Laura (1944) Directed by Otto Preminger. Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson (88 min).
Dana Andrews’ hard bitten police detective succumbs to love—unfortunately, the exquisite Laura is already dead. Her portrait, gowns, perfume, diary and a haunting melody (composed by David Raksin and still heard on Muzak across America) envelop him as he tracks her killer. Someone else was obsessed with her, someone whose amour turned deadly. Clifton Webb as acerbic “man about town” Waldo Lydecker, and Vincent Price as her alleged fiancé shine in a most memorable cast of suspects. Laura “still remains the cult noir par excellence.”–Rough Guide to Film Noir.
Since this is the first of our fall 2008 series of films noir, perhaps, a brief introduction is in order. Film noir as a genre happened after the fact, when a group of French film critics, able to see a large number of American movies all at once when WW II ended, noted that there was a stylistic similarity, in theme, appearance, and weary attitude that was different than the chipper, optimistic Hollywood films that preceded the war. They called them black films, films noir, although the phrase supposedly evolved from Serie Noire, an influential group of crime novels translated from English into French, including works by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich and many others. In the films these critics admired, solving the crime was secondary to examination of the characters’ psychology, which was symbolized in codified ways, the use of shadow, mirrors, footsteps in the fog and distinct characters like the cynical detective and the femme fatale. Or, as American critic Lloyd Shearer described, a “trend in Hollywood toward the wholesale production of lusty, hard-boiled, gut and gore crime stories, all fashioned on a theme with a combination of plausibly motivated murder and high-powered Freudian implication” (Bould 17).
Mirrors reflecting a character’s duality were an important part of film noir symbolism.
Director Otto Preminger was many of the many artistic Jewish expatriates who fled Europe as the Nazi scourge spread across the continent. He was an upper crust Viennese, a mildly successful stage director in Austria, who arrived in New York to direct a play, and then made his way to Hollywood. He languished in B pictures, and then returned to Broadway. Ironically, he began to act by playing vile Nazi officers both on stage and in the movies, as many European Jewish actors did. In a way, this was their contribution to the war effort, to make the Nazis appear as villainous as possible.
Preminger was under contract as a producer, not a director, at 20th Century Fox. and he regularly read properties on file in the story department, hoping for some material that would suit his sensibilities. He happened upon Vera Caspary’s novel Laura. He had already tried to adapt it as a play, intrigued as he was with the New York high society setting he knew well. But, he had clashed with Caspary about how to adapt the material for the stage and then all over again with the screen adaptation. A major point of contention was a phallic symbol that she wished included and Preminger felt destroyed the believability of the murder’s solution.
Still, he was only a producer at Fox, he had the frustrating task of hiring a director to film a story he wanted to direct. Rouben Mamoulian said yes, but he began to rewrite the script and wanted to cast portly actor Laird Cregar as debonaire Waldo Lydecker. In defiance of studio head Darryl Zanuck, with whom he already had a testy relationship, Preminger was determined to cast a stage actor, Clifton Webb, as Lydecker. Webb was a versatile performer, a trained opera singer, an accomplished ballroom dancer (check out his rhumba with Maureen O’Hara in Sitting Pretty) and he had acted in a couple of silent films. He was most famous as a celebrated Broadway musical comedy star. He had come to Hollywood at MGM’s behest in the mid-1930s. Their hope was that he would become the studio’s answer to Fred Astaire, which did not work out. Fox’s objection to casting Webb in Laura was not his lack of cinema experience, but that he was gay. They objected to what they construed as his gay mannerisms, ideal for the part, but anathema to tightly closeted Hollywood. Preminger filmed a canny screen test with Webb, and even Zanuck agreed he was perfect for the part. But, Preminger was cautioned to make sure that, on camera, Webb did not “fly”—a term that was new to me—apparently denoting an excessively swishy manner.
All was not well on the set. Zanuck hated the rushes, and thought Mamoulian was misdirecting the cast. Eighteen days into shooting, Zanuck abruptly gave Preminger the permission he wanted all along. Mamoulian, according to interviews conducted by film historian Rudy Behlmer, had been directing Dana Andrews’ character to be a cultivated criminologist type, rather than a more hard-boiled cop. There was a blow-up in Zanuck’s office, because Preminger and Zanuck thought that there had to be more of a contrast between the detective and the society girl than Mamoulian was showing. Mamoulian insisted that Preminger had told him to direct it that way—was it intentional sabotage? Whatever actually happened, Preminger would now be directing Laura. He brought in a new cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, had the sets and costumes redesigned and replaced the portrait of Laura, which had originally been painted by Mamoulian’s wife. The new portrait was a painted over photograph by studio photographer Frank Polony. Vincent Price said in an interview, “Otto had an idea about the material, and he was right. The New York society depicted in the film are all darlings, sweet and charming and clever and bright—on the surface. But underneath, they’re evil. And Otto understood this in a way that Mamoulian did not. ‘Mamoulian is a nice man, isn’t he Vincent?’ Otto asked me. And I said, ‘Yes, he is a nice man.’ Otto said, ‘I’m not, and most of my friends are these kind of people.’ I think it was true: Otto was very given to the sort of society group of people who basically are really kind of evil people underneath.” (Hirsch 105).
Dana Andrews plays the detective in Laura. Carver Dana Andrews was born in Mississippi, the third of nine children of a Baptist minister and his wife. He studied business administration at Sam Houston Teachers College, but bitten by the acting bug, he hitchhiked his way to California. He dropped his first name while acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Spotted by a talent scout for Sam Goldwyn, he was cast in a small part in the Gary Cooper oater, The Westerner. Goldwyn sold half of Andrews’ contract to Fox, where he appeared in films through the early 1940s. Laura, as it was for co-stars Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, would be a star making part, surely one of the handful of his best films, along with The Best Years of Our Lives. Andrews doesn’t have much dialogue, but his low-key performance is the glue that holds the more flamboyant actors together. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but does not that kiss, as casual as it is, shower sparks? John Hodiak had been set for the part in Laura, but a fortuitous conversation on the set with Zanuck’s wife, Virginia (and he often listened to Virginia) gave Andrews the chance to play Mark.
Gene Tierney plays the title role. One of the screen’s most beautiful actresses, she had a difficult life. Her first husband, designer Oleg Cassini described her at the “unluckiest lucky girl in the world” (DVD) She came from a well to do family, and was offered a contract while taking a tour of Warner Brothers Studios as a visitor when she was just a teenager. Her autocratic father insisted she return home, make her society debut, and then audition for the legitimate theater. A featured role on Broadway in The Male Animal resulted in her being spotted by Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, and she was signed to a contract. Neither the studio nor her family were pleased when shortly afterwards she married womanizing fashion designer Oleg Cassini. When her beloved parents divorced, it was discovered her father had drained all the money out of a bank account supposedly set up for Gene’s benefit, leaving her nothing.
During WWII, she volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen for the USO, and this led to one of the great tragedies of her life. A female soldier, who was supposed to be quarantined for a case of German measles, went AWOL in order to meet her favorite movie star at the Canteen. But, Tierney was newly pregnant, and she contracted the disease from her fan (who actually told her the story years later, not realizing the tragedy she caused). Gene’s daughter was born blind deaf and mentally handicapped, and the child would eventually be institutionalized. Tierney was devastated and her mental health, never strong, would continue to worsen over her lifetime. She suffered from hallucinations and a lifetime of crippling depressions resulting in hospitalizations and shock treatments.
The caption reads, “Designer of costumes for Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter, other stars gives YOU priceless advice for planning your own clothes.” Tierney put a lot of energy into promoting her husband’s fledgling fashion career. He would, of course, go on to his greatest fame as the designer of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House wardrobe. If I’m not mistaken, this gown was used briefly in the early “make-over” sequence in Laura.
Here is an ad for Cutex nail polish from the July-August Ladies’ Home Journal. During the days of the Kennedy administration, Cassini’s taste (and endorsements) influenced a nation. (Slightly too big for my scanner, sorry).
Tierney’s baby daughter was about a year old when the actress was offered Laura. She had already been in some big Fox pictures, but was still unsure of her ability, and she was not excited by the part, which had a minimal amount of screen time. She also knew that Jennifer Jones had been offered the role and refused. But, this self-described Brooklyn girl was tired of playing exotic Polynesian, Eurasian, Arab and Chinese beauties. Zanuck assured her it would help her career—in fact, it made her an icon—and Preminger (famous for his autocratic tantrums) was sensitive to her fragile mental health, treating her gently both on and off the set.
“Power and Passion” notes the caption for this still from Son of Fury, with co-star Tyrone Power. The island beauty, Eve, was an example of the sort of roles she was hoping to avoid by taking the part in Laura.
Vincent Price was born into upper middle-class comfort in St. Louis MO. His grandfather invented baking powder, and his father owned a candy manufacturing company. Because penny candy was one luxury people could still afford during the Depression, Price’s family continued to prosper. He went to Yale as an English major, and then on to graduate study in art history in London. Price had many friends interested in the theater, and he auditioned for the play Chicago, winning two small parts because of his American accent and his ability to teach the cast how to speak their lines while chewing gum. He belonged to a theater club, which gained the rights to perform an important new play, Victoria Regina, because depictions of the British Royal family were banned in the legitimate theater. Much to his surprise he was cast as the male lead, Prince Albert. He practiced Albert’s German accent and researched his character, and he got rave reviews. When Helen Hayes wished to star on Broadway in the title role, the author made it a condition that Price play the Prince Consort, and so a 24-year-old untrained actor starred on Broadway with the first lady of the American stage. His success on Broadway led to Universal signing him as a romantic leading man in the late 1930s. But his roles turned out to be mostly character parts, not heroes.
He was quite friendly with stage actors Clifton Webb and Judith Anderson, and they all regarded the extra filming necessitated by the change of directors a boon, because it gave them more time to work together. Price always thought Laura was the best film he ever made. He said it’s “one of those few pictures that is perfect. Not pretentious, very simple, just brilliant.” In the mid-50s his villain in the 3-D extravaganza House of Wax began a cycle in which Price would be forever identified with horror films. Although his films became increasingly schlocky, he always appreciated the fame these roles brought him, and enjoyed his fans from younger and younger generations. One of these fans, Tim Burton, would cast him in what would be his last movie role, in Edward Scissorshands. Price was grateful that his last screen appearance was in such an excellent film.
Judith Anderson was primarily a stage actress, who had played Gertrude in John Gielgud’s Hamlet, and Lady Macbeth. When I was a teenager, and she was an old lady, I saw her play the title role of Hamlet! Her most famous screen role was as the sinister Mrs. Danvers, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
The theme music for Laura became famous. In the novel, Laura’s favorite song is “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from Roberta, but the use of the song was rejected because it already had previous associations in the minds of the audience. Although there are no words heard on screen to the haunting melody composed by David Raksin, after lyrics were added by Johnny Mercer, the song sold many 78 records and sheet music folders, was recorded at least five times just in 1945, and was immortalized by Frank Sinatra. The song is still a popular music standard; I hear it in the grocery store all the time! Alfred Newman, Randy Newman’s uncle, was in charge of the 20th Century Fox music department (he composed the studio’s fanfare) and had planned to use George Gershwin’s “Summertime” (permission was denied) and then Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” as the theme, with an additional score by David Raksin. Raksin begged Zanuck not to cut a long scene in Laura’s apartment, where the detective examines her personal things, because he wanted to write music for it, and then fought with Newman in order to write an original theme himself. Preminger settled the arguments by giving Raksin one weekend to write the music. Under a lot of pressure already, Raksin found out that weekend that his wife, with whom he was still in love, was leaving him. Exhausted, “without willing it, I was playing the first phrase…and stumbled through it again and again in a sweat of catharsis and self-indulgence” (Ballinger 127). “The melody of our theme song needed to evoke melancholy, and I had just been given a heavy dose” (Hirsch 107).
Laura is an unusual film for its day in having three sexually fluid characters who surround the love story of a more conventional couple, except, of course, the heroine is already dead. “Hardly politically correct in contemporary terms, the film’s oblique handling of the characters’ sexuality gives Laura intriguing noir shadings, a wicked aroma that in part accounts for the film’s continuing appeal. Viewers sense that beneath the manicured surface, something ambiguous and provocative is going on” (Hirsch 113). Judith Anderson, as well as Clifton Webb were gay, and Vincent Price may have been bisexual (although his daughter strongly denies this in her delightful biography of her father).
The wardrobe is by Bonnie Cashin, who designed clothes for about 60 films at Fox between 1943 and1949. After she left the movies, she found her major fashion calling in ready to wear, where she was a pioneer of the glamorous, yet casual American look that began to dominate the fashion world after the war. Gene Tierney’s clothes in Laura are particularly timeless, since Cashin, like her contemporary, Claire McCardell, disdained the dominant padded shoulder silhouette of the 1940s. Cashin was also greatly influenced by ethnic clothes, as you can see, particularly in the first outfit that Judith Anderson wears, and Tierney’s kimono style blouses. The striped patterns, echoing the many Venetian blind shadows, are a nice touch. Although Cashin never licensed her name, she designed clothes and accessories in many categories. Her women’s handbags for Coach, with the distinctive toggle clasp she borrowed from industrial hardware, are still manufactured.
Lyle Wheeler’s art direction is exquisite. The densely dressed sets are filled with objects in a creamy 1940s rococo style. “If the twenties and early thirties highlighted the zigzag, the forties were swirl crazy (The fad extended even to hairdressing). Continuous, curving forms, sinuous and wavelike, were used as moldings on banisters, picture frames, beds and bars…This style was embraced as an escape from modern forms, and by extension, modern problems” (Mandelbaum and Myers 59). Director of Photography Joseph LaShelle spent hours meticulously lighting every lush and gorgeous scene, no matter how long the actors had to wait.
Laura was nominated for Oscars for Best Director, Clifton Webb for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction and won for Best B&W Cinematography. The big winner in 1944 was Bing Crosby’s Going My Way. Although it received mixed reviews when it was released, it has become one of the best remembered films of the decade.
(Other photo sources include The Films of the Forties by Tony Thomas. Sources include: Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King by Foster Hirsch, Rough Guide to Film Noir by Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon, Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City by Mark Bould, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography by Victoria Price, Forties Screen Style by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Bonnie Cashin Foundation website: www.bonniecashinfoundation.org, the A&E Biography shows on Vincent Price and Gene Tierney included in the Fox DVD release of Laura, also Rudy Behlmer’s commentary on the disc.