Arriving in theaters in August 1937, Wake Up and Live capitalized on several then-current, now-obscure pop culture tropes that may appear incomprehensible to a modern audience (unless you enjoy vintage Looney Tunes cartoons, or Stanley Tucci). The perky musical was based on a popular self-help book (!), one that stressed the power of positive thinking as the first step towards personal fulfillment. While it mainly served as a Depression-era pick-me-up with an assortment of cheery songs, the 20th Century Fox production also found a way to shoehorn in a storyline based on the playful rivalry between radio stars Ben Bernie and Walter Winchell - appearing here as themselves. It may sound like a cheap, dated mishmash, but I was taken aback at what a slick, fun and beautifully produced romp this one is. Now that Fox has unearthed this goodie for their made-on-demand Cinema Archive DVD line, perhaps it will find a bigger, appreciative audience.
Although Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie (more about them below) originally headlined the poster art for Wake Up and Live, the film basically revolves around the character of a gawky radio station employee named Eddie Kane. He's played with appeal by The Wizard of Oz's Tin Man, Jack Haley - well-matched with a young and pretty Alice Faye as his romantic interest. Haley's Eddie has arrived in New York City from the midwest along with his fiancee and vaudeville partner, Jean (Grace Bradley), hoping that their act can strike it big in the medium of radio. At their audition, however, Eddie gets a serious case of "mike fright" and is unable to sing. After Jean confidently aces the audition, she gets assigned as part of a girl vocal trio by Walter Catlett's chiseling agent. Eddie, meanwhile, becomes a lowly page at the radio station, dreaming of the time when he can overcome his inhibitions. During a live broadcast of Ben Bernie's jazz-and-patter show, Eddie sings along with an instrumental number - not realizing the microphone he's using is broadcasting live to a huge, captivated audience. The singer's identity is a pleasant-sounding mystery to Bernie, his orchestra, and the spellbound dancers gathered that night. Bernie's rival Walter Winchell takes hold of the story, and the search for "The Phantom Tenor" becomes a city-wide sensation. Eddie is completely unaware that it's him, however - his attentions are firmly on Alice Huntley (Alice Faye), the host of the station's struggling Wake Up and Live program of uplifting yet joke-free song. Stuck on the girl, Eddie enlists her help to encourage him to get over his performance jitters. Once Alice realizes that he's the Phantom Tenor, it's her job to get him exposed before other, exploitative forces get to him.
The combo of breezy music, snappy characters, and Streamline Moderne settings make Wake Up and Live awfully reminiscent of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, although the radio angle on this one adds a bit of historic curiosity. Even people with a passing knowledge of Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie may wonder what the big deal was with their jokey rivalry, but their enjoyable, stinging banter must have had some resonance with the Average Joe Media Consumer of 1937 (that same year, the duo were satirized as "Ben Birdie" and "Walter Finchell" in Warner Brothers' The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos cartoon). Ben Bernie is one of those names that is lost to the ages, but his Kay Kyser-like goofy bandleader persona translates well to the screen. Walter Winchell's performance is definitely that of a journalist slumming on the side, but he has a gruff likability that doesn't even hint at the toxic, reactionary side he'd develop in later years. This was the man who was fictionalized in Sweet Smell of Success two decades later, and later given an accurate portrayal by Stanley Tucci in the 1998 biopic Winchell. Here, he comes across like the proverbial "crusty yet benign" 1930s news reporter (one that bears a strong resemblance to Lee Tracy, natch). Both men supply a sample of the acts that made them famous on the radio, which makes the film an unexpectedly valuable document.
Wake Up and Live benefits from a suitably perky selection of songs from Harry Revel and Mack Gordon, but what truly makes it memorable is the energetic cast. Jack Haley and Alice Faye deliver, of course, but there's also some great (if typecast) work from second bananas Patsy Kelly and Ned Sparks. Familiar faces like William Demarest and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson also make appearances, and there's an indescribably weird musical segment with loose-limbed comedienne Joan Davis as a clumsy flamenco dancer.
Like Thanks a Million, the other early Fox musical I reviewed here, Wake Up and Live has an edgy, contemporary feel that makes it hold up better than many of the bigger musicals that 20th Century Fox would later be known for. Those colorful Alice Faye and Betty Grable vehicles have their own charms, although many of them were bloated and afflicted with sickening sentimentality. This particular film comes heartily recommended.
Wake Up and Live arrives on disc in moderately good shape. The 4:3 picture contains isolated amounts of dust, along with more drop-outs than usual (the 20th Century Fox fanfare is cut off, for example). Black and white levels and the mastering both fare well, preserving a lot of detail in the source print.
The film's original monoaural soundtrack is used here, in a decent, shallow mix that is slightly more clean sounding than Thanks a Million. No subtitles are offered.
None. As with all of Fox's m.o.d.'s, chapter stops every ten minutes and a generic menu with movie poster reproduction are used here.
Splashy 1937 musical Wake Up and Live counts as one of the undiscovered gems in Fox's Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD program. The film offers a fizzy plot, fantastic production design, and perky, pleasantly sung tunes from Jack Haley (dubbed) and Alice Faye (not). Tantalizing and rare onscreen appearances from radio stars Ben Bernie and Walter Winchell are a nice bonus, as well. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.