Happy New Year!
… and, what better way to start off the year than with a celebration of a life? A life that was marked both by success and by failure; by happiness and—sadly—by despair so extreme that it drove the person to suicide. Carole Landis (1919-1948), popularly dubbed ‘The Ping Girl’ and ‘The Chest’, who made her breakthrough in One Million BC (1940), though she had debuted in the very popular A Star is Born (1937).
Carole Landis was born Francis Lillian Mary Ridste in Fairchild, Wisconsin on January 1, 1919. When she was just 15, Francis dropped out of school and began working as a (apparently pretty bad) hula dancer in San Francisco, then went on to sing with a dance band. Finally, having saved up $100 and adopting the stage name Carole (after Carole Lombard), Francis headed for Hollywood. She got small roles (often uncredited) in the early years, finally hitting the jackpot as a cave girl in One Million BC. Thereafter, Carole Landis worked in several successful films, mostly as a supporting actress. She was also one of the actresses to go on USO tours during World War II, travelling across England, North Africa and the South Pacific, entertaining troops.
Carole Landis had a tumultuous love life, and eventually, at the tragically young age of 29, committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates.
To mark the birth centenary of Carole Landis, therefore, a review of a Carole Landis film. I didn’t remember watching any Carole Landis films before, so I went searching—and among the ones which caught my attention was this one. As is (more or less) apparent from its name, I Wake Up Screaming is a noir. Noir is a genre I tend to like; the lead actor of this film, Victor Mature, is a favourite of mine; and Betty Grable—who I think had far more acting capability than most people credit her for—is an actress I like. I hoped this film would be a good introduction to Carole Landis as well.
Based on the novel of the same name, by Steve Fisher, I Wake Up Screaming begins with sensational news.
The dead woman is a model named Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) and the man implicated—though how the police reach that conclusion we do not get to see—in her murder is a sports promoter named Frank ‘Frankie’ Christopher (Victor Mature). Frankie, as someone describes him, promotes boxers, wrestlers, girls—mostly girls. He has connections.
Frankie is being interrogated by the cops, and denies having to do anything with Vicky’s death. For the benefit of a cop who’s just arrived on the scene, he recounts his tale, of how he first met Vicky: at a restaurant where she was the waitress and Frankie was dining with some of his equally well-connected pals, including Larry (Allyn Joslyn) and Robin (Alan Mowbray). Vicky’s beauty was immediately noticed and appreciated. Vicky herself was dismissive; she wanted to get on with her work and had no time for hangers-on like these.
Within minutes, however, the men, talking between themselves while Vicky was away attending to other diners, had set Frankie a Pgymalion-esque challenge: can he pass this waitress off as a grand lady? Take her to a posh nightclub and fool everybody into thinking she really is somebody?
Vicky, when applied to, scoffed at the idea. But, it seems, only briefly. Because that evening, looking glamorous and chic, she turned up at the nightclub with Frankie. The other men (Larry is a popular columnist, Robin an actor), all of whom were in on the plot, played their parts so convincingly that by the end of the evening, Vicky had been invited to the table of one of the most sought-after socialites in town, and had received offers to model for this and that product.
Frankie and two of his pals had accompanied Vicky to her apartment building that evening, hoping she’d invite them upstairs, but Vicky had neatly fobbed them off. Her sister would be waiting upstairs. But yes, she’d be keeping her appointment with Frankie the next morning, to go with him to meet someone.
Frankie, talking to the police, said that was the first he’d heard of a sister. The police now go to meet the sister, Jill Lynn (Betty Grable) who works as a steno. She tells them that she had been asleep on the couch when Vicky got home that night, all exhilarated, triumphant and sure of success after her glittering debut at the nightclub. Jill, who comes across in the very first scene as a far more cautious and sensible sort than her sister, told Vicky that this didn’t sound right. But Vicky was scornful: she saw no reason to be doubtful or cautious—this was a done deal as far as she was concerned. She was hell-bent on becoming a celebrity, and tonight had been the start of it.
The next morning was the day Jill first met Frankie, when he arrived at their apartment to take Vicky off for a day’s work—and bringing with him the first bit of success: a photo, on the front page, of Vicky at the nightclub, amidst the rich and famous. Jill was still dismissive and made it obvious to Frankie that she didn’t trust him an inch, but Vicky was paying no heed.
And, says Jill as she remembers those weeks, it seemed as if Vicky had done the right thing after all. She got offer after offer: to model for this, to be seen here, to even sing onstage—which made her revive the singing lessons she’d learnt as a girl. And then one day, it all fell apart, when Vicky told the three men who’d given her a chance in the first place—Frankie, Robin and Larry—that she was leaving. Going off with a man who had got her a chance to work in Hollywood.
Vicky admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, that she had slipped away to Hollywood for a screen test, and now that she’d got a contract, she was going for good. Frankie was furious: this was not on the level at all. But he couldn’t do anything to stop Vicky after all, so he and his two friends went off and got drunk.
Soon, the three of them were bickering, both Robin and Larry insisting that if it hadn’t been for each of them, Vicky’d have been nowhere. And none of them even got anything out of it! They turned to Frankie: surely he, as the man usually getting Vicky deals, got some ‘souvenir’? Frankie says he ended up spending most of his time with that ‘sourpuss of a sister’ of Vicky’s, waiting for Vicky to get dressed. But yes, he admitted he did have a souvenir.
She once gave him her apartment key and told him he could wait there for her—but the one time he let himself in, she came home with Robin.
At this, Larry and Robin also showed off the copies of Vicky’s apartment key that she gave them. She was duping all three of them; she probably had another guy in her life altogether—a locksmith, suggested Robin wryly.
The scene shifts to the nearby room where Jill is being questioned. Does Jill know if there was a man in Vicky’s life, asks the detective. Jill, who had come to New York (where Vicky was working in a restaurant) from Chicago, says that she doesn’t think so, because Vicky was at the restaurant most of the time; she didn’t have any time for much of a personal life. But one evening, waiting at the restaurant for Vicky to get free, Jill had noticed a man looking in at the window—and staring very pointedly at Vicky. When he noticed Jill had noticed him, he turned away.
The two sisters passed him on their way out, he was there again, but he said nothing and they hurried on. After that, they saw him several times, but he didn’t bother them… there was something unsettling about him.
The interrogation goes on, and Jill talks about the evening before Vicky was supposed to leave for Hollywood. Frankie Christopher took the two sisters out for a drive, and Vicky remarked—in front of both Jill and Frankie—that Jill would be glad to get her, Vicky, out of the way, because she could then have Frankie all to herself. Frankie was incredulous; was Vicky out of her mind? To an embarrassed Jill’s mortification, Vicky was blunt in saying that it was obvious to anybody that Jill was in love with Frankie. Hadn’t Frankie noticed it himself?
But the cop has latched on to that remark and now seems to think that Jill is in love with Frankie, and that she and Frankie, either individually or together, have engineered Vicky’s murder. After all, it was Frankie who first found the corpse—or was found with the corpse. Jill has already described how she discovered the murder: she came home at night (Vicky was supposed to leave for Hollywood the next day), and found the front door of the apartment open.
She went in—and found Frankie bending over Vicky’s dead body. Frankie, of course, denies that he had anything to do with Vicky’s death. Why should he want to kill her?
In the meantime, though, with the cop’s implying that Jill is in love with Frankie, Jill loses her temper and demands to speak to the ‘head man’—whichever policeman is in charge of the case. So Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is summoned, and when he enters, Jill nearly faints at the sight of him. He’s the man who was peering in at Vicky that long-ago night at the restaurant. Is that so, asks another cop of Cornell. Was he looking in at Vicky? It might have been; Cornell is non-committal. That area is his jurisdiction; he had every right to be there.
But Cornell, it seems, is not completely objective as far as this case is concerned. For one, he appears to be convinced that Frankie killed Vicky, Cornell’s reasoning being that Frankie was furious at Vicky for giving him the slip, going behind his back and getting a deal in Hollywood. Frankie denies it, but Cornell is so certain of his own suspicions that he won’t even stop at calmly entering Frankie’s apartment one night while Frankie is asleep…
… so that, when Frankie wakes up, it’s to find Cornell sitting at the foot of his bed. From where he gets up, and nonchalantly goes about gathering what he (Cornell) thinks is evidence. He also openly points out this and that as evidence—Frankie’s cigarettes, for example, are the same brand as those found at the scene of crime and probably left behind by the murderer. Frankie smokes the same cigarettes as the murderer. As do, points out Frankie, God knows how many other thousands of people.
Which makes no difference to Cornell.
As the days go by, things change. Frankie and Jill grow closer together, bound both by the way they are being interrogated by the cops, and by the way both of them want to find out who really killed Vicky. Simultaneously, suspicion falls on someone else—but Inspector Ed Cornell, seemingly oblivious, goes on, intent on proving that Frankie is the culprit.
I began watching this film because of Carole Landis. Then, somewhere along the way, I became intrigued by the story itself, because this turned out to be an interesting mystery. Who killed Vicky? Eventually, I Wake Up Screaming (a title, by the way, which doesn’t really make sense to me, since there’s nothing in the film that supports that) turned out to be a somewhat Hitchcockian tale of a wrongly incriminated man setting out to find the real culprit responsible for the crime he’s accused of—and finding love along the way.
What I didn’t like about this film:
That said, the ‘somewhat’ Hitchcockian feel I alluded to, above, is just that: somewhat. Because Hitchcock, master as he was of suspense, wouldn’t have treated a story like this. The red herrings are too obvious, or even when they’re not, are shown to have been mere diversions far too soon (a red herring should be, I think, in place for a good while, enough for one to actually start believing that this could be the right clue). Here, the red herrings get disposed of far too quickly for them to have much of an impact.
The other weak element in the story is that of how the mystery is solved, which isn’t clear. How does Frankie realize who is responsible? There is nothing to show as proof of how Frankie arrived at the correct conclusion—or is it simply a stab in the dark?
What I did like about the film:
But to compare Bruce Humberstone (who directed I Wake Up Screaming) or Dwight Taylor (who wrote the screenplay) to Alfred Hitchcock is possibly a bit unfair; not everyone can be Hitchcock, and he certainly set the bar high. That said, this film does have some things to be said in its favour. Victor Mature and Betty Grable make for a likeable lead couple (and it’s refreshing to see Betty Grable in a role that doesn’t merely require her to look pretty—there’s more to Jill Lynn than just her face). The story has an interesting twist in the climax which makes it rather more noir than it seems at first.
And Carole Landis, while her role as Vicky Lynn isn’t huge, portrays effectively a girl obsessed with making it big—yet not a ruthless and conniving soul, but a nice young woman with stars in her eyes and her head full of dreams.