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.
So far, we have examined the early writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary, 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. We made a brief detour to “Easy Living,” in which we found that in adapting Caspary’s original story for the screen, Preston Sturges discarded everything but the title and the principal plot device: a fur coat.
We also looked at Caspary’s attempts at writing for the stage, finding that although she labored diligently on plays, they did not turn out well. Her previous effort before “Laura,” “Geraniums in My Window,” received 27 performances on Broadway and earned poor reviews. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described “Geraniums” as “a misshapen piece of Broadway clap-trap.”
”Laura” began as a play – and not a very good one.
An illustration from “The Moonstone,” via Archive.org.
In her autobiography, “The Secrets of Grown-Ups,” Caspary writes of the first “Laura” play:
“In the first draft, the villain had been weak, the solution of the murder anticlimax. Now a different killer entered the story; how he was conceived I can’t recall.”
Caspary says she wrote a brief scenario of the story, realizing that she could probably sell it to the studios as another original story. A friend who was a producer liked the story and hoped to sell it to his studio, but it was rejected.
Caspary’s initial idea was to try to peddle the story to the other studios as another original. But this unidentified friend urged her to write it as a novel. When she protested, he replied: “You always said you worked in the movies only to make money enough to write novels.”
Mysteries had never been my favorite reading. The murderer, the most interesting character, has always to be on the periphery of the action lest he give away the secret that can be revealed only in the final pages…”
Caspary notes that most of her original stories for the studios had been murder stories (see “The Night of June 13,” “Private Scandal,” “Such Women Are Dangerous” and “Scandal Street”), but that she didn’t consider them to be in the same class as a novel — and given their inferior plots and mediocre characters, one can only agree.
The challenge with “Laura,” she said, was that “every character in the story, except the detective, was to be a suspect — particularly the heroine, with whom the detective was to fall in love.”
She added: “If she and the other characters were to be made more than detective story stereotypes, I had to find a way to show them alive and contradictory while keeping secret the murderer’s identity.”
Ellis St. Joseph, a playwright and Warner Bros.’ staff writer (d. 1993), recommended that Caspary follow the method used by Wilkie Collins in “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White,” in which the story is told from several points of view. Caspary took St. Joseph’s advice and, collaborating with him, worked out a biography of the killer, Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film).
Caspary says in “The Secrets of Grown-Ups”:
“Night after night, Ellis and I sat up, talking about Waldo Lydecker, the impotent man who tries to destroy the woman he can never possess. We developed his background, imagined his youth, analyzed the causes of his frustrate masculinity, considered his taste, his talent, his idiosyncrasies.”
And thus “Laura” became a novel in five parts. The first is told by Waldo Lydecker. The second is told by Detective Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews in the film). The third is a transcript of Mark interrogating Laura Hunt’s fiance, Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price in the film). The fourth is an excerpt from the diary of Laura Hunt (played by Gene Tierney in the film). The fifth is Mark’s final report on the case.
“I enjoyed the trick of writing in [Waldo’s] style, contrasting his florid mannerisms with the direct prose of the detective and, through the girl’s version, showing the vagaries of the female mind. After all those barren years, I worked with the zest of a young writer with a first novel,” she says.
Caspary says that she reworked the story and on Christmas morning, 1941, she wrote “Laura” on the title page and “The End” to the manuscript.
To be continued.