Noir-Vember Day Three: I Wake Up Screaming (1941) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Nov/100

Noir-Vember Day Three: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny LIKEPublicist Frankie Christopher has a craggy smile. It's a sweet, earnest smile, but jagged enough that there's a hint of jovial menace poised within. He doesn't get to do a lot of smiling at the beginning of I Wake Up Screaming, but that's mostly because of the cops pointing their fingers and spotlights at him for murdering a friend.

That friend was Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). A few weeks ago she was a hash slinger but after coming upon Frankie and his friends, she is made into a celebrity and a sensation. Unfortunately this seems to catapult her from zero to bitch in a remarkably short amount of time.

She winds up dead, and the list of suspects is surprisingly long. There's Frankie, of course, and his two friends, a washed up actor and a bitter columnist. There's her beautiful sister, Jill, whose crush on Frankie is a little less than subtle, and then there's also a switchboard operator at Vicky's boarding house. Oh, and then there's even the chief detective on the case, who Jill remembers looking after her sister a few times, even without permission.

It's a twisted little tale, but a surprisingly chipper one. For something classified as a noir, it owes a lot to the crime comedies of the 30's, most notably The Thin Man series, and to a lesser extent the barbed sexy mysteries of the earlier Pre-Code era like Night Nurse. The middle act of the film that follows Frankie's attempts to clear his name, all the while taking Jill along for the ride.

The heightened lighting gives the film an edge.

Jill is played by Betty Grable, a pin-up darling during the second world war and usually a star of big musicals where she can flash her smile to all the boys in the audience. She's surprisingly good here as Jill, who is terrible at hiding her own feelings but plucky in a way that puts most other female heroines of the 40's to shame. She's proactive, intelligent, and surprisingly handy in a pinch.

And pinches are a thing she has to get used to as she falls for Frankie. Played by firm jawed Victor Mature with the aforementioned craggy smile, he's pretty much the perfect man when you want someone with the charm and temperament of Cary Grant but you don't want the viewer to be watching the Cary Grant. He cedes into his role, and displays a knack for some fast dialogue and quick one liners.

Together the two have a Nick and Nora Charles vibe for much of the film, and it's written well enough to not fall flat on its face like in a few other hundred films I could name. But even this comedy is surrounded by the dark undertones that the noir genre calls home, including a messed up killer and a man who almost lets him get away with it out of spite.

The stories darker themes head towards currents of obsession and fame. Vicky's quick ascension and almost-as-quick murder are the result of a game of Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady for you musical fans out there) gone horribly wrong. Instead of Eliza Doolittle becoming a content and lovestruck society girl, she instead sees the opportunity that is before her and grabs it with both hands, hurting all of those around her for a chance to be famous. Vicky's actions are both contemptible, and especially today, all too predictable. Even when Vicky admits she has no talent, she's too eager to go to Hollywood and become a star, spurning friends and loved ones. Because that is simply what you do.

Mature finds himself in over his head and waiting for elevators.

The movie fills its cast with people from all steps of the social strata and lays the blame on them for this girl's rise and fall. While it may be a little bit of luck and a whole lot of surprising trust that winds up with our good guys coming out okay at the end, it's obvious everyone still feels the sting of what Vicky became and what they did to facilitate that. It indicts a society that eagerly hands out fame and fortune to anyone with a pretty smile, a message that can hardly be ignored this day and age as well.

A pair of final notes. First, the soundtrack for the film is good, but I was always slightly distracted when it used "Over the Rainbow" as its background music for a lot of quieter scenes. I know The Wizard of Oz wasn't exactly a gangbuster release when it first came out, but I'm surprised no one on the production staff thought that the viewer may be expecting Toto to jump in for a close-up every time the tune begins.

And second, at no point does anyone in the film wake up screaming. In fact, the only person I remember waking up was Jill early on in the picture, and even then I think she was just mildly annoyed.

Posted by Danny

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