Sunday, November 13, 2016

Birthday: The accidental queen of film noir

Vera Louise Caspary (1899-1987)
Author, screenwriter
Vera Caspary’s parents were in their forties, with three nearly grown children when Mrs Caspary got pregnant. She kept it a secret, which was not much of a long-term plan. Vera was born prematurely, spoiled completely, and, after high school, put through a business school for six months by her father.

She worked as a stenographer but chafed at taking dictation from people who used bad grammar. She switched to an ad agency, but found she was writing the same copy over and over, “whether it was for cold cream or plumbing fixtures.” 

In her spare time, she invented the Sergei Marinoff School of Classic Dancing, a correspondence course she devised while knowing nothing herself about dancing. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s Martha Stewart-style perfect housewife columnist in Christmas in Connecticut, Caspary simply read up on dance and wrote about it.

She did so well that by 1922 she quit her job to write stories for the pulps; by 1924 she was a Greenwich Village flapper and editor of Dance Lovers Magazine. Her first two novels, in 1926 and 1929, were well-received.

She wrote a hotel guide to New York, Gotham Life, and spent time living in a boarding house to research a play, Working Girls. It closed in two weeks, but she was a fast learner. After her third novel came out in 1932, she wrote a movie screenplay over a weekend and sold it to Paramount for $2,000.

Impressed, she reworked and resold the same story to movie studios eight more times over the next three decades. Her core story was about modern women trying to make their own, independent way; what gave them their signature snap was her brisk style and settings involving mystery and murder.

She got a six-month, $500-a-week contract to write screenplays for Fox in 1933, but within the first thirty days crossed her boss, Harry Cohn. He stopped giving her assignments; she worked on her tan at the beach for five more months. Her agent picked up her weekly check for her.

Flush with cash and caught up in the widespread disillusionment with capitalism, Caspary visited the Soviet Union in 1939, just in time to become a Communist, then see utopia crushed by Stalin’s pact with Hitler. 

She came home to join the American war effort in Hollywood, and met, and fell in love with, a British producer, I.G. Goldsmith. He was promptly called home to military service by the Crown, and Caspary started work on a short story in June 1941. The tale of a murder, an ambitious girl in the advertising biz, and her Svengali-mentor, Laura was completed, as a novel, shortly after Pearl Harbor.

The book was a hit, and both stage and film directors wanted to produce it, but no one could be found to produce the venture. It rose and fell and rose and fell for several years until Otto Preminger, a popular director, pushed 20th Century Fox to buy it. Caspary, weary of the whole business, barely read the contract, and so sold what became a legend of film noir for a song.

Caspary then had a legendary row with Preminger, who was to be producer and director, over his screenplay. It reduced her plucky, if ill-fated, heroine to a plot device and played up her menacing mentor, the media personality Waldo Lydecker.

Preminger then got into it with studio chief Darryl Zanuck over casting. Preminger overplayed his hand and was replaced as director by Rouben Mamoulian, who launched off on his own vision of the story. He cast a studio heavy, Laird Cregar, as Lydecker; Preminger wanted a Broadway actor who specialized in Noel Coward plays, Clifton Webb.

Zanuck thought Webb, who hadn’t made a movie since 1930, way too gay for the part- for any movie, for that matter- and it took another coup, in which Preminger got Mamoulian sacked and regained the directorship, before Webb got the part. It proved an inspired choice.

Laura hit theaters in 1944 and was a smash success. Dana Andrews played the hardboiled detective who fell in love with the portrait of the woman whose murder he was investigating; Judith Anderson and Vincent Price headlined her oily friends; and the luminous Gene Tierney was Laura. Preminger hired David Raksin to compose the title music, which was used- for the first time- as all the score: sometimes played by a dance band, another time, heard on the radio.

The movie received six Oscar nominations; the theme song, to which Johnny Mercer added lyrics, remains a staple in popular song.

In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of the film,

"Film noir is known for its convoluted plots and arbitrary twists, but even in a genre that gave us The Maltese Falcon, this takes some kind of prize ... That Laura continues to weave a spell – and it does – is a tribute to style over sanity ... All of [the] absurdities and improbabilities somehow do not diminish the film's appeal. They may even add to it ... [T]he whole film is of a piece: contrived, artificial, mannered, and yet achieving a kind of perfection in its balance between low motives and high style. What makes the movie great, perhaps, is the casting. The materials of a B-grade crime potboiler are redeemed by Waldo Lydecker, walking through every scene as if afraid to step in something."

Caspary’s rates skyrocketed; Goldsmith came home from the war and they married. They formed a production company with their own money, then lost it all when United Artists, its distributor, went broke in 1950. She cranked out and sold three screenplays for $130,000, which bankrolled their six-year exile in Europe once the House Un-American Activities Committee picked up the scent of Caspary’s dalliance with Communism.

Caspary and Goldsmith divided their time between Europe and New York until he died in 1964. She settled in Manhattan and wrote several more books, but Laura was her zenith. She published her memoirs at eighty, writing,

"This has been the century of the woman, and I know myself to have been a part of the revolution.''
"In another generation, perhaps the next, equality will be taken for granted. Those who come after us may find it easier to assert independence, but will miss the grand adventure of having been born in this century of change."

She died of a stroke, three months before her 88th birthday.

Gene Tierney struggled with mental health issues through the 1950s, made a brief comeback, and retired in 1964. She died in 1991. Dana Andrews died a year later, having drunk his career into ever-smaller roles in ever-worse movies.

The classically-trained Dame Judith Anderson also died in 1992, having won new generations of fans for her role as the Vulcan high priestess in Star Trek III, and in a three-year run as the matriarch of a TV soap opera, Santa Barbara, from which she retired at the age of ninety.

Laura’s improbable star, Clifton Webb, preceded them all. In the eighteen years after playing Waldo Lydecker, he made twenty more films, won several more Oscar nominations, was voted one of the most popular stars in America for 1949, 1950 and 1951. He and his mother Maybelle were fixtures on the Hollywood party circuit, and when she died, in 1960, he was inconsolable.

“Poor Clifton,” Noel Coward remarked. “It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71.” His health failing, Webb withdrew to his home and died in 1966.

The American Film Institute named Laura one of the ten best mystery movies of all time.

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