In case you just tuned in, prompted by Louella Parsons’ May 15 post that Rouben Mamoulian had asked to be released as director of “Laura” (later accounts will say that he was fired), I’m looking at the making of the movie, one of the classics of film noir, no matter how you define this nebulous but popular genre.
The behind-the-scenes intrigue at 20th Century-Fox involving in “Laura” is familiar to anyone who has read much about the film. The books about studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, producer/director Otto Preminger and ousted director Rouben Mamoulian tend to repeat the same stories. I think it’s more valuable to begin by examining the creative process behind “Laura,” starting with what occurred before the camera rolled or the scripts were written.
And for that, we must turn to the novel’s author, Vera Caspary.
Caspary, who died in 1987, left an autobiography, “The Secrets of Grown-Ups,” but like many such works, it’s filled with all sorts of details about her trials, tribulations and love life and there’s little about her technique in crafting this story.
Early in her career, Caspary worked as a writer for a variety of publications and outlets, often as a freelancer. One employer was a company that sold correspondence courses and offered a mail-order course on ballet by the entirely fictional dance master Sergei Marinoff.
Here’s what she says: “Another professor had to be created. He was not, like our famous ballet master, a creature of imagination but real, alive, flesh and bone, a man with his name on the cover of the book. He introduced himself as Charles Donald Fox, the author of “Who’s Who in the Movies.” Three-quarters of each page were given to photographs of stars, the remaining space to vital statistics and a list of credits. The book could have been written with a pair of scissors and probably was.”
With the support a financial backer (“a typical Chicago provincial, bald and blunt, shiny-faced and dressed as though his suits had been selected from a catalogue”) the idea was to offer a correspondence course in writing screenplays.
Of course, it was a complete fraud. Fox appeared at the office, claiming to have written chapter after chapter. But he never wrote a word. Ads had been published, students had enrolled. But there was nothing to sell.
Caspary badgered her bosses for permission to write the correspondence course on screenwriting. She wrote that she “argued, nagged and sulked” until they agreed.
She had to work fast: “When ‘Dear Student’ received the first lesson, Professor Caspary was proofreading the second, writing the third. A student myself, an apprentice, I learned while I earned.”
Her sources were William Archer’s “Playmaking” and George Pierce Baker’s “Dramatic Technique.”
“To write simply about theory for students of uncertain intelligence, I applied every rule to its use in current movies. For myself as well as Dear Student I analyzed situation and structure, character, conflict and plot.”
Fortunately for us, all three of these sources are online.
”Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship” by William Archer.
”Dramatic Technique” by George Pierce Baker.
”The Fox Plan of Photoplay Writing” by Charles Donald Fox.
To be continued.