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I Wake Up Screaming

18 Mar

I Wake Up Screaming – directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Who-Dun-It. 82 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★

The Story: A young waitress is fostered by a promoter, and she rises into café society until she is murdered, leaving her sister to find out who did it.

~

Gary Giddens of The New York Sun called I Wake Up Screaming one of the most beautiful black-and-white films ever made. The photographer is Edward Cronjager, perhaps the most prominent member of a family of Hollywood cinemaphotographers (Seven academy Award Nominations). At this stage of his long career he is at Fox, and this is one of the first film noirs ever made, and, if you are to judge by its photography, it would be a film noir, with its strong use of dark lighting, angles for dramatic effect, rich shadows, and so on.

But I do not define film noir solely by the way a picture is filmed. My definition of film noir includes that but also must include certain subjects and two sorts of character must be in them. Either a leading male character, who is so troubled and angry he must move outside or beneath the law to realize his destiny. Or a leading female character who is disempowered and must also move outside or beneath the law. And it must be in black and white.

These films emerge from 1941 through just after The War until 1951 or so. In the case of the male character, think of them as written for returning soldiers who have seen in the war a life that lay outside all law. It has made them cynical, hard, pessimistic, bitter, cold, and almost ruthless. The same is true for the female character. She has been on the home front in power to run businesses, work in factories, or mastermind all aspects the home. At The War’s end, all this is stripped from her. She moves into something for which the word crime is a euphemism.

Very few films fill these strictures for content, characters, and filmed treatment. One of them is Murder, My Sweet starring Dick Powell one of the two seminal film noir actors, the other being Alan Ladd in, say, This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia. These men engage in relationships (sexually highly charged because of their coldness) with un-marriageable blonds, such as Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, and the great Claire Trevor.

Few people will agree with this careful view of the matter. Actually I am the only person who has to agree with it and I do. And it has nothing to do with I Wake Up Screaming which is noir only in its remarkable photography.

Betty Grable’s career started two films before this, both  musicals, both in color. But this year, 1941, she was to make one color musical, and two black and white films – one a comedy, A Yank In The RAF with Tyrone Power, and Wake Up Screaming, a drama.

I mention all this not just because she was to become the biggest grossing female star of her era and one justly loved by audiences all her life, but because, having made these two black and white films, Zanuck, the head of Fox, said, because of her Technicolor coloring, he would never put her in a black and white film again, and he never did,. But he wanted to. He wanted her to appear as the tart in The Razor’s Edge, a part Anne Baxter won an Oscar for. Grable refused on the grounds that she didn’t have the acting chops for drama and that the public would only accept her in sequins with her legs showing.

It’s a great example of actor-folly in believing that what the fans wanted should rule. Carole Lombard had the same failing. She never made another serious film after George Stevens’ Vigil In The Night, in which she is very good. Grable also fouled up on getting to play Miss Adelaide in the film of Guys And Dolls, a part she was subsequently to do a number of times on the stage. Grable is perfectly fine in I Wake Up Screaming. She’s responsive, game – a good dramatic actress. And she’s Betty Grable, which means she is sympathetic and you immediately care about her.

Grable is top-billed but the story is really that of the Victor Mature character, and the focus falls rightly on him. People dismissed him for years as a hunky lower-class Italian, which he may have been, but boy is he vivid when he shows up, and he has no trouble carrying the film. He is actually an excellent actor, particularly playing lightweight scalawags. He’s alive, susceptible, and full of fun. Look at his eyes. Delightful performance.

To help him we have no less than Allan Mobray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Carole Landis. But supporting them all is the remarkable Laird Cregar as a sicko detective. He is an actor worth seeking out wherever you can find him – Hangover Square, Blood And Sand, Heaven Can Wait, This Gun For Hire, and Charley’s Aunt. Very few parts but remarkable. Dead at 26.

So this is a particularly rich collection of talent, and the story because of them is worth digesting. These are the days before Elmore Leonard. But this is the sort of thing he would do, particularly as regard the Laird Cregar character. Dwight Taylor (Laurette Taylor’s son) adapted the novel for the screen. I say see it. It’s beautiful in its way, and, when you do see it, tell me, why does it have that title?

 

 

 
 
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