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The film opens with a voice-over narration by Clifton Webb as "Waldo Lydecker." The poem "Vitae Summa Brevis," by Ernest Dowson, is quoted by Waldo later in the film. Vera Caspary first wrote her story as a play, Ring Twice for Lora, in 1939, then adapted the play into a novel entitled Laura. The novel was serialized in Collier's (17 October-28 November 1942), under the title "Ring Twice for Laura." In a 1971 article in Saturday Review (of Literature), Caspary recalls that Otto Preminger read the manuscript of the novel and expressed interest in collaborating with her on a revised version of the play, which he would then produce. They did not agree on the dramatization, however, and Caspary reworked the play with George Sklar in 1942. This stage version opened in London in 1945, and on Broadway on June 26, 1947. Preminger first worked on the screenplay with Jay Dratler, then brought in the team of poet Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt.
In his autobiography, Preminger claims that "Hoffenstein practically created the character of Waldo Lydecker for Clifton Webb." A modern source suggests that Hoffenstein based the character of the acerbic columnist on critic Alexander Woollcott, a fellow member of the Algonquin Round Table. According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, writers Ring Lardner, Jr., Jerome Cady, Robert Spencer Carr, George Bricker and Philip Lewis were at various times hired to do script revisions, but the extent of their contribution to the released film has not been determined. However, according to a modern source, a copy of a script given by Preminger to a friend included Cady's name on the top of pages containing the final portions and original ending of the film.
In his autobiography, Preminger related how he reestablished his relationship with Twentieth Century-Fox when he convinced studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck to purchase the rights to the novel. Preminger and Zanuck had not spoken since 1937, when Preminger was replaced as the director of the Twentieth Century-Fox film Kidnapped (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2279). Their bitter feud damaged Preminger's Hollywood career, and he did not make another film until 1943, when Twentieth Century-Fox executive William Goetz, who was running the studio during Zanuck's military service, allowed him to direct Margin for Error (see below). According to Preminger, Zanuck "accused Goetz of treachery" when he returned and told Preminger, "You can produce [Laura] but as long as I am at Fox, you will never direct." Finding a director proved difficult, however. In a modern interview, Preminger said that both Walter Lang and Lewis Milestone turned down offers to direct Laura, citing a lack of enthusiasm for the script. In her Saturday Review (of Literature) article, Caspary claims that John Brahm was asked to direct the film but declined. A February 24, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item named Irving Cummings as director.
Rouben Mamoulian eventually agreed to direct the film. In his autobiography, Preminger recalled that Mamoulian "didn't like the script any more than the others who had turned it down but he had no other jobs in sight and needed the money." Preminger's relationship with Mamoulian was stormy from the start, as the director changed sets and costumes without consulting Preminger, and asked him not to come to the set. Upon viewing the disappointing dailies, Zanuck fired Mamoulian about two weeks into production and made Preminger the director. (Fourteen years later, Preminger would again replace Mamoulian, as director of Samuel Goldwyn's Porgy and Bess.)
Zanuck and Mamoulian originally wanted Twentieth Century-Fox contract player Laird Cregar for the role of "Waldo Lydecker," but Preminger argued that Cregar was too well known as a heavy and would give away the plot. A August 3, 1943 Los Angeles Times news item reported that Eva Gabor would portray "Laura Hunt," and that George Sanders, John Sutton and Monty Woolley were under consideration for the part of Waldo. According to Preminger's autobiography, Zanuck originally wanted John Hodiak for the role of detective "Mark McPherson," and a October 28, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the studio was negotiating with George Raft for the role.
Jennifer Jones was cast in the title role, under an agreement with David O. Selznick that called for her to make one picture a year for Twentieth Century-Fox. When Jones failed to report for work on April 24, 1944, Twentieth Century-Fox threatened legal action. In a statement published in Hollywood Reporter on May 3, 1944, Daniel T. O'Shea, executive director of Selznick Studio, claimed that Twentieth Century-Fox had refused to submit a copy of the script for approval. O'Shea asserted that his studio's contract with Twentieth Century-Fox stipulated that Jones's film assignments be "consistent with her standing" as a recent Academy Award winner for The Song of Bernadette (see below). His statement continued, "Eventually [Twentieth Century-Fox studio executive Joseph M.] Schenck conceded to both Mr. Selznick and myself that the role in Laura was not worthy of Miss Jones' position, and that his studio had not seriously intended that she do it." Twentieth Century-Fox filed suit against Jones, however, and a May 14, 1944 New York Times article observed that "for the first time a specific monetary value has been placed on an Academy 'Oscar.' The studio is suing the actress for $613,600, and according to the complaint $500,000 of this represents a loss to the company because the picture is deprived of the services of Miss Jones, 'an Academy Award winner.'" The suit was later settled, and Jones went on to make Cluny Brown for Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946.
Photographs were shot in the Algonquin Hotel of the table at which Alexander Woollcott had habitually dined, as well as of the headwaiter who served him. These photographs were used to build a replica of the hotel's dining room on the studio lot, for the scene in which "Laura" first encounters "Waldo." Artist Azadia Newman, Mamoulian's wife, was commissioned to paint the portrait of Laura with which the detective becomes entranced, but it was not used in the final film. In his autobiography, Preminger wrote, "When I scrapped Mamoulian's sets, the portrait of Laura went with them." According to Preminger, "portraits rarely photograph well, so I devised a compromise. We had a photograph of Gene Tierney enlarged and smeared with oil paint to soften the outlines. It looked like a painting but was unmistakably Gene Tierney."
Modern interviews with Preminger, Tierney and composer David Raksin reveal that George Gershwin's "Summertime," from the opera Porgy and Bess, and Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" were Preminger's early choices for the film's theme song. A modern source adds that Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was also considered. Raksin wrote the theme music for Laura, which has since been recorded many times, frequently with lyrics added later by Johnny Mercer. According to modern sources, Raksin took the assignment after both Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann declined to compose the score. An May 8, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item reports that Vincent Price was to sing "You'll Never Know" in a party scene, but the song was not included in the released film.
Laura received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black and White) and was nominated in the following catagories: Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb) and Best Art Direction (Black and White). In both its review and a feature article, New York Times referred to Laura as Broadway star Webb's film debut, but he had appeared in several films in the 1920s. A June 19, 1990 Hollywood Reporter news item reports that two minutes of footage that had been cut from the film were restored when Laura was released on laser disc. In the deleted footage, which was part of the viewed print, Waldo described how he selected Laura's clothing and hairstyle, making her an extension of himself. The news item explains that Twentieth Century-Fox "was worried that declaration would offend World War II soldiers overseas with its depiction of decadent luxury and non-military obsessions happening on the home front."
Laura was broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre on February 5, 1945, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Vincent Price reprising their screen roles and Otto Kruger replacing Webb, and on February 1, 1954, with Tierney, Victor Mature, Joe Kearns and Carleton Young. Laura was adapted twice for television. On October 19, 1955, it was broadcast on The 20th Century-Fox Hour on CBS-TV, starring Dana Wynter, George Sanders and Robert Stack. The one-hour telecast was later released in England as a feature film. On January 24, 1968, David Susskind produced Laura as an ABC Color Special. The program featured a new adaptation by Truman Capote and starred Sanders, Stack and Lee Bouvier.