The film was Wake Up and Dream, a 1934 production by Universal starring Russ Columbo, the legendary crooner whom they’d just signed in hopes of building him up as their answer to Bing Crosby’s incredible success at Paramount. Universal wasn’t the only company in the fall of 1934 that was hoping Columbo would be “their” Crosby; after two years during which litigation with his previous record company, Victor, had kept him from recording, Brunswick, smarting from having just lost Crosby to the newly formed U.S. Decca label, signed him and did a four-song session with him, including three songs from Wake Up and Dream. All these hopes came to an abrupt end when Columbo met his death on September 2, 1934 in what, at least according to the official explanation, was one of the most bizarre accidents of all time: he was visiting his friend, photographer Lansing Brown, at Brown’s home when Brown decided he wanted a cigarette. Brown struck his match on an antique French dueling pistol that was part of his collection, and the match set off a long-forgotten charge inside the pistol, launching a ball (the gun was so old it didn’t even use bullets!) that found its way to Columbo’s forehead, piercing his skull and killing him almost instantly. The sheer unlikeliness of this story sparked decades of rumors about Columbo’s death, the most common of which was that he’d been killed by the Mafia because he wouldn’t give them a piece of his money — though not only is this the sort of rumor that gets spread whenever any celebrity with an Italian surname dies well before his or her time, one would think that if the Mob actually hit Columbo, they would have come up with a more credible cover story.
When he died Columbo had been dating Carole Lombard, and for the next eight years — until her own early death in a plane crash — she and Columbo’s friends participated in a subterfuge designed to keep Columbo’s mother from finding out that her son had died, sending her bogus reports on his career and treating her much the way the central character treated his mom in the movie Good Bye, Lenin! to keep her from finding out that her beloved East German state had ceased to exist. Columbo’s death also sparked a cult that, though hardly on the same level as the one that formed around James Dean after his death 21 years later, was large enough that his records stayed in print until the 1970’s and enough of it is still going on that the post of Wake Up and Dream to archive.org included a note from the Russ Columbo Society (Web address www.russcolumbo.org) asking people to lobby for Columbo’s inclusion in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (It’s not likely because that’s an honor that’s almost never given posthumously: one gimmick behind it is that the star is always laid in a ceremony that the honoree attends, and though I can’t say for sure they’ve never awarded a star to a deceased performer, they would probably require that a living relative attend the star-laying ceremony.)
Wake Up and Dream wasn’t released until Columbo had already been dead for a month, and that probably hurt it at the box office, though as it stands it’s a quite workmanlike film even though it seems as if John Meehan, Jr., credited with an “original” story and screenplay, actually compiled it from several different accounts in the cliché bank. It starts with Paul Scotti (Russ Columbo — and it’s interesting that not only did Columbo keep his real Italianate name but his character had an Italian name as well: ironic in light of the fights Frank Sinatra had at the outset of his career in 1939 with Harry James and others, who told him to change his name on the ground that no one with an Italian surname would ever make it as a singing star!) as part of a vaudeville team with his friend Charles Sullivan (Roger Pryor, more tolerable as a supporting player than he was as the male lead in Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties) and their female partner, Toby Brown (June Knight). Of course, Sullivan has the hots (in a decorous Production Code way, anyway) for Toby but she only has eyes for Scotti (who’s addressed throughout by his last name, as if it were the nickname “Scotty”). Their current engagement comes to an abrupt ending when the theatre owner pays them only half the salary he promised, and Sullivan tries to bluff Scotti’s way into a job with a touring company of a Broadway revue by posing as a man from the revue producer’s New York office — only the actual performer New York hired to replace their incompetent road-company guy shows up, Sullivan gets him drunk and takes him to an abandoned house in the sticks, then is caught and the three have to flee because Sullivan is now wanted for kidnapping and stealing the man’s car.
They stow away in the back of a truck and make their way from Atlantic City (where the film opened) to New York, where Sullivan does a tightrope-walking stunt to get them $200 so they can flee to California. (Meehan’s script had previously established that he had worked as a tightrope walker in a circus, so at least we’re not asked to believe that someone with no experience had somehow managed this daring and dangerous feat.) Arrogantly pushing away anyone with a camera for fear that a photograph would get published and let the Atlantic City cops know where he was, Sullivan collects the money and the three set off on a bus trip to California, with Scotti’s foster father Giovanni Cellini (Henry Armetta) — he took Scotti in when Scotti’s parents died back in Italy (Columbo himself was U.S.-born but here he’s playing an immigrant) — and on the bus they get mixed up with fortune-teller Madame Rose (Catherine Doucet), who has a big bankroll that she doles out a dollar at a time to her traveling companion Joe “Egghead” Egbert (Andy Devine). The leads urge Cellini to court Madame Rose, not only to cover his food bills — he quickly depletes their traveling fund with the huge meals he orders every time the bus stops for food — but because Madame Rose has a place in L.A. where, if Cellini plays his cards right, they can stay while they try to break into pictures. They hear of a restaurant that will hire them as entertainers and give them a dinner for one night — and keep them on with a small salary and a free meal each night if they go over with the audience — and they’re a hit, but their chances for a meal, let alone a long engagement, get blown when Cellini insults the owner.
Nonetheless, they get discovered by a “slumming” movie producer, Roger Babcock (Richard Carle), who’s there with actress Mae La Rue (Wini Shaw, in one of her few appearances for a studio other than Warner Bros.) and her sister, who’s being passed off as his “secretary.” La Rue gets Babcock to sign Scotti to a movie contract, they make two films together that are hits, Babcock laments that instead of firing his mistress’s new boyfriend he has to make him a star, and it looks like Scotti is “going Hollywood” and romancing Ms. La Rue off screen as well as on, but in the end Sullivan realizes that Toby has always loved Scotti and engineers it so they get back together and announce their engagement at the end. It’s not much of a movie, but it has its points: for all its traveling down well-worn paths, Meehan’s script is rather unique in just how many near-misses at the brass ring it puts its hero through before he finally grasps it, and director Kurt Neumann, no doubt aware that on a Universal budget he couldn’t bring in Busby Berkeley or one of his imitators and star Columbo in big production numbers, keeps his camera in almost constant motion during many scenes that would otherwise look static and dull. This is one movie musical from the early 1930’s in which we don’t have to sit through reams of soporific exposition scenes before the characters start singing and dancing! Neumann even copies the famous scene from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, using an elevator crane in the set of the boarding house where the leads are staying in the opening scenes.
Just about everyone who writes about Wake Up and Dream, or about Columbo generally, can’t help but wonder how his career might have gone if he had lived, and in particular whether he would actually have been a threat to Crosby (whom he’d actually been linked to before either of them were major stars: when Crosby was a featured entertainer with Gus Arnheim’s orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Hollywood in 1930-31, Columbo was in Arnheim’s band … as a violinist, and though he doesn’t play that instrument in this movie he was a skilled enough piano that during one of the pre-recorded numbers he sits at the piano and his fingers go to the right places on the keyboard even though it’s highly unlikely what we hear on the soundtrack is actually his playing). Probably not: Columbo had a darkly handsome overall look (especially given his ethnicity, one could well imagine him going after an updated version of the Valentino image) but an oddly craggy face and a receding hairline which, as Charles noted, was only emphasized by the odd three-quarter camera angles director Neumann and cinematographer Charles J. Stumar shot him from through much of the film. But though he was probably better-looking in the flesh than the short, jug-eared Crosby, the camera simply didn’t love him the way it loved Bing — and, quite frankly, neither did the microphone.
Columbo had a perfectly pleasant, if rather groaning, baritone voice, and on romantic ballads he could be quite haunting — but even on romantic ballads Crosby’s voice, with its superb breath control and legato, beat Columbo’s, and Crosby could also do jazz numbers and other sorts of songs that would have left Columbo totally at sea. For someone who came up during the so-called “Jazz Age,” there’s almost no hint of jazz phrasing in Columbo’s voice and absolutely no sense of jazz rhythm (not surprising when you consider that Crosby started out as a drummer and Columbo as a violinist). About the best he could have done if he’d lived a normal span was hung in Crosby’s wake the way Perry Como did in Sinatra’s 10 to 20 years later. Wake Up and Dream is a well-made movie, and had Columbo lived it would probably have been a good launching pad for him (imdb.com lists eight acting credits for him, including an important supporting role in Broadway Thru a Keyhole for 20th Century pre-Fox just before this), but as it stands the spectre of Columbo’s death hangs over it the way other stars’ deaths do with other posthumous releases like Jean Harlow’s Saratoga, Carole Lombard’s To Be or Not to Be, Laird Cregar’s Hangover Square, James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, Peter Finch’s Network and Brandon Lee’s The Crow.