‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 11

Laura Cover

In case you just tuned in, I’m using Louella Parsons’ May 15, 1944, item on Rouben Mamoulian being replaced as the director of “Laura” to take a meandering look at the making of the film, which was released in Los Angeles in November 1944, several months after another noir classic, “Double Indemnity,” which was shot in late 1943 and released in August 1944.

So far, we have looked at the early writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary and four murder mystery films made between 1932 and 1938 based on variations of a story titled “Suburb,” which Caspary sold to the studios eight times before Paramount told her to knock it off.

The Making of “Laura” Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | | Part 12

These films — “The Night of June 13”  (1932), “Private Scandal”  and “Such Women Are Dangerous” (both 1934), and “Scandal Street” (1938) — were a trial and my congratulations to anyone who stuck with me through those posts. All four films are quite obscure and finding copies was a treasure hunt that took me to several gray market dealers. The print quality varied from passable to what were apparently old multi-generation dupes from VHS.

Spoilers ahead

Like most autobiographies, Caspary’s “The Secrets of Grown-Ups” is a problematic work. It is entertaining reading, but short on her growth as a writer and long on her love life, her misadventures in caring for her mother and her involvement with communism. It’s reassuring to read the author’s own words, but maddening when she dismisses some subjects with a few words or neglects to mention them at all. Caspary wrote the book in 1979, and as a mature writer, she looks back at her 40-year-old film work with a bit of pride and far more embarrassment.

And as with many autobiographies, selective recall is an issue.

Caspary remembers: “New York papers were shoved at me. Reviewers called ‘The Night of June 13′  the freshest and most entertaining picture of the year, story by Vera Caspary. It was my original original, ‘Suburb,’ expanded into an excellent screenplay, superbly directed.”

However, the New York Times (Sept. 17, 1932) said:

“There is an appealing simplicity about some of the episodes, but the picture might easily have been improved by being more plausible and also by having sharper comedy. Its chief virtue is that it is different from the ordinary run of films and although Stephen Roberts, the director, is not strong on humor, he often presents his scenes with a gratifying vein of imagination.”

She is virtually silent on the remaining films; none are mentioned by name in her autobiography. She says: “With each version, the story was more mechanical, the price higher.”

And yet looking at “Suburb” and all its variants on “a murder story without a murder” is illuminating when laying the foundation for “Laura.”

For those who haven’t seen “Laura” in a long time or have never seen it, here’s a brief plot summary:

Homicide Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to investigate the murder of advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) who was shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun, so that she is unrecognizable. He questions several of her friends — newspaper columnist and radio commentator Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and maid (Dorothy Adams) and from these discussions, as well as reading her diary and gazing at a large portrait of her, becomes obsessed with her.

Late in the story (46 minutes into the movie and on Page 85 of the novel), Laura returns to her apartment from a long weekend in the country and finds it occupied by McPherson. Once he overcomes his astonishment, he discovers that the victim is a minor character named Diane Redfern and in the rest of the story McPherson eliminates the other characters as suspects until he realizes that the killer is Waldo. McPherson rushes to Laura’s apartment and arrives just as Waldo is about to kill Laura before committing suicide.

My point in going through these very minor films is to see if they have any glimmers of “Laura”  or whether Caspary came up with a new twist on a murder mystery out of nowhere. (I have read my share of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Patricia Highsmith and Josephine Tey – and almost everything by Raymond Chandler — but I’m not a mystery fan these days so I might have missed something akin to “Laura.” Still, as far as I know, this plot is unique.)

And the answer is yes. In this set of films, Caspary had the (very) raw material of all of these characters and the underlying concept if not the particular “gimmick” used in “Laura.”

warner_baxter_such_women

Warner Baxter and Rosemary Ames in a lobby card for “Such Women Are Dangerous,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $29.99.


In “Such Women Are Dangerous,” we find prominent New York writer Michael Shawn (Warner Baxter). Not biting and waspish like Clifton Webb’s writer-commentator Waldo Lydecker (who is described as “an old maid” in Caspary’s novel), but famous enough that he’s set upon by a young woman from the hinterlands, although it’s an obsessed fan rather than an aspiring career woman as in “Laura.”

'Scandal Street'
In “Scandal Street,” librarian Nora Langdon (Louise Campbell), gets a lift from neighborhood ladies’ man Austin Brown (Roscoe Karns).


Although it’s a bit of a stretch, in “Scandal Street,” we find glimmers of debonair ladies’ man Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) in fast-talking pickup artist Austin Brown (Roscoe Karns).

'Scandal Street'
Gossipy, small-town matrons (Elizabeth Patterson, Esther Howard and Cecil Cunningham) play bridge in “Scandal Street.”


Again, it’s a bit of a stretch, but we can see antecedents of wealthy widow Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) in the small-town matrons who appear in all four films, particularly the widow of “Scandal Street,” Maybelle Murphy (Cecil Cunningham) who is in the market for a man.

'Private Scandal'
Ned Sparks as Inspector Riordan, with Cliff Barry (Phillips Holmes) in “Private Scandal.”


In “Private Scandal,” the murder is solved by Inspector Riordan (Ned Sparks), a tough detective who is never at a loss for words and suspects everyone. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has far more polish, but there is kinship between these two investigators.

And finally, Laura, the single career woman.

'Scandal Street'
Louise Campbell as  librarian Nora Langdon in “Scandal Street.”


Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) may not be the most interesting character in the film (Tierney complained that Laura was her most famous role and that she was remembered for playing a painting), but Caspary considered Laura the most important character in her novel and complained repeatedly over her portrayal in the film. Caspary said she created Laura as a young career woman without a man, making her own way in the world unconcerned with marriage, all of which was discarded for the film.

The clearest example in the four films of the single career woman is Nora Langdon (Louise Campbell) in “Scandal Street.” True, she plans to get married, but her fiance Joe McKnight (Lew Ayres) is absent from the film for 30 minutes and returns just in time to rescue her from accusations of murder. For most of the movie she is on her own.

Whew.

So far we have seen Caspary’s variations on “a murder story without a murder” and glimmers of the characters in the film.

Next, “Laura” as a play. That became a novel. That was made into a film.

To be continued.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1944, Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to ‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 11

  1. Earl Boebert says:

    Now that I don’t have to worry about submitting a spoiler :-) I’ll bring up what always bothered me about the plot (my father was an investigator, I grew up listening to cop talk over dinners with his pals):

    Any halfway competent homicide detective would have had the fingerprints on the corpse compared to prints in the apartment in order to determine if the body was the resident. So Laura-as-victim would have been eliminated from the git-go. Especially in the 1940s, when getting an ID of a mutilated corpse was much harder than it is today.

    Still a great psychological study, though, and Clifton Webb does creepy like no other.

    • lmharnisch says:

      That issue is handled more adroitly in Vera Caspary’s novel. Bessie Clary (the extremely efficient maid) makes a point of bragging that she cleaned the apartment thoroughly and therefore, investigators wouldn’t find any fingerprints. The book also answers the troubling question — ignored in the movie — of “where is the victim’s purse?” which would have had her identification.

      • Earl Boebert says:

        I wonder if she cleaned the inside of the mail box door :-)

        Nah, just kidding, you can pick nits about anybody’s stuff (except Hammett, who knew whereof he wrote). It’s a great story and I’ll do willing suspension of disbelief for something that good any day.

        Good catch on the purse, I had forgotten about that.

      • lmharnisch says:

        I’m not too crazy about the way Dana Andrews handles the shotgun either. But it’s a movie.

  2. Surely the housekeeper or doorman would collect the mail and hand it to Miss Hunt personally! : )

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