The title role in Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (20th Century-Fox, 1944) was offered to several actresses before Gene Tierney finally accepted it, under protest. Jennifer Jones was the first to turn it down. Then Rosalind Russell said the part was too small. Next, Hedy Lamarr. Some years later, when she was asked why she had refused, Hedy answered, “They sent me the script, not the score.”
That score . . . David Raksin wrote it. After the picture was released, the main theme became so popular (“haunting” is the word commonly used to describe it) that Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to it and it became a big hit. Raksin was crazy in love with Judy Garland in 1944, and said when he composed it, the name he had in mind was not Laura, but Judy. “Laura” is one of the few pictures — “Casablanca” is another — that’s as famous for its score as for anything else. Yet there’s very little music in the picture other than its main theme. “You Go to My Head” is played on a dance floor in one scene. In the extended version (more about this in a moment), the song “Heaven Can Wait” is heard in the background. Max Steiner used the same tune in “Casablanca,” when Rick is introduced to Major Strasser.
“Laura” is also famous for its gorgeousness: every frame is meticulously lighted and shot — it’s the silver screen at its silvery best. Joseph LaShelle, who photographed it, won that year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White; Lyle Wheeler, Leland Fuller and Thomas Little were nominated for their interior decoration, but lost to Cedric Gibbons, whose interiors for “Gaslight” were even more excessive and ornate. “Laura” looks great, but since much of the action takes place in the apartment of the prissy, vitriolic columnist-cum-gasbag, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and in the home of his murdered protégé, the decor reflects his personality and taste. It’s ostentatious kitsch: lots of fringe, tassels, lampshades with ribbons and ruffles, sconces with crystal pendants, tchockes strewn about — late Victorian rococo. The cinematography and clothes are chic; the set dressing is maiden aunt. (Gene Tierney wears a lot of nice clothes, but most of her millinery is ghastly — some of the things she wears on her head look like a cross between a nun’s wimple and Paddington Bear’s rain hat.)
As a mystery, “Laura” isn’t much good (the solution is neither startling nor ingenious), nor are many of the performances terribly interesting (Judith Anderson is a notable exception), but it has a wonderful dreamlike atmosphere. And there’s an overtone of necrophilia — Dana Andrews finds himself falling in love with the beautiful murder victim — which makes it most unusual.
On the DVD and Blu-ray, if you choose to watch the extended version, which is slightly over a minute longer than the theatrical release, this is the message that precedes it: “You have selected the Extended View of Laura which contains a montage dealing with remaking Laura into a society woman. According to Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, the scene was cut because of war-atmosphere in America. The sequence was judged as too off-putting in its decadence.” . . . “Too off-putting in its decadence” . . . ! I like the sound of that!
Here is the deleted, “decadent” narration, spoken by Clifton Webb. The establishing shot has him talking to Dana Andrews at a quiet little restaurant, but most of it is done as a voice-over to a montage of various points in Laura’s make-over.
Lydecker: She had an eager mind, always. She was always quick to seize upon anything that would improve her mind or her appearance. Laura had innate breeding. [He drinks.] But she deferred to my judgment and taste. [Cut to Laura at a beauty salon, with Lydecker giving instructions to the stylist.] I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. [Cut to Laura at a dress fitting, with Lydecker looking on approvingly.] I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her. [Cut to Laura and Lydecker at an opening; “Heaven Can Wait” plays as underscoring.] Through me, she met everyone — the famous and the infamous. [Cut to Lydecker dancing with Laura.] Her youth and beauty, her poise and charm of manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality. She had authentic magnetism. [Cut to Laura and Lydecker being seated at Sardi’s.] Wherever we went, she stood out. Men admired her; [Cut to Laura and Lydecker entering El Morocco.] women envied her. She became as well-known [Webb pronounces it “know-win”] as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation . . .
It’s certainly plenty wet . . . but decadent? Not to me — not after the things I’ve seen . . . It seems preposterous to call it decadent — but it was, after all, the middle of the war, and Fox executives were worried that the depiction of wealthy people on the home front expending so much concentrated effort on luxurious fashions and hair styles (what they termed “non-military obsessions”), rather than on the war effort, would offend soldiers overseas. Well, perhaps they were right. And, come to think of it, there is something decidedly decadent about the line “I selected a more attractive hairdress for her.” . . . Well, maybe not decadent, exactly . . . At any rate, it’s the queeniest thing I ever heard in a major motion picture.
Yet despite this fine feeling for the soldiers overseas, much of the sequence was used in the trailer — apparently, the Fox executives thought the material was compelling enough to draw in home front audiences. (And why throw out perfectly good, expensive footage without getting some benefit from it?) Have a look.
The War years were long on chic, witty millinery and coiffures. One didn’t need to use one’s ration coupons to set long hair into a complicated style. Hats used comparatively little material, which made a difference, given wartime restrictions. The challenge was not to lose all glamour to frugality. Gene Tierney’s millinery in Laura manages to look expensive and also not glamorous. That’s quite a stunt.
That’s a very shrewd and helpful comment. It explains in a few sentences a whole lot of decisions about style that had previously eluded me. Thanks! TR
A great review: well-written, informative and funny.