You could easily confuse I Wake Up Screaming with any number of glossy, slickly directed noirs of the early-1940s, and that’s partly what makes it so entertaining. Because it’s so typical of what makes a noir compelling, there’s an ease with which you get wrapped up in it, and it helps that Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray transfer is nothing short of sparkling. But I Wake Up Screaming is also interesting in what it was hoping to prove in 1941, specifically in transitioning musical glamour girl Betty Grable into a serious actress. It didn’t exactly get Grable an Oscar, but she’s one of several fantastic performances in a noir that, though formulaic, fascinates.
When Jill Lynn’s (Grable) sister, Vicky (Carole Landis) is murdered there is a whole host of suspects. One suspect is promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), who helped Vicky rise from a hash-slinger to a successful model. As Jill and Frankie get closer, they’re left to wonder who really murdered Vicky.
This movie came out three years before the noir classic Laura though the two hold a lot in common, particularly the reverence of one woman by a litany of men who believe they had a hand in her rise. Frankie Christopher is introduced having dinner with two of his friends, all three hitting on the waitress, Vicky. A deal is struck that Frankie can’t turn the girl into a success, and this isn’t My Fair Lady, everyone. As Vicky starts becoming the toast of the town, the three men who were part of the ruse demand Vicky give them her time, her energy, her vitality. Even before this it’s discovered she’s being stalked by the head of the police, played with a quiet menace by the fabulous Laird Cregar.
And once Vicky is murdered the movie is told, like Laura, through the reminisces of the people around her, most notably her sister Jill and Frankie. Victor Mature works as a leading man, though he doesn’t necessarily muster up much chemistry with either Grable or Landis. This isn’t his fault, more so that the movie while inserting a romantic air, doesn’t seem that interested in pursuing it. The romance is there because it’s expected but you can almost see the screenwriters being like “Nah, we’re good.” This might also be because this isn’t meant to be Mature’s movie, but Grable’s.
Betty Grable was always as good as the blonde acting opposite her, whether that’s Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) or June Haver in The Dolly Sisters (1945). Carole Landis was never a big name, more known for her (possibly shady) demise than her brief acting career. She has a look and acting sensibility here as Virginia Bruce, so much so that I initially thought it was Bruce playing Vicky. Landis is only shown in flashback and while she’s pretty there’s a hard edge to her, seen when she’s introduced as a waitress who’s seen her fair share of lecherous men and, later on, when she becomes a serious model and no longer needs Mature and his cronies.
But once Landis is out of the picture the film is all Grable’s. There feels like a hesitancy on everyone’s part to let Grable truly take the reins, so her scenes often pair her with Mature. That being said, she is impressively compelling when she has to be scared or angry. Because this isn’t in color, Grable is truly left to fend for herself, not reliant on costumes, nor is she allowed to sing. Unlike other film noir females, she isn’t inventive nor is she breaking cases like Ella Raines does. This was a test to show if she could be taken seriously, but the script or director don’t seem to do that themselves. Interestingly, director H. Bruce Humberstone would work with Grable on several features after this.
Then there’s Laird Cregar, an actor I love to see! He plays the obsessive Ed Cornell and, like Grable, it’s far less gaudy than his roles in the likes of Heaven Can Wait (1943) or The Black Swan (1942). He has Vincent Price’s mystery but he’s just playing an average beat cop. It’s a role that, theoretically, anyone could have played but with Cregar, there’s an added air of suspicion. Watching him lurk in corners or stare in awe of Landis, you never truly believe his intentions are honorable, and that goes a long way with him being the prime red herring.
And I wouldn’t be a good film noir girl if I didn’t give a shout-out to cinematographer Edward Cronjager. Cronjager worked in practically every genre, but here he’s camera work is so evocative of the genre and lovely. Victor Mature standing at the top of a staircase with the elevator’s latticed shadows across him is a shot I want to hang on my walls. Nearly every scene is filmed for peak suspense and, at times, it’s almost like this movie touches on the fears women have. Seeing Cregar stand quietly in a corner as Grable and Landis walk in the foreground is a nightmare shot if you’re a woman.
I Wake Up Screaming isn’t the most earth-shattering entry into film noir but it’s beautifully filmed and acted. It’s easy to see why Betty Grable never made a full transition into serious dramatic work as none of the men behind the camera seem to believe in her. Then again, with a cast this stacked it’s hard to see how Grable would have been able to stand out.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.