Betty Grable and Carole Landis don’t really come to mind when one thinks of film noir. They’re fun and nice and pretty and hardly the type for dark and stormy nights, but dark and stormy is exactly what they get in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming, a murder mystery based on the Steve Fisher novel, Hot Spot. Well, kinda. It is Betty Grable and Carole Landis we’re talking about, after all. The film is not only a classic noir, but 1941 is a pointed snapshot of the deviation between these two actresses’ careers.
Model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) has been murdered and Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is the prime suspect. He’s a sports promoter who thinks he can elevate waitress Vicky into a star, and if he’s found guilty he’ll be sent to the chair.
Vicky lives with her sister, Jill (Betty Grable), who tells the police how Vicky was getting invited everywhere and offered all sorts of modeling jobs. She gets offered all sorts of dates, too, as not only Frankie squires her around, but Frankie’s friends, Larry (Allyn Joslyn) and Robin (Alan Mowbray). Vicky outgrows Frankie pretty quickly when, much to his chagrin, she lands a Hollywood contract. Frankie, Robin, and Larry compare notes at the diner downstairs and find out Vicky’s been playing all three of them. Then things turn morbid. The night before Vicky is supposed to leave, Jill comes home to find Frankie standing over Vicky’s lifeless body.
Frankie isn’t the only murder suspect. Harry (Elisha Cook), the skulky switchboard operator at Vicky and Jill’s apartment building is also intriguing because he can be a jerk. Until Vicky became someone he couldn’t be bothered to deal with her. Plus Jill noticed a big beefy guy (Laird Cregar) hanging around Vicky’s diner peeking in at her and lurking in shadows. When she mentions it Vicky laughs it off because the diner is like a fishbowl and men ogle her all the time. Jill is sure this creeper is Vicky’s killer or at least knows something about what happened to her and is confused when he walks into the police station and announces he’s an inspector named Ed Cornell. And he’s got an alibi.
Jill’s right about the creeper part, though, because Cornell has a way of getting into places he’s not supposed to be in, such as other people’s apartments. He sits at the end of Frankie’s bed and watches him sleep until he wakes up. He unlocks the door to Jill’s apartment but then thinks better of it and pretends to be dropping by for information. There’s definitely more to this guy than he’s saying.
Like most film noirs and mysteries, I Wake Up Screaming lets out little bits of seemingly disjointed info that makes sense in the end, and the payoff is a goodie. There’s not much I can say about that without giving it all away, and believe me, nobody’s gonna want spoilers. This movie is way too much fun for that.
Like I said, I Wake Up Screaming is not a typical film noir. Sure, it’s got a lot of the usual elements, but there’s some blanc sprinkled in. Parts of the film are actually funny, and for some reason, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays over the last half of the film. Really. It’s there alllll the time in various symphonic interpretations. No lyrics, though, not a syllable from Judy Garland, and certainly no light breaking through clouds while unseen birds cheep. Harold Arlen isn’t credited, but I hope he got paid handsomely for the use of his lovely tune.
The look of the film is great, too–it makes great plays of light and shadow, laying on the skewed angles and stark contrast. It knows when to tense up and when to let the viewer sit back and take everything in.
There’s also a sweet romance between Jill and Frankie, who are thrown together by circumstance but then bond over their shared desire to catch Vicky’s killer. Since Frankie is still a suspect, these two have to move under the radar, and one of their home bases is an “Adults Only” movie theater.
Uh huh. Frankie and Jill watch porn when they’re not running around looking for the bad guys. Sort of. Jill thinks it’s boring. Frankie, not so much. Audiences must have found it a little shocking during the Production Code era.
What wouldn’t have been shocking is the totally-not-random swimming scene, which only exists because 1941 audiences expected to see Betty Grable’s legs. How to do that in a film noir? Jill and Frankie go swimming, of course, because that’s what Frankie likes doing late at night, and by the side of a very busy public pool Grable’s famous gams are on full display.
It’s very much a “Hello, there,” moment, because Grable plays a serious character in this film, downplaying her star quality. She’s the one who’s cautious. She’s dependable. She’s the also-ran, at least at first. It’s a switch from Grable and Landis’s earlier sister film, Moon Over Miami, released the same year, when Landis played the lady-in-waiting and Grable was the darling. I Wake Up Screaming was a gamble, because Betty Grable’s stardom was just taking shape at that stage of her career. As TCM noted, Grable wasn’t a pinup girl yet, but she already had an established film persona.
Gable’s legs aren’t the only things that present themselves. Carole Landis also puts in a fine performance, but she was viewed in a vastly different way by the studio and the public. According to Landis biographer E.J. Fleming, Landis was personally cast by Darryl F. Zanuck, and Screaming‘s producer, Milton Sperling, called her a “studio hooker” because Landis visited Zanuck’s office several times a week.
Landis and Grable were also rumored to be feuding, which Landis vehemently denied, but legend has it that George Raft used to trigger Grable by mentioning her former costar. Landis unfortunately got a short shift in Hollywood, as she was seen as an object by executives and not given nearly enough chances to flex her acting and singing chops.
The reviews of the time were mixed, although the public liked the film. Variety enjoyed it. The New York Times didn’t. The biggest complaint was that the movie was too predictable.
Nowadays it’s easier to get beyond the expectations of the time and see the film for what it is, and for all its lightness, I Wake Up Screaming can noir with the best of ’em. It’s a treat to watch and an underrated entry in Betty Grable and Carole Landis’s filmographies.
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Fleming, E.J. Carole Landis: A Tragic Life In Hollywood. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2015.