‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 40

"Laura," script

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.

The first 30 posts were devoted to the writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary; the state of the detective story in 1941, when she was writing the novel; the New York locations Caspary used in the book; and an examination of the major and minor characters.

The next nine posts broke down the novel to study the significant challenges of adapting it for the screen.

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 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

James Ellroy to script remake of ‘Laura’

What follows now has more to do with studio deal-making and politics than the creative process and has the tangled chronology that occurs when people write from memory rather than checking to see what actually happened.

Here’s a brief timeline leading up to the production of the film.

Caspary had been working on the story of “Laura” as a play and out of dissatisfaction with the script, she adapted it as a novel,  completing it on Christmas morning 1941, according to her autobiography, “The Secrets of Grown-Ups.” She says in a June 26, 1971, article in Saturday Review: “I had buried it for almost two years before I wrote the novel.”

“Ring Twice for Laura,” an abridged version of the book, was serialized in Colliers in October and November 1942.

“Ring Twice for Laura” Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

According to the 1971 Saturday Review article, a synopsis of “Ring Twice for Laura” was shrugged off when it appeared in the internal story summaries circulated by the studios, presumably in late 1942:

June 26, 1971, Saturday Review

It’s worth noting that the reaction to “Ring Twice for Laura” was not an exception; compilations of story summaries were often ignored.

In “The Creative Producer,” longtime producer David Lewis describes his work in the early 1930s editing the weekly booklet of summaries issued by Paramount’s story department.  “Our weekly story department magazine eventually went to hell,” he says on Page 31. “Good idea that it was, the Paramount personnel were not very responsive to story ideas…. I should say, in all fairness, that the story departments at all the big studios (with the possible exception of MGM, where more attention was paid to the inflow of material) were semi-deserts.”

The novel was copyrighted Jan. 26, 1943, and reviewed with other new mystery novels in the Jan. 31, 1943, issue of the New York Times Book Review.

Less than six months later, on June 11, 1943, the New York Times reported that 20th Century-Fox had purchased the screen rights to the novel, with the note that Laird Cregar was to play Waldo Lydecker (a role ultimately taken by Clifton Webb) and George Sanders would be cast as Detective Mark McPherson (a role ultimately performed by Dana Andrews).  More about casting “Laura” will come in future posts.

On June 15, 1943, Motion Picture Daily also reported that 20th Century-Fox had acquired the screen rights to Vera Caspary’s novel “Laura,” noting that the book was then in its fourth printing.

Motion Picture Daily, June 15, 1943
Motion Picture Daily, June 15, 1943

“Laura” is acquired by 20th Century-Fox, according to Motion Picture Daily, June 15, 1943.

In the 1971 article as well as her autobiography, Caspary says that she wasn’t interested in adapting the novel for the screen. Instead, she wanted to work with George Sklar, a playwright, novelist and sometime studio writer, on a stage version of “Laura,” which I’m going to ignore except to say that it is dreadful and reflects all of Caspary’s weaknesses and none of her strengths. The Caspary-Sklar stage version of “Laura” wasn’t produced in New York until 1947, when it  received a lukewarm review from Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who called it “a gum-shoe romance.”

Self-knowledge is not one of Caspary’s strengths, and she wrote in 1971 that a film adaptation of “Laura” would be easy. As we shall see, bringing the novel to the screen required a series of writers to sharpen the dialogue, focus the plot, scrap her irrelevant minor characters and dump the murky symbolism.


June 26, 1971, Saturday Review

Somewhere between when the book was published in January 1943 and when the screen rights were sold in June, Marlene Dietrich was briefly interested in “Laura” as a film project.

Caspary wrote in 1971 of a visit with Sklar to Dietrich’s home:

And thus the project with Dietrich never materialized. Caspary wrote in 1971 that she sold the screen rights to “Laura” for $30,000 (or $412,460.12 in 2014 dollars). She said that with Sklar stuck in Hollywood under a studio contract, she could not tackle a pre-Broadway road show of the play — with its inevitable reworking and a multitude of creative arguments — by herself. “I’m going to offer ‘Laura’ as a movie and be done with the bitch,” she said.

If 20th Century-Fox paid $30,000 for “Laura,” it was certainly at the low end of the scale. For comparison, in September 1944, MGM gave a $125,000 First Novel Award to “Green Dolphin Street.”  In May 1944, Warners paid $250,000 for the Broadway play “Chicken Every Sunday” and $425,000 for “Junior Miss.”

In “Secrets of Grown-Ups,” Caspary says: “My agents drew up one of the worst contracts ever written. I signed it as carelessly as a $5-dollar check.”

To be continued.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1944, Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 40

  1. Gary Martin says:

    Sounds as if she wrote the novel as carelessly as a five dollar check as well.


  2. Gary Martin says:

    Suggested correction: I signed it as carelessly as I sign five dollar checks.


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