Otto Preminger produced & directed the classic 1944 film noir LAURA, but if 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had had his way, Preminger would never have directed anything for the studio.
Zanuck and Preminger got into a shouting match six years earlier while filming the drama KIDNAPPED, after which Zanuck changed the locks on Preminger’s office, moved his parking space to a distant corner of the Fox lot and fired him as the movie’s director.
With LAURA, which premiered in NYC on Oct. 11, 1944, Zanuck let Preminger produce, but assigned Rouben Mamoulian (THE MARK OF ZORRO) to direct. But Zanuck hated Mamoulian’s early footage and reluctantly let Preminger take over, using a more subtle style to bring Vera Caspary’s bestseller to life.
Preminger immediately got rid of the huge living room portrait of Laura that Mamoulian’s wife had painted. It’s seen throughout the film and is almost a character, itself. Preminger replaced it with an enlarged black & white photograph of Gene Tierney, who played NY advertising executive Laura Hunt. The photo looked like a painting after oil paint brush strokes were applied, creating a look of mystery.
While staring at the painting detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) falls in love with the ghostly Laura, whose murder in her elegant apartment is why he’s there late at night to investigate. As he drinks her Scotch and reads her love letters & diaries, we hear the unforgettable theme “Laura,” composed in just one weekend by David Raksin. Preminger was going to use Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” as there was so little time left to do the music.
Raksin got the job because Fox’s music director, Alfred Newman, who wrote the studio’s opening drumroll theme, didn’t have time to score LAURA, and Bernard Herrmann, who scored CITIZEN KANE, had said no. Raksin’s theme had no words, but when moviegoers started asking for them Fox hired star lyricist Johnny Mercer to write some.
Among many casting twists & turns, Zanuck wanted John Hodiak or George Sanders as McPherson. Preminger chose Andrews, who made the role his own. Zanuck picked Laird Cregar as newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, but Preminger insisted on Clifton Webb after seeing him in a NY touring production of “Blithe Spirit.” He convinced Zanuck that because Cregar was well known for playing villains, casting him would send a signal to moviegoers.
Fox’s first choice for Laura was Jennifer Jones, who turned it down. Rosalind Russell thought the part wasn’t big enough. Tierney didn’t want to do it either, but she had contract obligations to Fox that left her no choice.
Later on, Hedy Lamarr, who also had passed on playing Laura, explained why — “They sent me the script, not the score.”