Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Remembering Laura . . . and those who dreamed her into being

Last month I spent an enchanted evening with Vincent Price . . . also Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Yes, it was a screening of Laura (cue David Raksin’s evocative theme music). It was held in the perfect venue: the American Cinematheque’s flagstaff theatre, the Egyptian, which has graced Hollywood Boulevard for 90 years. The Egyptian, opulent and Hollywood-exotic, was once the site of America’s first movie premiere. Now it’s a gathering spot for movie lovers catching up on world cinema classics. From April 5 through 21, the Egyptian will host the fifteenth annual Noir City festival. Laura (from 1944) qualifies as film noir too, but the special showing in February coincided with a visit to L.A. of Carl Rollyson, author of the first biography of Dana Andrews, Hollywood Enigma. Also present was Andrews’ daughter Susan, along with many of the film’s biggest fans. One admitted that her parents had named her after Gene Tierney’s character, a mysterious lady who may or may not have been a murder victim.

The invaluable Alan K. Rode, my expert on all things noir, provides the backstory for Laura, which began as a popular novel. According to Alan, who has kindly let me quote him at length, “[Rouben] Mamoulian started out as the director and [Otto] Preminger was the producer. Preminger and Darryl F. Zanuck [of Twentieth Century-Fox] had a major falling-out over Kidnapped in 1938 that resulted in Otto being blackballed in Hollywood for a number of years. Zanuck kept him under contract but didn't let him do anything at the studio as payback. 

“Preminger was earning his way into DFZ's good graces because he was ‘allowed’ to produce Laura. Preminger wanted to direct the film, but Zanuck didn't want him, so Otto as a producer was put in the unfortunate position of having to find a director for a film that he knew he was born to direct.

“Mamoulian was overbearing and egotistical (just like Otto) and started rewriting the script . . . [Mamoulian] cast Fox contract player Laird Cregar as Waldo, a terrible decision that Preminger lobbied Zanuck to change. Zanuck wouldn't budge, so Preminger risked his nascent career to hire Clifton Webb and then convinced Zanuck to schedule a screen test. Zanuck, who loathed homosexuals, was afraid that Webb ‘would fly,’ i.e appear overtly gay on screen. . . . [But] Webb was perfect as the upper-crust dandy, and Zanuck -- who was as honest as any mogul about what was right for a film -- approved his hiring as Waldo with alacrity.

“Mamoulian pouted, misdirected the cast, and did his best to ruin the movie. Zanuck got fed up and, in a conference with Preminger, fired Mamoulian and told Preminger to direct Laura. Preminger . . . hired Joe La Shelle as the cinematographer, got a new portrait of Laura for the movie [to replace one that had been painted by Mamoulian’s wife] and made a classic film. As Vincent Price related, ‘Otto had an idea about the material and he was right. The New York society depicted in the film are all darlings, sweet and charming and clever and bright -- on the surface. But underneath they're evil. And Otto understood this in a way Mamoulian didn't.’”

Alan also supplied a postscript about Mamoulian’s career going downhill after Laura. He doesn’t think much of Mamoulian as a film director. Yet Mamoulian also helmed some landmark stage and screen productions. In the 1980s I spent a fascinating afternoon with him (in a house overrun by cats) . . . but that’s a subject for another day.


  1. You didn't mention Vera Caspary, who wrote the novel Laura, from which the movie was made. Vera also spent many years in Hollywood writing screenplays. You can read her short bio here:

  2. Thanks, Pat. I didn't have room, and didn't know much about her. Obviously you do, and I thank you for educating me!

  3. I love the Egyptian! I saw Wings of Desire there and it was amazing.

  4. Thank goodness some of those old movie palaces have survived. Jaime, are you aware of the L.A. Conservancy's annual Last Remaining Seats series? They show classic movies in theatres like the Orpheum, Loew's State, and the Los Angeles, many of them on Spring Street in Downtown L.A. and some of them only available for special occasions like these.