Thursday, October 11, 2012

I Wake Up Screaming - 1941

“I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) is fun noir. I think my favorite line happens in the nightclub when Allyn Joslyn, with a wry smirk, asks snooty, soon-to-be murder victim Carole Landis, “My I have the next mazurka?”

It’s the oddball moments in this movie that make it a quirky delight. Since even a cursory plot description is a minefield of spoilers, I’m not going to discuss the plot, just mention a few oddball elements I like.

First, the title, which has nothing to do with anything, except it’s deliciously lurid.

The gag when Betty Grable, hoping to send a cop on the wrong trail, points to a door through which Victor Mature may have escaped, only to have a Murphy bed fall on the confused flatfoot.

Victor Mature, whom we saw last week in "Captain Caution" (1941),  is being chased by an even more clever police detective played by Laird Cregar. Sadly, Cregar’s life was cut short only three years after this film was made. His work in this movie is the most riveting of all the actors, a complex character with more to his back story than just your routine dogged detective. Early on he pins the murder on Victor Mature, and spends the rest of the film tracking him, playing a cat and mouse game, when Mature slips through his fingers. I love the scene where they ride together in the car, and Mr. Cregar, as he speaks, playfully fashions a noose with string in his busy fingers.

But along the way we are introduced to a menagerie of the usual, or unusual suspects to make us question who really committed the murder. Alan Mowbray and Mr. Joslyn are along as society gossips and as sellers of information.  Joslyn has a loaded gun in his beside table.  We've mentioned before how anyone in an old movie can pull open a drawer to find a loaded gun.

The effortlessly weird Elisha Cook, Jr., with his big round eyes and childlike gaze creeps us out and makes us suspicious.  But Mature is the prime suspect, a fast-talking promoter who was selling Miss Landis as a Bright New Talent.

Betty Grable is her grieving sister, in a non-singing role this time (though I guess she did film a number that was cut from the movie).

Grable and Mature form an uneasy alliance at first, both looking for the murderer, but soon they get to be more than that, probably dating from the moment she sees him in his 1940s form-fitting bathing suit. Oh, my, yes. A vision of manly grace and considerable attributes.

Going on a date to an indoor swimming pool in the middle of the night, in the middle of a noir murder mystery. Hmm. I looked hard for Esther Williams, but she must have been in the ladies’ room.

Whenever Mature and Miss Grable are together, we heard the sometimes soft and lilting, sometimes jazzy rendition of “Over the Rainbow”. It has a strangely eerie effect in this movie, just another delightful oddball element.

And the loving, smitten way she saws off his handcuffs with a hacksaw on their first date.

And when he sticks a Tootsie Roll in the detective’s back, pretending it’s a gun.

The way Carole Landis gets to perform a song, but only as an image on a screen the cops show to Mowbray to make him crack.

And who sent all those flowers to Landis while she was alive, and keeps sending them to her grave after her murder? Florist Charles Lane -- that’s right, that sexy heartthrob Charles Lane, gives hints but will not mention the name aloud.

I recognized the theme over the opening credits to be Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene,” but how many of you, like me, immediately thought of the theme song to the old time radio show “My Friend Irma”?

Notice that the guy cheering at the prize fight, sitting in front of Victor Mature and Betty Grable (ah, the days of bringing your date to a boxing match) is an African-American gentleman? He’s blocking Mature’s view. He’s dressed in a suit and nothing about him is stereotyped or makes him in any way different from the audience of cheering white actors around him. Only because of that, and because this is move from an era where such innocuous, color-blind characterizations were rare, does that make him stand out like a beacon.

A brief, really nice beacon.

But perhaps just another unusual throwaway moment in an oddball noir.

By the way, at least two characters that I can think of get awakened in the middle of the night by strangers in their rooms.  It's pretty freaky.  But nobody wakes up screaming.


DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I absolutely love your post, and the affectionate, witty approach you took - it's kinda like I WAKE UP SCREAMING's Greatest Hits and I'm loving it! This is one of my favorite early film noirs. One of my favorites among your bon mots: "...effortlessly weird Elisha Cook Jr." BRAVA on a most enjoyable post!

P.S.: If you want to compare and contrast just for the fun of it, here's my ...SCREAMING... post from a couple years back! :-)

Stefan Oakes said...

I've always had a soft spot for 'I Wake Up Screaming'. Even Mature was halfway-watchable instead of resembling a particularly dull plank of wood. Laird Cregar was superb in this film (he was pretty good in some others too). Such a sad loss and so young.

Laura said...

I love this movie and the things you pointed out. My favorite scene is the swimming pool -- just because going for that late-night indoor swim seems so unusual by modern standards. (And yes, Victor Mature looks mighty nice, too.)

The pool was located in neighboring Long Beach, the city where three generations of my family have been born. Here's a fun website which has a couple photos and ads featuring the waterfall area of the pool where Grable and Mature sit:

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Dorian. I'll take a look back at your post.

Stefan, I agree Laird Cregar was superb. What a spectacular career he might have had, if only he'd had more time, poor man.

Laura, thanks for the heads up on the location of the pool, and the link. Got to check that out.

DorianTB said...

Yikes, I just realized that despite my deep admiration for the late, great Laird Cregar, I somehow stupidly neglected to say a word about the man in my comments! Laird, if you can somehow hear me up there in the great beyond, forgive my grievous faux pas!

For more about Laird Cregar, check out this link about him in regard to HUDSON'S BAY, and I hope you'll forgive me for barging in! :-)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

It's never too late to talk about Laird Cregar.

Kevin Deany said...

I like this one too, but was always struck by the inclusion of "Over the Rainbow", a hit song from an M-G-M film. (Hmmm, what was the name of that movie?).

Usually studios liked to promote songs from their own movies, but this is a rare instance of a song from a rival studio being so prominently featured.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Kevin, that's a good point about "Over the Rainbow" being from a rival studio. That song in this movie I find startling. There are moments when it seems (to me) quite loud. It really has the weirdest effect.

grandoldmovies said...

"Effortlessly weird" is les mots justes for Elisha Cook Jr. - one of those cult actors who seems to be inhabiting another realm entirely, other than the movie he's appearing in. And that detail that a loaded gun can always be found in an opened drawer - that one image encapsulates 40s noir. Loved your post!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much. I really like Elisha Cook, Jr exactly for his quality, as you put it so well, "seems to be inhabiting another realm entirely, other than the movie he's appearing in."

Caftan Woman said...

Director H. Bruce Humberstone is tops in my book because of the great Charlie Chan pictures he helmed.

I offhandedly mentioned to my daughter that "Murder, My Sweet" was the quintessential noir. She countered with "I Wake Up Screaming". I was impressed. You are so right about those quirky and unforgettable moments that make us fans of "I Wake Up Screaming".

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

CW, how nice that your daughter has joined the classic film squad. She's lucky to have you as a lead scout on the journey.

I need to see more of Humberstone's work.

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