Monday, January 3, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'I Wake Up Screaming'

Some notes from one of the local cinephile society’s screenings….

You’re probably not going to hear me say anything bad about “I Wake Up Screaming” (Fox, 1941). Perhaps the best compliment I can pay it is to say that I attended this screening even though a) I had seen the film once or twice on TV and b) I had some months ago bought it on DVD and watched it yet again.

Then again, I don’t want to oversell the movie. It’s not a mega-budget extravaganza, nor was it meant to be. But I think it holds up a lot better than a lot of the movies that the studios poured a lot more money into.

Before I explain further, let’s get the plot – or at least the setup – out of the way.

A promoter named Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) makes a bet that he can transform waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) into a celebrity. He pulls this off, but the plan backfires after she is murdered and he’s suspected of the crime. Meanwhile, Vicky’s sister, Jill, played by Betty Grable, has come to town, and she and Frankie eventually forge an alliance that promises to blossom into more than just an alliance. But can Frankie clear himself – particularly considering that the lead cop on the case, “Big Ed” Cornell, is pursuing Frankie with a doggedness that would make Rin Tin Tin hang his furry head in shame?

The movie was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone from a script by veteran pulp writer Steve Fisher, who must have had a thing about the name “Christopher”; in the 1954 comedy “Susan Slept Here,” based on a play Fisher wrote, the lead character is Mark Christopher.

“I Wake Up Screaming” is a perfect example of a dramatic film that succeeds although its two stars aren’t really dramatic actors but personalities. Which is by no means meant as a dig against Mature and Grable; it’s just that when you put two likable performers in the right kind of material, written and produced by people who know just what to do with them, the results can hold up a lot better than some of the films featuring “master thespians.” (I’m particularly thinking of people like Paul Muni and – at times – Fredric March.)

Of course, the studio was smart enough to surround Mature and Grable with some old pros, including Allyn Joslyn and Alan Mowbray as the guys on the other end of Frankie’s bet. Mowbray, best known as a comic actor, plays a faded “master thespian,” with all the comic touches – and, at one point, some unexpected pathos, in a scene that one again shows that the best comic actors are usually no slouches when it comes to drama.

Overshadowing everybody else – quite literally – is Laird Cregar as Cornell. It’s a performance you won’t easily forget. And let’s not forget the indispensable Elisha Cook Jr., who played the gunsel in “The Maltese Falcon,” another hapless character in “The Big Sleep” and who knows how many more similar specimens over the years. (Did any of his characters ever make it to the last reel?)

If you've seen enough movies of this type, you probably won't be too worried about whether Victor Mature will beat the rap. But don't get complacent: There's a great plot twist near the end.

Fox liked the movie enough to remake it in the 1950s as “Vicki,” with Elliott Reid in the Victor Mature part. The fact that you’re probably now saying “Who’s Elliott Reid?” should give you a pretty good idea of how well the movie stood up to its predecessor, though it did feature Richard Boone as Cornell and, in the Cook role, an actor who went on to much bigger stuff, though not as an actor: Aaron Spelling.

One thing I’ve always wondered about “I Wake Up Screaming”: The song “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” is featured on the sound track, even though MGM must have owned the rights. How did Fox get permission? It was common practice for studios to trade actors once in a while; did they do the same thing with songs?

If any of you know the answer, feel free to let me know. And even if you don’t, I hope you’ll look up “I Wake Up Screaming.”

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