Our quiz about Film Noir ad lines earlier this week reminded us of one of the least remembered noirs of the early 40s, I Wake Up Screaming.

The film stars Betty Grable (above), Victor Mature and Carole Landis and features bulky and strong-voiced Laird Cregar as the crooked police detective who’s eager to pin the murder on an innocent man. The film is based on a successful novel of the same title. But when it was first released the studio (20th Century Fox) had changed the title to Hot Spot. It’s Hollywood lore that studio chief Darryl Zanuck and his biggest star of the war years, Betty Grable, disagreed about what parts she should play. Zanuck wanted her to do drama as well as musical comedy.

She thought she should stick to what she did best. She was a performer, and unlike a lot of performers (Bill Murray comes to mind) she didn’t want to “stretch” or need to convince others that she was really a good actor.

Nevertheless, Zanuck cast her in this movie. Some backround: After a dead-end start at RKO and Paramount, Grable came to Fox at the behest of Zanuck as the intended replacement for the fading Alice Faye.

Grable quickly supplanted Faye, and began a long a profitable reign as Fox’s official blond and musical star until Marilyn Monroe took over in the 1950’s.

In 1943, Betty was named the number one star by movie exhibitors and theater owners, the first woman to be so designated. It was a big year for Grable since it also marked the beginning of a 22-year-marriage to her second and final husband, trumpeter-band leader Harry James.  Grable’s first husband was former child actor Jackie Coogan.

After her famous pinup photo came out, Grable was no longer a mere movie star.  She was a national icon.  She remained Hollywood’s number one box office phenomenon all through the World War II years.

By the time the war ended, Grable was such a big a star that she achieved the lofty status as the highest-paid woman in the country, earning anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 a year.  And that was back in the day when you could easily buy a very comfortable house for under $3,000.

And those “million dollar legs” were a considerable bargain.  Grable remained among the top 10 box office draws for a total of 13 years, a record unmatched by any other actress. At her career peak, she was said to have brought in at least $5 million annually to Fox coffers.

Back to 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming, with Grable playing the wholesome sister of a shady murdered model and giving the cold shoulder to Victor Mature. (Note the marvelously creepy performance from Cregar.)

Grable does a credible job, and it’s a good movie. But the film’s title, Hot Spot, while trying to convey the situation the Mature character finds himself in, merely misled her fans.

They went to the movies expecting to see Betty in a musical. Fox had to recall all the publicity and advertising, and re-issue the film as I Wake Up Screaming. Zanuck never forced Grable into drama again.

But one of her successors at Fox, Jeanne Crain, another of Zanuck’s favorites, did bounce back and forth between comedies, musicals and dramas.

Some directors (Elia Kazan) could get a good performance out of her, others (Joe Mankiewicz) struggled when they were forced to cast her in their films. Crain was good in Pinky, but almost ruins A Letter to Three Wives.

Footnote: Zanuck made I Wake Up Screaming again in 1953.  It was titled Vicki and starred Crain with Jean Peters in the Carol Landis role. Speaking of movie tag lines, Fox came up with this for Vicki:

She had everything a man could ever want and lived the way no woman ever should!

Did you like this? Share it: