THE MYSTERY OF LAURA’S FIRST ENDING

by Despina Veneti

The famous – at least among noir fans – alternate ending of LAURA (1944) has been a matter of confusion for many years. Although that matter was beautifully cleared for its biggest part in the September 1978 special PREMINGER issue of the French magazine L’AVANT-SCENE (in an article written by Jacques Lourcelles, based on the translation and meticulous study of LAURA’s script by my co-author of this blog, Olivier Eyquem), following articles, biographies, and even the audio commentary in the film’s DVD edition seem to be still under a state of confusion.

Having access to a copy of the original scenario and the chance to study it thoroughly, I will try to clear this matter with as many details as possible. To begin with, the main “culprit” for this entanglement was none other than Otto himself; in the book PREMINGER: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1977) (ghost-written by June Callwood), he states:

«I made the first rough cut of the picture and showed it to Zanuck in his projection room. […] It took very little skill that night to judge Zanuck’s mood. […] He got up and said to me, “Well, we missed the boat on this one. Be in my office tomorrow at eleven.’’ And he left the room.

The next day Zanuck handed me a handful of memos from his yes-men. As was to be expected, they were all negative. A couple of them suggested shelving the film and writing it off as a loss. But their ideas how to save it were even worse.

Zanuck had his own plan. He called in one of his secretaries and a writer who was under contract to Fox. Then he began to walk up and down with the obligatory cigar and polo mallet dictating an outline for a rewrite of the script. His theory was that the fault lay with the last fifteen minutes, which he wanted to replace. Half the film was told from Waldo Lydecker’s point of view, the other half from the detective’s. Now Zanuck wanted to add a third part narrated by Laura after her return which contradicted and negated everything that we saw before. […] Continue reading

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LAURA’S CUT SCENES

In September 1978, I translated and published the COMPLETE SCENARIO of LAURA in a special “Preminger” issue of the French magazine “L’Avant-scène”. The shot-by-shot description included 15 minor and major cuts which are listed hereunder. As an appendix, I added a detailed description of the FIRST ending shot by Preminger (to be discussed in our blog’s entry “The mystery of Laura’s first ending”)

Renowned film historian Jacques Lourcelles, author of the first book on Otto Preminger, had provided me with a copy of the scenario, sent to him four years before by Preminger’s office. We had several exchanges during my work on the scenario and the problems raised by the director’s slightly confusing account of LAURA’s endings. Lourcelles then made an impeccable presentation of the scenario, that unfortunately wasn’t accessible to English-speaking film specialists and film buffs…

CUT 1 : a direct continuation of the acerbic exchanges of Waldo and Mark in Lydecker’s apartment. Mark pretends to be bored by his work : murders all look the same. Waldo argues that this one is exceptional. Mark refers to Laura as “a dame”. Conversation ends with a very short narration in which Waldo comments on Mark’s tough/smart personality which he thinks might have attracted Laura.

Most of the material seems to have been ventilated in following scenes. Waldo’s comment will be – unfortunately for him – confirmed by Laura’s actual attraction to Mark, after her “resurrection”.

Nothing indicates the scene was actually shot. Continue reading

“THAT WAS LAURA, BUT SHE’S ONLY A DREAM…”: FINDING THE WOMAN BEHIND THE PORTRAIT

By Despina Veneti

VERA’S LAURA: THE “NEW” WOMAN

She may be have been immortalized as Preminger’s most alluring female character, but before that Laura was Vera Caspary’s literary heroine – her favorite one, and the one closest to her heart. The Chicago-born author of Laura was a dynamic, strong-willed woman, ahead of her time: coming to adulthood just as WW I was ending, she made up her mind to seek a job in a male-dominated business world, dreaming of a writing position. Starting out as a stenographer, and accepting being paid significantly less than her male colleagues, she eventually got a break at an advertising agency; soon she moved up to a copywriter position, where she had the chance to display her writing skills and imagination. However, Caspary left what had become a highly paid job, to pursue her dream of becoming a “real writer”.

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Vera Caspary

She wrote for papers and magazines with great success, published a few books, and after a while several of her stories became “Hollywood material” – but her dream novel still eluded her. In the summer of 1941 the idea of a “murder mystery” with well-developed characters and multiple point of view narration crystallized into Laura. The eponymous heroine clearly bears a strong resemblance to her literary mother: an aspiring, ambitious young woman, eager to succeed in the advertising world, and determined to live her life on her own terms. Moreover, Vera’s Laura is a beautiful, obviously sexually liberated woman. She was Caspary’s vision of the “modern woman”: professionally successful, living according to her own free will, and yet retaining her femininity. Continue reading

Mark McPherson – a “dual” reading *

* Opened  by DESPINA VENETI

COP, INTERRUPTED : THE INSTILLATION OF A DREAM

 INITIAL WALDO-MARK DYNAMICS: POWER GAMES

The exquisite opening of Laura again instantly provides the first clues about detective Mark McPherson’s personality. This was to be a star-making role for Dana Andrews, who fought to get it after Lewis Milestone secretly handed him over a copy of the script, advising him to get that part no matter what. Andrews had actually met Preminger at Milestone’s house, and Otto was in favor of casting him. The actor furthermore managed to turn around Zanuck’s initial reluctance (he wanted John Hodiak for the role), by gaining the sympathy of his wife.

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Dana Andrews in “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), one year prior to “Laura”. It was the role that truly got him noticed as an actor.

Andrews’s McPherson enters Waldo’s apartment with an obvious self-confidence – and semi-indifference- of a man who has indeed “seen it all”, although he’s also somewhat intrigued, if not amused, by this museum-like “home” he sees. Waldo, in his own voiceover, reveals that he wanted to show the detective that it’s only he who’s the boss in his own house (“I had him wait”), and wanting to make that even more clear, he didn’t even bother to interrupt his bath, which he combined with typing from inside his bathtub. Continue reading

Waldo’s portrayal, Part 2*

* By DESPINA VENETI
THE TWO WALDOS: VERA CASPARY’S AND OTTO PREMINGER’S

Before becoming one of the most memorable and popular characters in Otto Preminger’s whole filmography, Waldo Lydecker had been Vera Caspary’s literary character. Tracing his “birth”, Caspary herself has said Waldo’s idiosyncracies, talents and background had concerned her a great deal before starting writing her most famous book the summer of 1941 (originally, published in Colliers in 1942, as a seven-part serial entitled Ring Twice for Laura, and published the following year as a novel under the title Laura). She indeed spent many nights “figuring” Waldo “out” with her author friend Ellis St. Joseph; it was actually the latter who suggested the very structure of Laura to Caspary – a multiple point of view narration – pointing her to the work of writer Wilkie Collins. More specifically, Caspary’s main literary influence on Laura was the character of Count Fosco from Collins’s 1859 novel The Woman In White (which was cinematically adapted several times, the most well-known one being the 1948 eponymous film starring Sydney Greenstreet); Caspary modeled her Waldo after Collins’s Count Fosco even in terms of appearance: he was obese, with “soft flesh”, and furthermore possessed a Van Dyke beard – which makes of course for an entirely different figure, compared to the lean, elegant, ascetic physique of the filmic Waldo, who’s sporting a “pencil mustache”.

The literary Waldo is also an acidic, witty columnist, inclined to decadence. The exact nature of his relationship with Laura, however, is a point of much more significant difference compared to the film (to be discussed in length…).

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Laird Cregar, a menacing figure in ”The Lodger” (1944).

Based on Caspary’s description of Waldo’s appearance, I guess it was no wonder that Zanuck envisioned Laird Cregar in the role (a brilliant actor, but Preminger absolutely didn’t want him, for the reason that the audience would immediately identify him as the “villain”). Preminger’s idea (still from the position of the film’s producer, since the direction had initially been given to Rouben Mamoulian) to cast Clifton Webb was a stroke of genius. Continue reading

LAURA’s opening shot

“They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,

Love and desire and hate:

I think they have no portion in us after

We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:

Out of a misty dream

Our path emerges for a while, then closes

Within a dream.”

(Ernest Dowson’s poem “Vitae Summa Brevis”, read on radio by Waldo Lydecker in the last scene of LAURA)

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Theater had been a major part of Preminger’s life since he was sixteen, as well as a favorite source of inspiration throughout his whole career. Although among the least “theatrical” of film directors, Preminger has often set up the first scenes of his films as dynamic “tableaux”, using the latters to unveil the narrative issues at stake, and to also put the protagonist squarely “at home” in a subtly evolving milieu. Sometimes he even planted maliciously several hidden clues in these first scenes, clues that would assume their full meaning at the end – as in the case of LAURA. Continue reading