Wake in Fright: Pleasance, as in Donald, brings pain.
Finding this week’s selections was as easy as giving the old external harddrive a spin. There, nestled alphabetically in the “W”s, were a trio of “Wakes,” all new to me. There’s one to dream, one to frighten, and one featuring a fight to the death between a darker shade of John Wayne and a latex octopus. Read on.
Wake in Fright trailer
Wake in Fright (1971)
The arid desolation encircling John Grant’s (Gary Bond) easy work commute — train tracks are all that separate his dingy accommodations from his classroom — evokes the Outback’s answer to Sergio Leone. It’s Christmas break, and a funny thing happened on the way to Sydney to spend the holidays with his beloved; John took the cabbie’s advice and stopped in Bundanyabba, or as the townies call it, “The Yabba.” It’s a world of grubby enablers, where refusing to join one in a beer is looked upon as a “criminal offense.” Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood) has the ability to unnerve an audience in ways that most directors can only dream about. It’s a horror film in the vein of Deliverance, with a performance by Donald Pleasance that would terrify Michael Myers. It’s steeped in atmospheric menace, and don’t expect a coven of vampires to supply a pat fantasy ending. These guys could be your neighbors. The one gaping hole is Grant, whose inconsistency of character either finds him repulsed by a situation (dining on kangaroo) or excited by it (the mass murder of maursupials), but never at the same time. WARNING: The ‘roo shoot makes Renoir’s bunny bloodbath look like an Easter egg hunt.
Wake Up and Dream trailer
Wake Up and Dream (1946)
Having a song stuck in one’s head is generally the musical equivalent to a stone in the shoe. Not so, Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom’s rivetingly ebullient “Give Me the Simple Life.” Sounds corny and seedy, but yes indeedy, I spent the afternoon driving with the windows rolled down and the song on repeat. The Ruby-Rube standard debuted here, and dang if the studio doesn’t get a lot of mileage out of the song, starting with farmer Jeff’s (John Payne) sluggish rear-screen rendition. The otherwise bouncy ditty can be heard in the background for the first five minutes of the picture, and is then liberally sprinkled throughout. That includes a chorus by Jeff’s as-yet-unclaimed love interest Jenny (June Haver). Signed by former Warner’s contract director Lloyd Bacon, don’t expect to find much in the way of leftover excess from past hits (42nd Street or Footlight Parade) in this relatively low-budget, sentimental small-town romance produced at Fox. Jenny, the waitress at a local diner, doesn’t want a farmer for a husband, particularly one who has no aptitude for the job. She’s waiting for a fella “with an ermine coat and a Pullman ticket to paradise” to cart her off. Fear of rejection pushes old-fashioned Jeff — he insists on calling her Miss Jenny — to enlist. Younger sister Nella (Connie Marshall) is angry that Jeff went to war even though farmers were deferred. Enter Henry Pecket (Clem Bevans), whose shingle reads Cabinet Maker and Carpenter, when in truth his primary occupation is that of dreamer. (Who else but an eternal optimist would build a ship 300 miles from the nearest body of water?) Jeff is then reported to be MIA, and it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind: his name isn’t mentioned again for a good half-hour. Henry pacifies Nella with tales of an enchanted island where she and Jeff will meet at war’s end. Movie magic unfurls when a gale storm causes Henry’s sailboat to lose its mooring and sail through town before hitting a reef in a hayfield. John Ireland shows up as an honorably discharged dentist-cum-traveling-knife-sharpener. His dreams of Sally don’t involve romance: he’s taken by by her 12-year molars, going so far as to equate a perfect dental-arch to a gal’s perfect bust. Nothing would turn him on more than taking an impression of her teeth to carry around with him. (This type of orthodontic fetishism wouldn’t be seen on screen again until Jack Nicholson assumed the dentist’s chair in Little Shop of Horrors.) The ending is schmaltzy and abrupt, which is not always a bad thing; any longer, and you’d need insulin to get through it. This is what used to pass for family entertainment, and when viewed in that light, the 92 minutes fly by.
Wake of the Red Witch trailer
Wake of the Red Witch (1948)
It’s been called a seafaring Wuthering Heights, but Wake of the Red Witch owes more to Cecil B. DeMille then Emily Brontë. This was John Wayne’s followup to DeMille’s Technicolor seafaring adventure saga for Paramount, Reap the Wild Wind. Duke was Republic Pictures’ top box office draw, so it’s no surprise that he would star. Studio head Herbert Yates, looking to further distance his “mini-major” from it’s poverty-row origins, endowed the film with one of the biggest budgets in the company’s history. In both films, Wayne scuttles a ship for cargo, gets mixed up in a romantic triangle, and dukes it out with a rubber squid. This time, Duke wanted to pilot his character through darker waters. Don’t let the floating crucifix upon which Capt. Ralls (Wayne) is rescued from by the crew of the Red Witch fool you: Ralls is one of Wayne’s darkest creations, a debased brute whose violent temper is driven by alcoholic bouts that leave him prone to blackouts. For those operating under the misapprehension that Wayne was only capable of playing himself, I suggest you watch this on a triple bill with Red River and The Searchers. (Big Jim McLain and Circus World can wait.) I’d rank his performance here alongside Matt Dunston and Ethan Edwards as one of his most complex. Wayne was proud of the film and it showed. The Red Witch was the flagship of the film’s fictional Batjak line, and if the trading company’s title sounds familiar, Duke later chose it for the name of his Batjac Productions. (A secretary accidentally changed the “K” to a “C” when the production company was formed in 1952, and Wayne let it stand.) Why did it take so long for me to book passage on this boat? SPOILER ALERT: Wayne was killed in 7 of his 167 films. This is one of them. With: Gig Young (the film’s narrator), Gail Russell, Adele Mara, Luther Adler, and Henry Danielle, to whom slime wouldn’t stick. Directed by Edward Ludwig, yet another subject for further research.