Monday, September 14, 2015

Gene's Portrait is Painted

Is there a better mystery than Laura (1944)? We don't think so, and this week we revisited a film that everyone in our group had seen before (though a few had some memory gaps).  Narrated by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura tells the story of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a successful advertising executive whom it seemed was loved by everyone - except the murderer who shot her in the face with a rifle full of buckshot.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to investigate a case that is full of suspects - Lydecker, Laura's fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the woman who loves Shelby and Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).  Even maid Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams) is a suspect.  All profess to adore Laura, but someone pulled the trigger, and McPherson is having a problem as he tries to figure out who -   having read her diaries and seen her portrait (the color version is below), McPherson too has joined the many who love Laura.  As Waldo quips: "You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse."
Let's begin with the litany of well-deserved praise heaped upon this film:  it won the Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography in 1944; was nominated for Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Interior Design, Best Director (Otto Preminger) and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Web).  In 1999, it was selected for the National Film Registry.  Since then, it has been named number 4 in  AFI's 10 Top 10 in Mystery, number 7 in  AFI's Top 25 Film Scores (if you've never heard the score of Laura you can listen to a version of it), and #74 in AFI's 100 Years 100 Thrills.  The film was extremely well received (you can see excerpts of some of the contemporary reviews within these TCM articles).  And Laura's theme was so popular that 20th Century Fox hired the magnificent Johnny Mercer to provide lyrics to the music the following year (want to hear the lovely words? Here is the incomparable Frank Sinatra singing the song in 1957).

For many of us who grew up watching Vincent Price as the Prince of the horror film, seeing him as the love interest is a new experience.  Price is an actor who makes everything (even those odd horror pieces he did in the 1960s) seem elegant.  His Shelby is equally elegant, but not in the least a nice person. Shelby is unambitious, greedy, self-absorbed, and innately selfish.  He uses everyone; though he professes to love Laura, he is merely using her the same way he uses Ann.  Ann, however, says she and Shelby are the same, and she (unlike Laura) can afford him. Judith Anderson conveys that aspect of Ann beautifully - she is similar to Shelby in many ways, primarily in their greed and in their total disregard for others.  But Anderson gives Ann a strength of character that Price removes from Shelby.  A marriage between the two characters will be interesting;  surely Shelby will again try to stray, but Ann will make certain that his leash is short - no longer than the checkbook in her hand.
And then there is Waldo.  Fox had a number of actors under consideration for this plum role.  Laird Cregar was their first choice, but producer Preminger felt he was too obviously a villain.  George Sanders, John Sutton, and Monty Woolley were also considered for the part, which was allegedly patterned after the critic Alexander Woollcott.  But Preminger wanted Clifton Webb.  Webb had appeared in a few silent films in the 1920s, but this was his first talkie - he had spent his career on Broadway.  He appeared in a total of 23 Broadway plays, most of them musicals.  In fact, if you ever visit the Music Box Theatre in New York City, there is a picture of him in the lobby from The Little Show (1929-1930).  Preminger wanted an actor who was relatively unknown and approached Webb, who ultimately consented.  His Waldo is brilliant, selfish, opinionated, vain - and delightful.  It's hard to dislike Waldo, though one would neither want to be the victim of his tongue (or his "goose quill dipped in venom") nor of his affections.  He is obsessed with Laura, trying toThe scene in which Waldo and Laura first meet - as he lunches at his favorite restaurant - was modeled after the Algonquin Hotel, where Alexander Woollcott had dined (as part of the famed Round Table). And the portrait was actually a photograph of Tierney with oil paint strategically touching it up. Just these two points suggest why the film was nominated for an art direction/interior design Oscar. away anyone to whom she might be attracted.  Yet, in some senses, would he have been a better choice for Laura had he been less obsessive?  Only Waldo appears to understands her drive for a career.

Jennifer Jones was the first person signed for the role of Laura Hunt, but she backed out at the last minute (this AFI article goes into some detail on the casting history of the film).  Also considered were Hedy Lamarr and Eva Gabor.  But Preminger wanted Gene Tierney, and she is luminous as Laura.  Tierney came into the film having suffered a huge personal tragedy - her daughter Daria was born in 1943 with massive physical problems - developmentally disabled, deaf, and sight-impaired.  Tierney was bereft, but things would get worse.  Several years later, a fan approached her, informing her that when Tierney was appearing at a USO show during her pregnancy, the woman broke quarantine to meet Tierney, transmitting the disease to the unborn child.  (The story was fictionalized by Agatha Christie in The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side.  For more on rubella and birth defects and Gene Tierney, see this New Yorker article.)  Tierney's husband, Oleg Cassini suggested in his autobiography that Laura's ethereal quality reflected Tierney's grief. 
Dana Andrews also had competition for the role of Mark McPherson - both John Hodiak and George Raft were considered. Andrews was relatively new at Fox - he'd already co-starred with Gene Tierney in Belle Starr (1941), and had appeared in a number of war films for the studio (Wing and a Prayer, The Purple Heart, The North Star), but this was new territory for him.  His work was noticed - this New York Times review is especially impressed with his performance, as is director Martin Scorsese, who singles him out in one of the TCM articles mentioned above.  

Originally,  Rouben Mamoulian was to direct the film, but Otto Preminger took on the task after Mamoulian's first dailies proved to be unsatisfactory.  According to Vincent Price, Preminger felt that Mamoulian had one small issue with the film: "Rouben only knows nice people,  I understand the characters in Laura. They're all heels, just like my friends."  And, indeed they are heels.  One of the beauties of the film is that every character is flawed.  We talked at some length about what happened "after" the film - would Laura actually end up with Mark, or was he yet another one of her "lean strong bod[ies]" who Waldo complained was her criteria for love.  Would Mark understand her need to work? Would Laura leave a successful career to be a housewife, and live on a policeman's salary?  It's clear that she is someone who likes the finer things in life - she has happily given herself over to Waldo tutelage; his view of their relationship is frightening:
"She was quick to seize upon anything that would improve her mind or her appearance. Laura had innate breeding, but she deferred to my judgment and taste. I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her. Through me, she met everyone: The famous and the infamous. Her youth and beauty, her poise and charm of manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality. She had authentic magnetism. Wherever we went, she stood out. Men admired her; women envied her. She became as famous as Waldo Lydecker's walking stick and his white carnation."
We know she has populated her apartment with his gifts, so his appraisal of her does give one pause.

The scene in which Waldo and Laura first meet - as he lunches at his favorite restaurant - was modeled after the Algonquin Hotel, where Alexander Woollcott had dined (as part of the famed Round Table).  And the portrait of Laura was actually a photograph of Tierney with oil paint strategically  touching it up.  Just these two points suggest why the film was nominated for an art direction/interior design Oscar. 

This version of Laura was broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre on 5 February 1945, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Otto Kruger (as Waldo), and then again on 1 February 1954, with Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Joe Kearns and Carleton Young.  It's also been remade twice:  first as a one-hour telecast on 19 October 1955, on The 20th Century-Fox Hour, starring Dana Wynter, George Sanders and Robert Stack. Then, on 24 January 1968, a new adaptation by Truman Capote was aired, starring George Sanders, Robert Stack and Lee Bouvier.  George Sanders as Waldo was an especially delicious casting idea.

We'll leave you with the opening scene from Laura.   Next time, we'll be viewing another film about a strong woman faced with the choice of career vs. home.

3 comments:

  1. The novel was just reissued in HC. If you think there's a gay subtext to the film, it's nothing compared to the well-read McPherson and his seduction by Waldo in the novel. The book is related as a journal, done in turns by Waldo, McPherson, and finally Laura herself, who's a more interesting character in the book. Think the movie had toyed with that structure as well.

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    1. I'd actually not sensed a gay subtext to the film, since Waldo is so completely wrapped up in Laura. Waldo is so vain, he does try to "seduce" everyone (especially if he feels any admiration for the person, as he does for McPherson). What I sensed more in Waldo was an asexual quality that required adoration from everyone, but would not require an actual sexual act to satisfy him.

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    2. Certainly there's no sex in the Waldo/Laura relationship, but he is the stereotypical gay of the time, even revealing himself naked to McPherson in the first scene. Waldo's no more wrapped in Laura than he is in any of his other possessions, one of which he warns McPherson not to touch in that introductory scene. In the novel McPherson realizes Waldo's motive when he sees him smash an antique vase rather than lose it to another bidder. And Waldo's gun is concealed in his cane. In the film, the Webb/Price exchanges are hard to ignore.

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