In case you just tuned in, I am using Louella Parson’s May 15, 1944, item on Rouben Mamoulian being replaced as the director of “Laura” to take a meandering detour into the making of the film.
Most recently, we have been focusing on a series of eight stories sold to the studios by “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary, starting with “Suburb,” made as “The Night of June 13” (1932) and ending with “Scandal Street” (1938) that were variations on the same plot — “a murder story without a murder” in Caspary’s words, although that description isn’t entirely true, as we saw with “Private Scandal” (1934) and will see in “Scandal Street.”
Although “Laura” is not precisely “a murder story without a murder” it comes close. Instead of the wrong cause of death as in “Suburb” and it variations (a suicide mistaken for a murder or a murder mistaken as a suicide as in “Private Scandal”), “Laura” has the wrong victim.
Caspary’s stories were so similar that Paramount finally realized what she was doing and told her to stop because it was worried about a plagiarism suit, according to her autobiography. Paramount’s concerns seem justified; notice that she sold this version of the story to Fox.
The structure of “Suburb,” the root story, and “Such Women Are Dangerous” are much the same: We are introduced to our leading man, leading lady and an attractive but mentally disturbed woman (this will be important later), with long stretches of distracting busy work from half a dozen minor characters who squabble and bicker and carry on about the petty details of their lives in action that is seemingly unrelated to the plot.
Toward the end of the second act, as her insanity progresses, the mentally disturbed woman kills herself and the leading man is forced to conceal some vital piece of evidence about the suicide to protect the leading lady’s reputation, and he is put on trial for murder.
The final act of the film is set in a courtroom, and all our minor characters testify on the witness stand, where the seemingly unrelated details of the first two acts are organized by the prosecution into an iron-clad case against the leading man. And then – just as things look darkest – a surprise witness comes forward, the truth is revealed and order is restored. Everything ends happily – except for the woman who has killed herself.
“Such Women Are Dangerous,” released in June 1934, less than a month after “Private Scandal,” is a weak, tedious and otherwise forgettable film, so there is no point in dwelling on it except as it may pertain to “Laura.”
This time, instead of being set in a small town, as in “Suburb” and “Private Scandal,” the film takes place in New York, where novelist Michael Shawn(Warner Baxter) writes bestselling trash while his long-suffering secretary Helen Halleck (Rosemary Ames) …
wishes he would write the great literature of which he is capable.
Shawn has a “meet cute” with singer …
Wanda Paris (Mona Barrie) and the plot is off and running.
All we need is the mentally disturbed woman, Verne Little (Rochelle Hudson) …
an obsessed fan who has come to New York to show the great writer her poetry.
Shawn is a weak and unfailingly nice guy who just can’t say no to his obsessed fan. She misinterprets his actions as love and kills herself when he seemingly spurns her. A key piece of evidence is destroyed (or torn up in this case) and Shawn is tried for murder.
The courtroom scene in the third act.
Testimony of a surprise witness clears Shawn, who marries his long-suffering secretary and everything ends happily (except for poor old Verne Little, who killed herself and wasn’t found for several weeks).
As unlikely as it seems, “Such Women Are Dangerous” has the early glimmers of the Waldo Lydecker character in “Laura,” the famous but waspish columnist and radio commentator played by Clifton Webb. To be sure, there are significant differences between the two characters, and yet Shawn and Lydecker are both prominent New York writers who are set upon by an aspiring young career woman from the hinterlands. In “Laura,” it will be the title character, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). In “Such Women Are Dangerous,” it’s Verne Little (Rochelle Hudson).
What’s also worth noting is Caspary’s skill in portraying a character who either never appears in the picture or appears much later. Recall that her play “Blind Mice” consisted of an all-female cast in which the male characters were merely described but in such detail that they seemed real, according to reviews of the period.
Caspary does a bit of this in laying the groundwork for the entrance of Verne Little, but her ability will be more critical in the character of Laura Hunt (Tierney), who doesn’t enter “Laura” until a flashback 16 minutes into the film (Page 14 in the novel), as well as the character of Diane Redfern, who plays a minor but essential role in “Laura” without appearing in the film except in a shot of a magazine ad.
One of the few exceptions to the tedium of “Such Women Are Dangerous” was the performance by Rosemary Ames, who made a few movies in the 1930s and vanished from the industry.
To be continued.