The famous portrait of Laura Hunt in “Laura” by the fictional artist Stuart Jacoby. For the film, a large photo of Gene Tierney was heavily retouched to appear to be a painting.
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. Previous posts have examined the writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary and the state of the detective story in 1941, when she was writing the novel. We also explored some of the locations Caspary used in the book.
This time, we’re going to look the novel’s portrayal of Laura Hunt, who is the title character of Vera Caspary’s novel and the film, but not the most important one – that would be the acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film).
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 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28
Laura Hunt may be the title character, but she is required by the plot to play a subordinate role as the apparent victim of the “Bachelor Girl Murder.” This caused problems in the screen adaptation and Gene Tierney, who had the role of Laura in the film, said that although it was her most famous role, she resented being known for playing a painting.
As an apparent murder victim, Laura is discussed and described by the other characters and doesn’t make her entrance until Page 85, in the portion told by Detective Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews in the film). Recall that Caspary narrates the story from various viewpoints. It’s not until the fourth section of the book (Page 167) that the reader discovers what’s in Laura’s thoughts.
Laura is introduced by Caspary in the section narrated by Waldo (Page 13):
She was a slender thing, timid as a fawn and fawn-like, too, in her young uncertain grace. She had a tiny head, delicate for even that thin body, and the tilt of it, along with the bright shyness of her slightly oblique dark eyes further contributed to the sense that Bambi – or Bambi’s doe – had escaped from the forest and galloped up the 18 flights to this apartment.
The patient reader can deduce the following biography: Laura is a young woman from Colorado Springs who has come to New York for unexplained reasons and after numerous rejections landed a job at the Rose, Rowe and Sanders advertising firm (Page 48).
Almost 30 at the time of the killing, Laura was in her early 20s when she met Waldo in 1934 (Page 13). She had conceived an advertising campaign for a fountain pen – choosing the name Byron – and solicited an endorsement from him. Waldo confesses to Mark that he was enchanted by her at once, but felt he was obligated to put on a show of choleric rage and then invited her to stay for a glass of sherry. What follows is the dark, dysfunctional side of “Pygmalion.”
Waldo says (page 16):
Under my tutelage she developed from a gauche child to a gracious New Yorker. After a year no one would have suspected that she came from Colorado Springs…. Of all my friends she is the only one with whom I was willing to share my prestige. She became as well known at opening nights as Waldo Lydecker’s graying Van Dyke or his gold-banded stick.
Caspary goes to enormous lengths to have her characters say that Laura is a lovely person, that she’s kind, beautiful, adorable, gracious, etc., but the reader never sees Laura actually being or doing any of these things.
Instead, Caspary portrays Laura as a beautiful but indecisive grab bag of emotions, a successful, modern career woman who throws away her money trying to keep up with the latest fashions and has horrible taste in men, notably her fiance Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price), a co-worker who is having a mad affair with another co-worker Diane Redfern, the unseen victim of the murder.
In speaking of her relationship with Shelby and discovering that he was having an affair, Laura says (Page 179):
The fault was mine more than Shelby’s. I had used him as women use men to complete the design of a full life playing at love for the gratification of my vanity, wearing him proudly as a successful prostitute wears her silver foxes to tell the world she owns a man. Going on 30 and unmarried, I had become alarmed. Pretending to love him and playing the mother game. I bought him an extravagant cigarette case, 14-karat gold, as a man might buy his wife an orchid or a diamond to expiate infidelity.
And now that tragedy had wiped away all the glib excuses, I see that our love was as bare of real passion as the mating of two choice vegetables for the purpose of producing a profitable new item for the markets. It was like love in the movies, contrived and opportune. And now it was over.
Powerful writing to be sure, but not the sort of interior monologue one usually finds in a mystery story.
In the June 26, 1971, issue of Saturday Review, Caspary wrote of fighting with producer-director Otto Preminger over the portrayal of Laura:
To be continued.