyn

From the studio that provided some of my very favorite film noirs comes one of the earliest of the genre but one that got a bit overshadowed by The Maltese Falcon released earlier in the year. Falcon is an outstanding noir but I Wake Up Screaming is no slouch either.  It was the first noir for most of the principals, including the director and Mature (who would go on to several highly-regarded noirs).   Character actor, Elisha Cook, on the other hand, also appeared in Falcon and would go on to become a noir staple. 

It would be Grable's only noir outing.  Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wanted his popular musical-comedy queen to have a go or two at some dramas.  She followed up this film opposite the studio's most popular male star, Tyrone Power, in A Yank in the R.A.F. Despite Grable acquitting herself well in both films, she went back to musical-comedy and never made another drama.  

The story opens with a newspaper headline advising of a young model's murder. Via flashbacks (a noir mainstay) we learn that the girl (Landis) was a waitress who became a model in Manhattan after a fight promoter (Mature) takes her on as a client. We learn this as Mature is grilled by the cops in one precinct room while Grable is put through the mill in another.  Grable, as Landis' sister, is immediately suspicious of Mature and what he may be up to. She is also wary of her sister's newfound gig, wanting her instead to not lose focus on their values and upbringing.  But Landis dives in with abandon and soon secures a Hollywood contract behind Mature's back.  Knowing she will be leaving him for greener pastures, he becomes angry.  Around the same time that Grable and Mature begin to fall for one another, Mature is tapped as the murderer.

The majority of the 82-minute screenplay is a familiar one but always one that completely engages me... the guy on the lam with a trusty female sidekick to help him track down the real killer.  There are a few twists and turns as suspects crop up... an ex actor (Mowbray), a columnist (Joslyn) and especially a switchboard operator (Cook) at the sisters' apartment building.  All the while a brooding detective (Cregar) is fixated on proving Mature is the killer.

Before the truth comes to light (savvy observers of crime capers may figure it out), we are treated to most of those yummy noir specialties... the middle-of-the-night darkness, wet streets, the low-lit closeups, the lowly characters, the shadows (those falling on Venetian blinds are outstanding), all the stylistic camerawork. About the only noir staple missing is the bad girl. Landis' character would come the closest but we've all seen much worse. Besides, she's not in it enough to register as a femme fatale.

Grable and Carole Landis had just wrapped Moon Over Miami in which they also played sisters. They did share similar looks.  The same year Landis and Mature completed One Million B.C.   Mature and Grable were so popular in I Wake Up Screaming that they were immediately paired in Song of the Islands and Footlight Serenade, both 1942, and Wabash Avenue (1950). They dated for awhile as well.

Laird Cregar, largely unknown to modern-day audiences, was very large (6'3" and over 300 pounds) and usually menacing.  Even in his few good-guy roles, he was someone who always seemed untrustworthy.  His career was brief (16 films... among them This Gun for Hire, The Lodger and Hangover Square) and his life was brief as well.  He died at age 28 of a heart attack just after quickly losing 100 pounds.  He is so memorable in this film.

Humberstone was a lower-echelon Fox director. He was quite capable but he never had a distinctive style or rose above an obedient Zanuck employee.   He helmed a number of Fox's popular musicals in the 40s but was also the man behind some Charlie Chan and a few Tarzan films. Considering the talent around Fox at the time, it's interesting that Humberstone was chosen for this project, particularly since singing-dancing Grable was trying something new.  

Drama or not, we still get some good shots of Grable's famous gams and Mature, of course, goes shirtless.  

I have said it before and shall again... any crime film featuring Elisha Cook is one fortunate crime film.

Those who remember this film well would certainly recall the ever-present Over the Rainbow playing in the background, taking a respite only for Street Scene, a great number to be played against the backdrop of those wet, dark streets.

Here, have a quick look:

I guess the story was popular enough for Fox to issue a remake in 1953.  It was called Vicki and starred Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters and Richard Boone.

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Movie review

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