One of the quintessential film noirs.

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And, as is often the case with classic studio films, it was the product of intense internecine conflict.

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20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck harbored an intense dislike for director Otto Preminger (fancy that!), who was under contract to the studio. To fulfill contractual  obligations and then show Preminger the door, Zanuck permitted the director to prepare a cheapo adaptation of a unheralded Vera Gaspary novel about a working stiff detective trying to unravel a confusing murder that did (or did not) do in the eponymous heroine.

Zanuck stiffed Preminger by bring in Rouben Mamoulian to direct but backtracked when the early rushes came in — they “stank,” writes film noir specialist Eddie Muller. Preminger was reluctantly returned as director. The rest is…..

1944’s Laura was somehow converted into a magnificent film, a classic. Matters were helped considerably by the composition of the movie’s theme song, Laura, by David Raskin. For our money, the song is the finest single excerpt of any score we can think of in classic movies.

The movie, of course, was powered by strong performances by an exceptional cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and Judith Anderson. As Muller notes, the picture seemed to cast a spell on its players  particularly the key principals.

— Gene Tierney (As Laura Hunt):

She was, according to her ex-husband, “the unluckiest lucky girl in the world.” She was considered an electrifying screen presence, the embodiment of unattainable beauty, the image of perfection.

In the words of costar Richard Widmark, she had a fresh, dew-like quality — an early Grace Kelly.  No question that when she walked into a scene, viewer attention immediately shifted in her direction. She was one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars, ever, an “extraordinary genetic model better looking in life than in pictures.”

And Tierney was a huge star, and a powerful actress to boot, perhaps 20th Century Fox’s biggest box office attraction in the mid-1940’s.  Her offscreen life was every bit if not more drama-laden than her professional career.

She was romantically sought after by a prince and future president. She suffered severe personal setbacks. In the end, in the words of that ex-husband again, she was “battered by destiny.” She led a splendidly successful life as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the Forties and Fifties. Offscreen, she coped with the most severe personal setbacks anyone could encounter.

Yet, she survived, found a measure of personal happiness and left us the invaluable legacy of her work. Yes, Tierney was gorgeous. She was also a fine, well-calibrated actress.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Tierney was NOT the first choice for the lead in ‘s Laura.  Who was?  a) Vivien Leigh b) Olivia DeHavilland; c) Ingrid Bergman; or d) Jennifer Jones. Answer: Jennifer Jones.

— Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker):

A dapper dancing teacher, professional ballroom dancer and an actor in musicals both on Broadway and in London, (who’d also appeared in a two silent films), Clifton Webb  entered talkies like a comet, an instant star.

In the immortal words of bitchy columnist Waldo Lydecker, his memorable character in 1944’s Laura: I’m not kind. I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.

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Not many actors could deliver such a line with such complete conviction as the former Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck, born in 1893 in Indianapolis, Ind.

For the rest of his career, Webb — who was gay — duplicated to some degree his performance in Laura. As Waldo notes in the picture: In my case self-absorption is completely justified. I have never found any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.  

Dana Andrews (Det. Mark McPherson):

I have just learned that a majority of the people who become abnormal  drinkers are superior in intelligence and are almost always introverts.  — Dana Andrews,  1951.

In this quote from author Carl Rollyson’s biography,  Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, the actor is describing himself in a  letter to his beloved and somewhat long-suffering wife, Mary.

Both intelligent and an introvert, Andrews, one of our favorite classic movie actors, suffered savagely from alcoholism — quietly at first but glaringly so late in a long career begun in 1940 and stretching over four decades.

Andrews’ off-screen drinking did not diminish his extraordinary, stellar performances in his best known films: including Laura;  producer Samuel Goldwyn’s The Best Years of our Lives, directed in 1946 by William Wyler and costarring Frederic March and Myrna Loy; and our favorite, A Walk In The Sun, made by 20th Century Fox, directed by Lewis Milestone (nee Lev Milstein, a Russian) and released in January 1945.

 

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