Noir Classics: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
Even though I teach a course on film noir, there are some I still haven’t got around to seeing: I Wake Up Screaming was one of those. Released through the Fox Film Noir brand now, it’s one of those artifacts that reminds you ‘film noir’ was retconned into existence. At one point the film was called Hot Spot, which hits closer to the thriller genre it was planned to be. It’s a whodunit that begins with interrogation of the likely suspect, then works its way back.
The film went through a few changes. Betty Grable, who gets top billing, also had a song ‘Daddy’ which is about what you’d guess from that title. In a cut scene included on the disc, she ‘demonstrates’ the song for a customer in the music shop whilst fielding creepy eyes from her boss who has given her permission to leave early with the expectation that she ‘owes him’ now. All the more eye-rolling because I had just finished our required annual sexual harassment training exercise.
It’s impossible not to see a lot through modern eyes. Laird Cregar’s super-creepy stalker vibe outweighs the fact that he’s the cop in charge. And you can’t see Elijah Cook Jr and not think he must be guilty of something. Victor Mature’s smug sports promoter is supposed to have feelings for someone but you can’t find an expression on his face apart from the weight of those eyebrows.
Carole Landis plays the waitress turned celebrity gal-about-town with a tough gal bravado that works. Grable is kind of lost in the first half of the film but gets better in the second half. Maybe once she knew what kind of film she was supposed to be in, she knew better what to do. There are some fun plot twists and turns in a vintage New York setting – diners, the Lido Plunge, the Garden, all-night adult cinemas! – and good turns by supporting cast William Gargan and Alan Mowbray as a columnist and an over-the-hill actor also sweet on the Pygmalioned dame.
The weirdest thing has to be the music. Landis’ screen test has her singing a pop song based on Tchaikovsky. The other two repeating themes are really disconcerting. One is ‘Over the Rainbow’: I guess Fox wanted to get their money’s worth out of the tune but the whole audience is going to be waiting for Dorothy to show up. The Wizard of Oz was just two years before. The other theme is Alfred Newman’s ‘Street Scene’ composed for the 1931 film of the same name, but then recycled in half a dozen other films including Grable’s big turn with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Film companies have always had such contempt for art and artists.
Nonetheless it’s an entertaining film and I’m going to have to find time to watch it again with Eddie Muller’s commentary as I’m bound to find out a lot more background. The stories behind the scenes have some real tragedy.