“Putting on the Ritz” can be dangerous, even deadly. What we have in this mid-century double feature are two dark, shadowy films with actors not normally cast in dark, shadowy films — Betty Grable and Mickey Rooney
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) picks up where Pygmalion ends. Promoter Victor Mature chooses to transform and promote a diner waitress (Carole Landis) as the next society/glamor girl in New York. He succeeds so well she drops him like a hot lug wrench, waving goodbye on her way to Hollywood for a career in the big time. The heartless beauty might have pulled it off if she hadn’t been murdered before the plane takes off. Betty Grable plays the victim’s sister who believes, in spite of the evidence, that playboy promoter Mature didn’t do it.
Somehow, this turns out to be an interesting movie even though there seems to be some confusion about whether this is a light-hearted romantic comedy or a dark, scary murder story with an innocent man heading toward the electric chair. And somehow this works despite a little too much mugging from Mature and an awkward attempt by Grable to deal with a serious role. Somehow the film overcame these obstacles. Still, I wondered two things. Why hadn’t I heard of Laird Cregar, who looked like he’d have quite a career in film, and why they called the film I Wake Up Screaming? It turns out Cregar died at 31. And I never figured out what relationship the title of the film had with the film itself. Maybe the title made more sense in the book, which was written by Steve Fisher, who, incidentally also wrote Lady in the Lake as well as others you might well have heard of.
In Quicksand (1950), Mickey Rooney tries to bridge the gaping abyss between being a successful child star to being successful adult actor. Many don’t make it. And it might have been harder for Rooney since he remained small and he kept his baby face throughout much of his life. At 92, he’s probably convincing now, but at 30, when this film was made, he still looked wet behind the ears. Even so, he does a great job as everyman, a mechanic who makes one little mistake. In films like these, one little mistake is all it takes. Standard noir. He’s stepped into quicksand. And if you remember those “Ramar of the Jungle” episodes, you’ll know the more he struggles to get free, the worse it gets. As the poster suggests, the mink coat is at the heart of it all.
We spend days and nights in the 1950s at Santa Monica Pier where penny arcade owner Peter Lorre helps to set up the once harmless, but increasingly desperate mechanic on his downward slide. Lorre, while appropriately restrained, pulls off his sleazy role very well. And despite the hype of the movie posters this is a surprisingly believable film. The end may not be entirely tragic, but it too seems to mirror real life more than Hollywood usually allows.
Now the question is: Are you able to switch from champagne to beer? Certainly the high life of I Wake Up Screaming deserves some celebratory bubbles; but in Quicksand, Mickey and the boys at the bar do a shot with a beer back.