Friday, April 29, 2011

I WAKE UP SCREAMING: Obsession, You are My Obsession….

Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Carole Landis had all been in movies together in various combinations (mostly musicals) but the suspenseful 1941 murder mystery I Wake up Screaming (IWuS) was the first film noir all three of them starred in. Indeed, on the DVD’s commentary track, film historian Eddie Muller dubbed it “proto-noir,” since it was in fact 20th Century-Fox’s first film noir. Maybe that’s why IWuS still feels fresh today; everyone in it and everything about it brims with verve and brio, as if all concerned were eager to start filming.

The great Steve Fisher’s original 1941 novel was set in Hollywood, but Darryl F. Zanuck had apparently put the kibosh on Hollywood exposés, so screenwriter Dwight Taylor transplanted this “wrong man” tale of love, murder, and obsession to New York City. I must admit that as a native New Yorker, I loved the idea of relocating the story to Manhattan and environs, with the glamour of Broadway, supper clubs and Big Apple-style brassiness. I just think of IWuS as the East Coast version of the story, while Fisher’s version is the West Coast version.  Fair warning to those who haven’t read the novel but want to: go out of your way to find the original version, because Fisher’s updated 1960 edition feels unstuck in time, and not in a good way. Fisher (or perhaps his publisher?) tried to shoehorn in then-modern references, with mixed results.

Iron bars do not a prison make - but they sure feel like it!
IWuS’s plot starts more like Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady if you prefer musicals) than Fisher’s pulse-pounding crime fiction.  It starts in a Manhattan police station, with “the bulls” sweating our beleaguered yet determined hero, promoter Frankie Christopher (Team Bartilucci fave Victor Mature!). In flashbacks, we learn how Frankie and his friends, Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray), a veteran actor, and Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), a newspaper columnist (ah, the newspaper column, the granddaddy of the blog! But I digress...), grabbed a bite at a Times Square eatery one night and ended up betting they could transform their tart-tongued but beautiful waitress, Vicky Lynn (the incandescent Landis), from a hash-slinger to a headliner by putting her name in ads, newspapers, and magazines, and plastering her lovely kisser all over town. Vicky’s more practical sister Jill (Betty Grable) is skeptical, but supportive nevertheless.

If you woke to see Ed Cornell in your pad, wouldn't you scream?
The starmaking scheme works all too well:  dazzled by her own success, Vicky snares a Hollywood screen test and contract right under her shocked benefactors’ noses, only to be murdered on the eve of her Tinseltown departure.  Jill finds Frankie standing over Vicky’s body, swearing he didn’t kill her, he just found her that way. Hotshot Police Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) insists that Frankie’s lying.  Fifteen-year veteran Cornell has never been wrong, and he’s obsessed with making an example out of hapless Frankie.  But does justice alone explain Cornell’s unwavering, obsessive zeal, or does he have a hidden agenda?

Boxing is nothing compared to Frankie and Cornell's battle of wits!
The cat and mouse game is afoot between Frankie, hell-bent on proving his innocence, and Cornell,
a smoothly sinister behemoth of a man who’s ready, willing, and able to go to any lengths to railroad Frankie. Undeterred by the lack of a search warrant, Cornell even manages to sneak into Frankie’s bedroom to watch him while he sleeps (“Someday you’re gonna talk in your sleep, and when that day comes, I wanna be around.”), doing his damndest to wear Frankie down with smilingly delivered threats and manipulation. With wily Cornell’s festering resentment of Frankie, you can’t tell what he’ll pull next. Always a formidable, menacing presence, Cregar rocks in the role.  His silky voice and charming smile somehow make him even scarier; no wonder IWuS helped to make him a sought-after character actor of stage and screen. Victor Mature’s Frankie is a great match for Cregar’s Cornell, with his outer charm and inner toughness. Always an appealing presence, Mature was a better actor than he got credit for; people often underestimate his talent and screen presence because he always makes it look so easy. Mature was a hottie, too; no wonder Cornell sneeringly calls Frankie “Handsome Harry!” Elisha Cook Jr. is fine as Harry Williams, the oddball switchboard operator and original suspect.  Fun Fact on film historian Eddie Muller’s commentary track: Cook filmed his role as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon for John Huston at the same time he was filming IWuS for (H.) Bruce Humberstone. It’s a shame that both Landis and Cregar died so young, though: suicide for Landis and crash-diet-induced heart failure for Cregar. But their performances in IWuS are unforgettable.

The future Mr. & Mrs. Botticelli
Getting back to our plot, things heat up as Jill and Frankie acknowledge what sharp Vicky had already realized:  they’ve fallen in love, and they’re eager to protect each other. When the plucky Grable’s wholesome sexiness meets Mature’s playful yet virile allure, it’s Chemistry City! It’s so cute and typical of the era to see Jill get all starry-eyed when Frankie admits he wants to marry her.  It’s even cuter when Frankie
reveals his original surname as Jill dreamily sighs, “Mrs. Botticelli.”  Still, Vicky’s whirlwind trajectory from waitress to glamour girl to murder victim plunges Jill into a world of murder, terror, and obsession, propelling her to flee with the man she loves, dogged by Cornell at every turn. Taylor’s screenplay tightens Fisher’s sprawling novel almost to the point of claustrophobia (this time, it is in a good way!), with sharp, witty dialogue and comedy relief balancing the nerve-racking tension. The dialogue is snappy, suspenseful, and poignant in all the right places.  Loved that “key” exchange scene early on!  Edward Cronjager’s lush, expressionistic black-and-white photography is a thing of shadowy beauty, used especially well in Cregar’s early scenes as combinations of heavy shadows and bright interrogation lights hide him from view.

Even with studio sets, IWuS evokes early 1940s NYC right up to the rooftops. When Frankie shows Jill his old East Side neighborhood, it’s fun as both a getting-to-know-you sequence and a mini-travelogue of the non-touristy places where native New Yorkers go. This continues when the lovers become fugitives and Frankie shows Jill where to hide in the big city, including the library and a 24-hour grindhouse. Even the swimming pool scene has that spirit; sure, it’s there primarily to show off sex symbols Mature and Grable in their swimsuits (with today’s athletic types being so buff and ripped that you could cut yourself if you touched them, it’s interesting and refreshing to see what kind of physiques were considered hot back in the 1940s), but it reminded me of the city’s neighborhood pools at their best. One bit that’s ironic in retrospect, considering IWuS came out before the U.S. entered World War 2:  when Larry spots Frankie and Jill dancing at a nightclub soon after Vicky’s murder, he angrily calls in a blind item about them for his column, snapping, “Scrap the stuff about the Japanese spy with the Kodak and run this!”

Apparent nods to Steve Fisher’s pulp roots:
  1. Frankie takes Jill to The Pegasus Club, possibly a shout-out to the novel’s narrator/writer hero, nicknamed “Pegasus,” a.k.a. “Peg.”
  2. During a Cornell/Frankie confrontation, a newsstand features Black Mask Magazine. Incidentally, this scene gets my vote for most resourceful use of a Tootsie Roll.
  3. Finally, according to Muller’s DVD commentary, dogged Detective Ed Cornell was named after Fisher’s pal and fellow pulpster Cornell Woolrich. Skinny, sickly Woolrich looked nothing like big, beefy Cregar—but it’s the thought that counts! 
I like the quirky use of music here, too; you might never listen to “Over the Rainbow” quite the same way ever again.  Fans of vintage movie music will notice that the opening credits music, an Alfred Newman piece known as “Manhattan Street Scene,” is the same theme used in a few years later in the 1946 thriller The Dark Corner (which I must blog about sometime, as it’s one of my faves; but again, I digress...).  When Jill brings Frankie home to show him an incriminating letter, listen carefully: in the background, “Over the Rainbow” and “Manhattan Street Scene” cross-pollinate into a sinister new theme, courtesy of music arranger Cyril Mockridge.

Ironically, although Mature and Joslyn each have scenes where they awaken with a start, nobody in I Wake up Screaming ever actually wakes up screaming!  How can you wake up to find a huge, imposing cop like Cregar’s Cornell staring at you and not scream?  And hey, if you’re a completist like I am, you might want to check out the 1953 remake, Vicki, though it struck me as a pale imitation. Here’s a link to my IMDb review, if you’re interested:

Also, dig this deleted scene with Betty Grable warbling “Daddy,” pre-Tex Avery!


  1. Fans of The Bowery Boys may be interested to know that the newsboy in the opening shot of I WAKE UP SCREAMING is none other than Stanley Clements -- yup, Stanislaus "Duke" Covileskie himself! According to film historian Eddie Muller on the IWuS commentary track, Clements was married to Gloria Grahame for 3 years; as Muller says, "Lucky dog!" :-)

  2. I'm so glad to see you're writing about Noir again! I always have trouble finding good ones and this sounds smashing. I AM DEFINITELY GOING TO HUNT THIS ONE UP!

    It IS fascinating to see the differences between what was considered "hot" back in the day vs. now. Personally, I think the old school attractiveness is infinitely more attainable and find this rather comforting. ;)

    The line about "Scrap the stuff about the Japanese spy with the Kodak and run this!” is a bit like "Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page!" in His Girl Friday. (Only it can't be quite as brilliant, because there's nobody like Cary Grant.)

    And I shall eagerly await your review of The Dark Corner. I started watching it once years ago (I think!) but wasn't in the mood for a Noir and never finished it.

    Thanks for a very fun read, Dorian!

  3. Emm, great to hear your positive feedback, as always! I'm delighted to have a role in enabling your film noir habit! :-) I agree with you that "the old school attractiveness" is more attainable, not to mention easier for we mere mortals to maintain. Good points you made about the comparison between those lines from I WAKE UP SCREAMING and HIS GIRL FRIDAY, the latter being a film I love but haven't had a chance to sit down and give it my undivided attention again in years. I'll remedy that ASAP! I plan to write the DARK CORNER blog post sometime within the next 2 or 3 weeks. Stay tuned, Emm, and thanks for your kind words!

  4. I've NEVER seen this, Dorian. Where have I been? But after this amazingly good review, I am definitely going to hunt it up. I'll check Netflix first, of course. I'm not much into buying dvds these days, but if worse comes to worse...! First though, I gotta' buy THE UNINVITED and MINISTRY OF FEAR. :)

  5. Yvette, I'm glad you enjoyed the I WAKE UP SCREAMING review - thanks! Since your wonderful blog has shown again and again that you're an enthusiastic reader as well as a fine writer, you might want to read the original I WAKE UP SCREAMING novel, too. Just make sure it's the original 1941 version, not the revised 1960 edition. If/when you read it, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts on both the movie and the original book. Funny you should mention THE UNINVITED and MINISTRY OF FEAR, though, as I've been meaning to revisit those movies for a while now. I've got MINISTRY OF FEAR on my TiVo waiting for me to watch it in the not-too-distant future! :-)

  6. The director of "I Wake Up Screaming", H. Bruce Humberstone, directed some of the best of my cherished Charlie Chan pictures.

    "I Wake Up Screaming" is a great noir introduction. I shared it with my daughter last year and Victor Mature is now "that guy!". "The Dark Corner" is a great one and I look forward to your comments. I think I'll make my kid watch that next. Last night she had me watching (and liking) "Scott Pilgrim vs the World".

  7. Caftan Woman, I'm very pleased to hear your daughter enjoyed I WAKE UP SCREAMING! I've only seen a handful of CHARLIE CHAN movies, but I liked the ones I saw, so I'll certainly keep an eye out for them now that I know H. Bruce Humberstone directed some. Our whole family loved SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, too; my daughter particularly took to it because she loves animation and video games, so the film felt like a great big live-action cartoon to her! :-) Happy to hear that there are quite a few of us here at TotED who love THE DARK CORNER; now I'm more excited than ever about running a blog post about it! Save the date: Friday, May 27th is DARK CORNER DAY here at TotED! :-)

  8. Hey, everyone, give a warm TotED welcome to Monty, our newest Follower! Monty enjoys classic movies, especially screwball comedies, and like all of us at Team Bartilucci H.Q., he likes comic books, too. Monty also has great taste in science fiction shows, among them BUFFY, ANGEL, XENA, FIREFLY, STAR TREK, and SUPERNATURAL. Glad to have you aboard, Monty; jump into the conversation any time!

  9. Dorian, I've talked about MINISTRY OF FEAR and THE UNINVITED on my blog, a few weeks ago. They're two of my all time favorite films. Can't really explain in too much detail why, they just are. I love 'em. When I recommend these films I can't help my enthusiasm and most everyone who follows my recommendation, seems, maybe, a bit disappointed. I can't wait to see what you're going to write about MINISTRY OF FEAR. I would read the book by Graham Greene as well, though I admit the film is even better. Still it's good to know the source.

    I am definitely going to look for the I WAKE UP SCREAMING book. :)

    Caftan Woman: I believe Humberstone directed one of my all time favorite Charlie Chan films, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. No wonder his name looked so familiar to me. :) Speaking of VIctor Mature. I love the way he played the agine movie star (a caricature of himself) in AFTER THE FOX, the very funny Peter Sellers movie. Of course, I also loved Mature in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS.....sigh!

  10. Love this movie -- love your review! Great plot description and fasincating facts of which I was not aware. You know, here in ClassicBecky'ville, Laird Cregar is a huge favorite, with The Lodger and Hangover Square at the top! I did a post about him ages ago at the TCM blog site, about 2 years ago.

    I have to say that pre-puberty, I didn't understand Victor Mature's appeal. After womanhood really set in, boy did that change! I just hate the bodybuilder type -- Mature is just right! I usually prefer tall, slim and sensitive, but he is one of the exceptions! LOL!

    One fact you gave threw me for a loop. Stanley Clements and Gloria Grahame? Whooda thunk it? That's as weird as Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner! Not that I don't love them all, but what strange hook-ups!

    Again, wonderful piece, Dorian!

  11. Yvette, thanks for the heads-up about your blog posts about MINISTRY OF FEAR and THE UNINVITED on your Web site! I've been under Deadline Doom lately, but I very much look forward to giving those posts my undivided attention on your fabulous Web site. (I bet that like me, you were watching TCM's recent Ray Milland film fest, too, huh? ;-)) Gotta hunt down the MINISTRY OF FEAR book, too; it's another book I read in high school but haven't had another opportunity to revisit. There's nothing wrong with my life that a 48-hour day and a ginormous amount of tax-free money wouldn't fix -- and I bet I'm not the only one who's felt that way from time to time! :-)

  12. Becky, thanks for your enthusiastic praise for my IWuS blog post! Like you, I tend to be drawn to tall, slim, sensitive and/or quirky guys. This would explain my mad passion for Adrien Brody; Vinnie enables my Brody habit, sweetie that he is! (Our daughter Siobhan and I also met Brody at New York Comic Con, and he turned out to be a truly nice guy, but that's a story for another time, if I haven't already told it elsewhere. But I digress, as I so often do... :-)) Personality usually trumps physique for me in any case, but we're fans of Victor Mature because beyond the beefcake, he comes across as a decent guy who doesn't take himself too seriously, plus he's a better actor than he gets credit for. If your post about the great Laird Cregar is still posted on TCM, I'd love to read it. Are you a Movie Morlock, by any chance? Also, thanks for convincing me to do more Hollywood Haikus; I'll be posting a couple of them in my Mother's Day Weekend blog!

  13. Dorian, on a slightly different topic and before I forget I want to recommend a book I think you'll love. What put it in my frazzled mind? Your remarks on THE GRIM ADVENTURES OF BILLY AND MANDY. The book is A DIRTY JOB by the one and only, the slightly loony-toons, Christopher Moore.

    In it, a man whose wife has died right after child birth (it has a grim beginning, but don't worry about it, Moore has a way of throwing a switch and you find yourself laughing and rolling your eyes even while you're still misty from the sad parts), finds that his toddler is actually a minion of the grim reaper. So, what is a daddy to do? Yeah, it sounds insane. It is. BUT OH, SO FUN! Read it. You will thank me. :)

  14. Yvette, I must say your description of Christopher Moore's A DIRTY JOB sounds like an entertainingly wicked little book, and I'll most certainly keep it in mind as I prowl the libraries and bookstores (I always check those first before I opt for and the like :-)). On a related note, Vinnie recommends another book in a similar vein that he loves, Terry Pratchett's MORT. Hard to go wrong with Pratchett! Thanks for the recommendation!

  15. Dorian, I'm not a Movie Morlock on TCM. The Laird Cregar post is a couple of years old, but I think it's still there. And, DEFINITELY do some more haiku...we need to go for an American win on this English blog!

  16. Fear not, Becky, I've written not one but two haikus for the contest, which you and anyone else who's interested will be able to see on Friday in my special Mother's Day Smorgasbord blog post! Flash-fiction, food, fun -- what's not to like? :-) Vinnie has pointed out that the prize is a British Blu-Ray player which may or may not work here in the U.S., but as far as I'm concerned, it's the fun of creating movie-related haikus that counts! :-)

  17. I love this appreciation of IWUS. Actually "Vicky" (with Aaron Spelling as Harry Williams!)is a guilty pleasure of mine if only because there is something about the flesh-and-bloodness of Jean Peters that I prefer to Carole Landis. But on all other fronts, you're right, it's a pallid copy. Either way, for me, it's all about us watching Cornell watching Vicky through the plate glass window.

  18. Elisabeth, I'm delighted to see you joining the I WAKE UP SCREAMING conversation here, as I've been enjoying the cool questions you've posed on Joel Gunz's HITCHCOCK GEEK site and Facebook! I'm still getting over the fact that in VICKI, Aaron Spelling was a quirky character actor before he became one of the biggest TV moguls ever! :-) Although IWuS is still my favorite of the two film versions of Fisher's novel, you make good points with your comparisons of IWuS and VICKI. I also think you hit the nail on the head about the image of Laird Cregar as Cornell watching Vicky through the plate glass window; it's disturbing yet somehow poignant as you get more of his story. I love Vicky's playful response after Jill points out her "admirer": "With that plate glass window, I've got about as much privacy as a lingerie mannequin...We've got more wolves in New York than they have in Siberia." Some things never change! :-) Thanks for dropping by, Elisabeth, and feel free to join the chat here at TotED any time!

  19. Sounds really good!! I'll check it soon! I also read your "suave" post and you've picked my interest in Mr. Devil :) Thanks for the link, Dorian, you write super interesting reviews!!

  20. Clara, thanks for your compliments on my reviews! I'm glad you're enjoying my blog posts as much as I enjoy yours, especially the "Suave" post; that one is close to Team Bartilucci's collective heart. :-) Happy to hear I've stirred up your interest in Laird Cregar, too! In my current blog post about LAURA, I mentioned that Cregar was almost cast as Waldo Lydecker:

    Thanks again, Clara! Feel free to drop by TotED any time! :-)