I Wake Up Screaming
Dir. H. Bruce Humberstone, U.S., 1941

by Nick Pinkerton

It’s mentioned in the liner notes of the new DVD of I Wake Up Screaming that three of the film’s principles, Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Carole Landis, had either just released musicals at the time of the movie’s release or had been strongly identified with the genre previously. But though it’s released on Fox’s Film Noir collection imprint, the movie is less a departure from Ziegfeld territory than the violence of the title might imply. Shot for Fox during noir’s gestation period in 1941, I Wake Up Screaming starts with a silhouette-and-silky smoke backroom interrogation, then quickly abandons such squalid climes for settings more MGM than Warners—the giveaway opening title’s names-in-light font is pure Broadway Melody. The picture’s prissy-clean New York City is comprised of backlot curbsides for taxicabs to shuttle between, dropping principals at an over-inflated hippodrome-sized El Chico Club, a fountain-affixed pay pool (visited with the sole purpose of getting Mature and Grable undressed) that just seems to be waiting for Esther Williams, and Mature’s bachelor pad, the décor of which looks pretty suspicious for an unmarried man of a certain age—oh, and isn’t that an instrumental “Over the Rainbow” that just keeps insinuating itself onto the soundtrack? The DVD extras even include a clipped scene in which Grable, playing a sheet music saleswoman, twiddles out a little song, “Daddy,” for a customer.

The movie’s awkward positioning at genre crossroads makes it feel like a hangover from mixing pink champagne and cheap bourbon. Much of the storyline, recalled in flashback from the police questioning, is staple A Star is Born/Going Hollywood material: promoter Frankie Christopher (Mature) and two of his cronies (Alan Mowbray, a washed-up actor, and Allyn Joslyn, a gossip columnist) are waited on at lunch by a buxom hash-slinger, Vickie Lynn (Carole Landis, blithe and alluring as the girl with “a heart made out of rock candy”; her subsequent suicide at age 29 integrates smoothly into the picture’s themes); the trio decide to play PR Pygmalions and introduce the chippie to “New York café society.” Tout suite the dame’s lifted out of the gutter (though the apartment she’s been sharing with her sister is already income-inconsistently swank—no peeling plaster tenement with a hot plate in the corner, this), she’s in the society pages, fronting a popular dance band, and—after shooting a screen test—packing her bags for Tinseltown. But Vickie doesn’t make the train; instead she’ll turn up dead on her living-room carpet—hence the inquest that opens the film.

The cops simultaneously shakedown Frankie and the deceased’s sister, Jill (Grable), as we pace back-and-forth between their questionings with a clean dolly—the direction by workaday contract director Humberstone is far more inspired than one might expect for a man remembered largely for his keeping the Charlie Chan franchise churning along efficaciously. She remembers Vickie having acquired an unwanted admirer, then, to the amusement of her interrogators, identifies the case’s persecuting head detective Cornell (lumbering heavy Laird Cregar) as her sis’s stalker.

Frankie gets back onto the streets, but by no means gets in the clear, with Cornell dogging his every step, even stopping by to watch his prey sleep. For most of the runtime, the circumstances around Vickie’s death remain foggy—it’s finally established that the murderer, as per usual, is someone on the fringes of the narrative that you’ve halfway forgotten about. As it happens, the movie’s not over-interested in its killer, but rather in Cregar’s vindictive cop, who knows the real culprit all along, yet hounds “handsome Harry” Frankie anyhow, holding the slickster as the one really responsible for the murder of Vickie, who Cornell had once pined over. Her death, he reckons, is the direct result of Frankie’s conniving to nudge her into the spotlight on the ego-stroking lark of a lunchtime wager.

The film’s all-balls-in-the-air first hour assigns plenty of solo screen time to Mature, but aligns the audience subjectively with Grable, letting us share in her ever-shifting suspicions as to the identity of her sister’s killer. Helpful in this are the strange, ambivalent male performances: Mature, all oily spiffed-up bohunk unction, his tight-lipped smile hinting at a sneer; Cregar, personifying this film’s polarity in the sharp contrast of his brutal physique and Bing Crosby-velour smooth line readings; and, fresh off the set of The Maltese Falcoln, Elisha Cook, Jr. as the desk clerk at the Lynn girls’ apartment building, imbuing his scenes with something like hangdog menace.

If I Wake Up Screaming is, as Eddie Muller insists on his excellent, anecdotage-rich commentary track, an essential proto-noir, it’s interesting more as a glimpse at the genre before its conventions had been fully crystallized than as an exemplary entertainment—though I find myself increasingly admiring it the more I think on it. There’s an unmistakable hum that comes in its synergy of tropes and talents—the source novel by Steve Fischer is pure pulp, the screenplay by Dwight Taylor (The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat) popping with glossy accented Thin Man epigrams (“How old are you, anyhow?” “That, my dear Lady Handel, is a secret that I keep even from my own mother.”). Noir’s supposed to be black-and-white in a profoundly black-and-white way that other black-and-white movies aren’t, but I Wake Up Screaming isn’t—it’s apt that Mature’s Mr. Christopher reveals his birth name as Botticelli, for one imagines passages in this movie might be colorized in coral pinks and sea foam green. There’s only one scene in the film that exudes anything close to authentic funk, when Mature and Grable hole up overnight in a fleapit movie theatre (the evening’s feature? Flames of Passion), then emerge, blinking, into harsh morning light as the sidewalk in front of the ticket booth is hosed down.

Though I Wake Up Screaming slackens significantly once Frankie’s all but absolved, settling into love-on-the-run melodrama which leans too heavily on the questionable charms of Grable (what this sweet little marshmallow has that, say, Priscilla Lane doesn’t, is a mystery to me), there’s a tart aftertaste to its finale—one of those “happy” happy endings that Hitchcock was so proficient with—which has Jill entering the same El Chico once frequented by her late sister, and eliciting the same comment the dead glamour girl had prompted on her coming out: “Who is that beautiful girl?” It’s quashed in a second by a punchline from Joslyn, but for a moment the movie taps into the nasty thing that’s buried at its core: the rapacious economy of desire; the supply of fresh, “pretty, gay, and amusing” young things that fuel it; and the potential for masculine violence from those left watching, thwarted on the outside, pressed against the glass at its periphery (Cregar is first seen watching through the window of Vickie’s diner). The setting is Thirties musical, but the moral ambiguity is pure Forties noir—as it seems for a moment that the film is slyly corroborating Cornell in assigning the guilt of Vickie’s death to Frankie. The source material novel by Fischer (adapted again in 1953 as Vicki, with Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters) was Hollywood-set, and the movie is, in turn, wonderfully wary of fatal fame—there’s something in this New York Babylon to anticipate the Black Dahlia.