“Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck,” selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.
Jan. 19, 2016, update: When I began my “sabbatical” last year, I had a backlog of a few unpublished posts on the making of “Laura.” At the time, it seemed like a good idea to push those off until January 2016 with the idea that I would resume them now. Unanticipated events have changed my plans and although I won’t be writing any new posts on “Laura,” I will publish the ones that I had finished a year ago.
On Nov. 1, 1943, Twentieth Century-Fox head of production Darryl F. Zanuck issued a stinging critique of Jay Dratler’s first draft of “Laura,” which is quoted by nearly everyone who writes about making the film.
Several things are clear in this memo: First, Zanuck had apparently read Vera Caspary’s novel rather than referring to a synopsis. He says: “There was a good thing in the book, which you have eliminated here, and that was the point that fashionable Park Avenue murders were not Mark (McPherson’s) dish.”
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 | Part 36 | Part 37 | Part 38 | Part 39 | Part 40 | Part 41 | Part 42
Update, Jan. 19, 2016: I had forgotten that Ellroy was supposed to write a remake of “Laura.” One can only imagine how awful it would be. I can’t find anything recent on the project, so I assume it’s at the bottom of the ocean two miles off Point Fermin.
More important are his plans to turn “Laura” into a major production — “ a big-time success” — in a class with MGM’s 1934 “The Thin Man” and Warner Bros. 1941 “The Maltese Falcon,” emphasizing the need for clearly defined characters and sharp dialogue. He said:
All of the people, Mark included, should seem as if they stepped out of “The Maltese Falcon.” Everyone has a distinct, different personality. This is what made “The Maltese Falcon.” It wasn’t the plot, it was the amazing characters. The only chance this picture has of becoming a big-time success is if these characters emerge as real outstanding personalities. Otherwise it will become nothing more than a blown-up Whodunit.”
Many of the problems that Zanuck complained about, especially the weak characters, were inherited directly from Caspary’s novel and his memo cautioned about following the book too closely. He said:
There is no reason for [Laura] to tell her own story. The voice did not help at all. Perhaps it can be rewritten and helped, but just to keep it in to maintain the form of the book doesn’t mean a thing. It was good with other people because you had to explain what they were thinking about, but for Laura, you do not need it because then it becomes straight action.
One aspect of the plot that troubled Zanuck was how quickly Laura and Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) fell in love and he suggested emphasizing Mark’s rough edges for “a Prizefighter and the Lady setup.”
He also thought that the dialogue, except for Waldo Lydecker’s was flat and even Waldo’s needed to be improved.
Zanuck elaborated in a Jan. 9, 1945, memo about “Now It Can Be Told”:
In “Laura,” for instance, nothing that was ever uttered by Clifton Webb could have been said by any other character, so was Vincent Price. Therefore, you provoked drama between these characters.
To be continued.