In case you just tuned in, I’m using Louella Parsons’ May 15, 1944, item on Rouben Mamoulian being replaced as director of “Laura” to do a bit of digging into the production of this film noir classic – however one happens to define film noir.
I’m going to be taking a look at the genesis of Caspary’s novel, which was the basis for the film, but first it may be worthwhile to examine her writing career over the roughly 20 years from the time she ghostwrote “The Fox Plan of Photoplay Writing” in 1922 to “Laura,” which began as an unsatisfying draft of a play.
By the time Caspary wrote “Laura,” she had carved out a career as an incredibly prolific magazine freelancer, novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Caspary was so busy at her typewriter – and there was sometimes a lag between when she finished a project and when it was published — that it’s a challenge to sort out the chronology of her works.
Caspary published three novels in 1929-30: “Ladies and Gents,” written first but published later; “The White Girl” and “Music in the Street.”
Her first attempt at a novel, “Ladies and Gents,” received few reviews. Here’s one I was able to locate, from the Oakland Tribune, Sept. 8, 1929:
Caspary’s first published novel was “The White Girl,” about an African American girl passing as white. “Reviews were better than I’d dared hope for,” Caspary wrote in her autobiography. “There was a rumor that I was a black girl who had written an autobiography.”
In January 1930, she published the novel “Music in the Street” about “working girls in a great city,” according to the New York Times (Dec. 15, 1929). The Times said Caspary spent two months in a hotel for working girls to do research for the novel.
More important, the novel furnished material for her first play ”Blind Mice” (with Winifred Lenihan,) which had a run of 14 performances in October 1930 and drew a bit of attention because it had an all-woman cast.
Bringing the play from script to the stage was a grueling experience, with so many rewrites that Caspary says it was impossible to remember them all. Cast members delivered their lines from various versions. It was a fiasco in every way.
Caspary writes: “It had become a dirty play. The tender story of young love had been rewritten by males, had become a patronizing comedy with bawdy lines and leering suggestiveness. Winnie and I were ashamed of having our names on the program.”
The play received a tepid review from the New York Times, which said Caspary and Lenihan “have worked hard and often successfully at it, scoring small victories against the boredom implicit in such threadbare material. Their setting is alive with the diversity of its many characters; its incidental business moves briskly and they have even given a certain personality to those important persons who remain unseen.
A photo from “Working Girls,” listed on EBay for $9.95.
The production faded quickly on Broadway, but it was enough to draw the interest of Paramount, which bought the rights “not for a lot of money, but in my circumstances it was a fortune,” she says.
The result was the 1931 film titled “Working Girls,” adapted by Zoe Akins , with Judith Wood, Paul Lukas, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Stuart Erwin — apparently Paramount wasn’t willing to gamble on an all-female cast for this picture.
To be continued.