Friday, December 28, 2007

I Wake Up Screaming

“I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) is a terrific title for a neat little crime drama. While the DVD release has it under the Fox Noir label, it’s really not a noir in the traditional sense but the theme of obsession, and some of the lighting effects achieved, do point the way toward latter noirs.

The cast is also decidedly un-noir like, though it is an appealing one. Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is a waitress in a small New York City diner when she is a approached by slick publicist Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) who thinks he can turn the beautiful waitress into a star. He accomplishes this but she soon rebuffs his efforts and tells him she has just signed a Hollywood contract. When she is later found murdered, Frankie and her sister Jill (Betty Grable) are the prime suspects. Investigating the case is a police detective named Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) who seems to have acquired an unhealthy interest in the dead girl.

Mature, Grable and Landis at the time were known for their performances in musicals and comedies, but they adapt to the material just fine. 20th Century Fox knew what they had with their stars, so even in this crime drama they find room for a short scene where Grable dons a bathing suit to show off those famous legs. Grable also shot a scene where, as an employee pushing sheet music and records at a department store, she sings a song called “Daddy.” The scene was wisely cut but it is here on the DVD as an extra. I love watching deleted musical numbers from films and this number was one I thought I would never see. I love DVDs.

Cregar steals the show, as he usually does, as the hulking police detective. Cregar was over six feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds and dominates every scene he’s in. There’s also a first-rate supporting cast, including Allyn Joslyn as a columnist, Alan Mowbray as an actor, both vying with Mature for the affections of Vicky; weasely Elisha Cook Jr. as one of the suspects; Morris Ankrum as a district attorney, and in one scene each, Charles Lane and the great Frank Orth.

Contemporary audiences might look at performances like Mature’s and Grable’s here and laugh them off, saying they are just playing themselves, but that’s not true. Their line readings and expressions are more the adequate and they perform just fine. Not every performance has to be an angst-ridden one to get a story across. What’s more, we like them and don’t want to see them unjustly accused.

The film was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, who directed several of the better 1930s Charlie Chan titles starring Warner Oland. His lighting effects are interesting and evocative and pave the way for the more dramatic lighting that would occur throughout the 1940s as film noir matured.

I’ve always liked Victor Mature. He was a most likeable actor and had the good sense to spoof himself later in his career in “After the Fox” (1966) and “Head” (1968). In the 1950s my mom worked for a gentleman who served on a submarine with him during World War II. He said Mature was one of the greatest guys he ever knew, just a regular joe who did now want any special attention brought to him. He was equally liked and respected by the rest of the crew as well. A good guy, who never took himself seriously.

The film’s musical scoring is particularly interesting as it incorporates two well-known themes. In 1931 Alfred Newman composed the score for “Street Scene” and re-used the music throughout the 1940s and 1950s for various big city dramas. I think it’s used in “Kiss of Death” (1947), “Cry of the City” (1948) and others too numerous too mention. Long popular with audiences, it received its most spectacular performance as a prologue to “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1955) where the 20th Century Fox orchestra was filmed performing the famous piece to highlight Fox’ new stereo surround recording system.

Oddly, the other piece of music used to denote Cornell’s growing obsession with Vicky is “Over the Rainbow.” It was almost unheard of for a song from a rival studio, in this case M-G-M’s, to be featured in another studio’s production. I would love to hear how this came about, and when I watch the movie again, I will listen to the commentary to see if any light can be shined on this. I can’t think of another instance where this occurred during the studio system.

“I Wake Up Screaming” runs a brisk 81 minutes and is a fine way to spend a cold winter evening.

Rating for “I Wake Up Screaming”: Three stars.

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