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Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Easy Picture To Live In

Movies good enough can immerse us to where it's like real people up there instead of just characters for what time a story takes to unfold. Here's how wrapped up I got revisiting Laura: Waldo's clock ... the one Dana Andrews kicks in after he breaks into Lydecker's apartment ... did the latter's estate file a claim against police for damage to one of two such clocks in existence, as Waldo described his treasure during opening narration? And who are his descendents --- nieces, a nephew in the service? Maybe Waldo had a sister he hadn't seen in years, and she looked forward to one day owning that clock. Many nits are in Laura to pick. A killer retrieving his concealed murder weapon should notice shells removed, but Waldo hardly reacts --- it's enough that there are two more in his pocket. I kept thinking how fun it would be listening to Lydecker radio broadcasts, or maybe peruse columns he wrote in NYT online archives. But wait, there was no Waldo Lydecker in real life, at least for all we know. Can great films generate their own parallel universe for fans to occupy? If so, then Laura should be among first to declare vacancies.

The casting turned out right, to my mind, whatever complication there was getting there. Gene Tierney might have been Jennifer Jones instead. Would that have worked? Probably about as well, I'd like to think. They shared the same height (5'7"), a thing that surprised me for having assumed Jones was lots taller. I wonder how much it bothered actresses to have turned down a role that turned out to be a career-definer for someone else. Did Jennifer Jones regret the Laura pass for the rest of her very long life? The character represents perfection, but Gene Tierney lends Laura humanity in odd and endearing ways she addresses ... Mr. Lydecka ... I don't get a newspapa ... I might as well have pulled the trigga. I'll need to check more of this actress to see if she drops R's similarly elsewhere. Then there's Dana Andrews' technique of breaking up a line --- was this his invention or Preminger's? I know that you went away to make up your mind (pause) whether you would marry Shelby Carpenter (longer pause) or not. Repeat viewings thrive on pearls like this.

Andrews, in fact, might be the show's best performance, never mind his being less showy than Clifton Webb and others. The man's a whiz with props. Notice what he does with keys --- doesn't twirl, sort of jiggles, and never a same way twice. When DA shows Tierney a newspaper, meant to startle, he jerks the front page for emphasis as he puts it before her face. What Andrews does with his baseball game-toy is Best Actor worthy in itself --- was a prop before or since put to such clever use? I'm glad this actor is finally getting props too long withheld, latter day appreciation a result of noirs and other career worthies being rediscovered. One more question, though ... what's a sashweight? A counterweight to a vertically sliding window sash is how Google defines the word, but how could that have been weapon used in the Harrington murder case Dana Andrews references in Laura's opening scene? Maybe I'm spelling the word wrong, or just haven't read enough hard-boiled mystery novels to recognize a thing familiar to those who have. Paging an expert here!

There's always mention in any Laura discussion of Mark's meet with Waldo as the latter soaks in a tub. What I notice is Clifton Webb visibly clothed in boxer shorts beneath the surface. It's plain in the still above as well. Funny how a good print can smooth kink out of a scene you've spent years reading a particular way. And what of Webb's performance in general? Did 1944 audiences view his waspish as gay? I wonder if they were as vigilant to so-called "coding" as we've become. If everyone insists that Waldo is gay, then what about George Sanders' Addison DeWitt in All About Eve? I haven't heard such speculated about that personage. Was it Sanders coming across more virile in whatever parts he took? I'd not label Waldo homosexual for offscreen lifestyle Clifton Webb maintained, though it would seem many writers think otherwise. CW could play straight convincingly when occasion required, as in Titanic. Imagine our take on Laura if originally cast Laird Cregar had played Waldo.

I used to drop into a Holiday Inn for lunch buffet during Wake Forest mid-70's years. There was a pianist that did standards, including (often) the theme from Laura. I mentioned it one day and he told me of having played in South America with an orchestra during World War II. There was an occasion when Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini showed up and requested Laura (I had no reason to doubt truth of this, as he also mentioned seeing Walt Disney several times during the latter's wartime Pan-American tour). Such was popularity of David Raksin's music. What if they had used Sophisticated Lady as Laura's theme per initial plan? Doubt if the show would be on my favorites list in that event. Variations on Raksin's title tune is what we mostly hear in Laura, dance and restaurant scenes with other songs backgrounded having to be removed from 50's television prints, this resolved in the 80's when music rights were cleared and the film finally shown complete again.
One last question: Did Waldo ever get his $5000 for endorsing the Wallace pen?


Blogger Dugan said...

OK does anyone remember that remake of "Laura" that came out in 1968? I vaguely remember watching it. Robert Stack was in it.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sash weight is a reference to the Snyder-Gray murder case, on which DOUBLE INDEMNITY is vaguely based. Ruth Snyder and/or Judd Gray bought a sash weight at a hardware store and clubbed Mr. Snyder while he slept.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's part of the Fox Hour of Stars TV series which TCM shows on and off.

There was a later version with Lee Radziwell as Laura.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous sjack said...

No mention of Vincent Price or Judith Anderson. Both did quite well with the small roles they had in the film. I guess I just like Judith, she's so versatile and believable (and underated). People seem only think of her in Rebecca. Seeing Vincent Price in this film was an eye opener since at the time most of his '40's films weren't in wide circulation (or at least I hadn't seen any), and my only prior exposure were the Chiller Theatre type films I'd watched as a child. I had no idea he was actually young and attractive at one time.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

John, Your brilliant take on the world of Laura and her playmates made my day.

FYI, in older windows the sashweight was often an extremely heavy leaden cylinder that could easily have cracked a skull or two. They had a tendency to fall out of the window with a crash when the rope that suspended them rotted away from use or time. Good weapon of choice for the domestic-minded criminal looking for something commonplace to kill someone with back then. My money is on Bessie Clary.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous mido505 said...

I once had to repair the sash weights in my 19th century fraternity house. They are made of cast iron, rounded like a baseball bat, 2-3 inches in diameter, and several feet long. They slide in an easily accessible channel along the side of the window frame, and are attached to the window proper with a piece of rope. Sash weights are very dense and weighty, and would make a perfect weapon; one or two good blows to the head would be enough to bludgeon someone to death. A smart killer would remove the sash weight from its channel, beat his or her victim to death, wash off the blood, and return the weight to its proper home. Where's the evidence? Not quite as good as a frozen leg of lamb, but it'll do in a pinch.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

The 1981 Burt Reynolds feature SHARKY'S MACHINE is basically a LAURA re-make.

And concerning Jennifer's decision to pass on LAURA, I'd bet that Selznick had as much to do with the decision as she did, as she seemed to have stopped thinking for herself when the two of them started "playing house."

4:29 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Very dangerous time to live back then--every house brimming with sash weights, fireplace pokers, ice picks, brass bookends and marble ashtrays...

Like sjack, missed a reference to Vincent Price. He had a couple of similar roles (His Kind of Woman, While the City Sleeps) playing a man who seems very conscious of the fact that he's not perceived as the most virile guy in the room and seems a little uncomfortable that his height makes it so obvious.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

I really like Clifton Webb in Laura but he did seem to pretty much play this same character in almost every film he made, didn't he. Mr. Belvedere was only one step away from murdering Richard Haydn.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Wonderful article about one of my favorite films.

Were there any real life Waldo Lydeckers? I like to think so. In the late 1990s I was a reporter/editor at a Chicago real estate trade magazine. The former Orchestra Hall, now called Symphony Center after a massive two-year overhaul, was being premiered with music critics flown in from all around the country to partake of the opening weekend ceremonies.

I was far too lowly on the totem pole to warrant Saturday evening festivities, but I was invited on Saturday morning for a press tour. At lunch I sat with a group of music critics, who acted as thought I wasn't there. They were making spectacularly catty comments about the other critics at the other tables, the sound in the new auditorium, etc. We were served what I thought were very nice box lunches, but these men and women were looking through the contents like it was road kill. I thought to myself, "It's like sitting with a whole table of Waldo Lydeckers."

5:37 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Yea it was the Lee Radziwell version of "Laura" it's called "Truman Capote's Laura" gotta love the internet.

7:09 PM  
Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

There was a pianist in a Holiday Inn? Is that the same franchise I'm thinking of?

She does that in Leave Her To Heaven as well. It might be one of many East Coast/New York dialects. I've noticed a similar speaking style in Stephanie Zimbalist [without the breathy sigh at the end]

Sanders in All About Eve seems almost asexual. Even his overtures to Eve are calculating more than sentimental. His sly grin as he stands over the woman is that of a conqueror enjoying the spoils of war. DeWitt loves his own wit and mastery of a situation more than he does any particular person.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Hard to imagine now, but a columnist could be bigger than Leno or Letterman within his kingdom. Walter Winchell, Alexander Woolcott and even Chrisopher Morley could toss a lot of weight around.

Turning the unknown Laura into his personal Fair Lady was a public demonstration of Waldo's power; her rejection of him exposed the limits of his power. That provides a murder motive unconnected to Waldo's orientation.

4:41 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My humble thanks to readers who put me wise to sashweights!

Scott MacGillivray also wrote in with this interesting sighting from a shorter subject ...

"There's a Pete Smith short (seen in M-G-M'S BIG PARADE OF COMEDY) in which Dave O'Brien demands his newspaper. The camera shows Mrs. O'Brien concealing "a heavy iron window-sash weight" in the newspaper, so when O'Brien imperiously says "Let me have my paper..."

Thanks lots for that info, Scott!

7:54 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Magnificent post – one of your best.

I love Laura and have long been a fan of Clifton Webb/Waldo Lydecker. I think the question of the character’s sexuality is fair in the context of the film (ditto Sanders/Addison De Witt). I would think that if one could magically ask either character how they identified themselves, they would say they were aesthetes first and foremost, and any national or sexual labeling would come next (or not at all). Both of them love an image, an idol, a type of beauty before they love any human being. They are the spiritual heirs of Henry Wotten (from Dorian Gray) before they are sexual entities.

I, too, have often thought of Lydecker’s radio broadcasts and columns. (And of living in such a beautiful home!) What would he have to say, week-in-week-out, of sufficient interest? Fortunately for the arts (both high and low) were more robust in his era than ours.

I could live in this movie for years.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Scoundrel said...

The Snyder/Gray murder is also famous for the photo of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair
that was snapped by reporter Tom Howard of
the Chicago Tribune.

The photo is also referenced in the Cagney film PICTURE SNATCHER.

11:45 AM  
Blogger David Simmons said...

And don't forget Dana Andrews' suckerpunch to Vincent Price -- gets my vote for best movie punch of all time.

11:59 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

... And Price really makes us believe it hurt!

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition to Gene T's dropped Rs, there's the equally endearing "Thank yaw!"

"Then it was worth it, Mark." Bliss

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, it's nice to see your acknowledgment of Dana's fiddling with props. I watched this film a couple of months back -- must be my 6th or 7th viewing -- and for the first time ever, I found my eyes were on Dana Andrews for most scenes. (And it takes a lot to draw my eye from Gene Tierney! Did she ever look lovelier?) His fidgeting made him extremely compelling to watch, and his understated performance is really terrific.

Incidentally, "Laura" was adapted for radio at least five times. Four of these star Gene Tierney, with four featuring at least some of the film's co-stars (Clifton twice, Dana twice, Vincent once). The fifth, a 1948 Theatre Guild production, starred Burt Lancaster, June Duprez, George Coulouris. Now there's some interesting casting! Unfortunately I don't think any recordings of that survive.


4:04 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

As for real-life Waldo Lydeckers, I believe DBenson is on the right track: It's always been my understanding that Waldo, or indeed any waspish acid-tongued literatiste in those days (see The Man Who Came to Dinner) was generally understood to be inspired by Alexander Woollcott. Addison DeWitt, on the other hand, I believe was acknowledged by Joe Mankiewicz himself as based on George Jean Nathan (and his protege Julie Haydon of The Glass Menagerie).

When it comes to columnists in 1930s and '40s movies, I think a good rule of thumb is: imperious and biting, read Alexander Woollcott; fast and slangy, read Walter Winchell.

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

It's interesting that you make a comment about wanting to see a parallel universe where the under currents of LAURA can be fleshed out...I personally thought the film already existed in one. This is a novie that was released in 1944 and set in the present, that does not acknowledge the existence of the war.

That fact makes for its own set of questions...why aren't Mark and/or Shelby in the service? Why wouldn't Bessie take a better paying job in a defense plant? How could Shelby drive from Manhattan to Laura's country place in Connecticut (and back) on the three gallons of gas allotted on an A card? Could Mark have impressed Laura even more bringing her bacon and eggs--and mentioning that he used up all his ration points?

Is there any other film from this time that does not present itself as nostalgia or fantasy that is so oblivious to the world in which it is?

(and DOUBLE INDEMNITY doesn't count...Walter Neff begins his Dictaphone confession by saying it is 1938)

7:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Some really good points there, Paul. "Laura" does ignore realities of the war, which is as well, because the picture certainly doesn't date, at least for me. It seems very modern still.

7:45 AM  
Blogger film_maven said...

This is the film that connected me with my own romance - always a favorite, now a special feature!

How gorgeous the need to cheapen film making worked out...corner, tight room shots- longer close ups - and 'mood' lighting.....amazing.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Foster Grimm said...

The was a version of "Laura" on Broadway in 1947. Lasted 44 performances. Vera Caspary, who wrote the novel, had the hand in the adaptation. The leads were Hugh Marlowe, Otto Kruger and K.T. Stevens.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"This is a novie that was released in 1944 and set in the present, that does not acknowledge the existence of the war."

I've had the same thought about a number of noirs. Why is Ray Milland having Lost Weekends and not writing a Guadalcanal Diary? (A particularly apropos example for my father in law, since it was the first movie he caught back in the states after being in France.) For that matter, when exactly did the Depression happen in the context of Mildred Pierce, say? And is Double Indemnity prewar (as its famously well-stocked grocery shelves indicate) or not?

Clearly many of these movies are as escapist from such realities as Top Hat or Maytime, the difference being that instead of offering us song and dance, they offer us the pleasures of good soapy personal-romantic problems, without the problems in the headlines which tended to crowd them out in real life.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Re wartime realities: On the DVD commentary, it's said there was editing to remove some of the conspicuous consumption (specifically, a montage of Laura being introduced to fashion and luxury) on the grounds that it could offend audiences. Not sure if that was for general release or for prints going to the troops.

Read -- maybe here -- that there was a scramble to get any war-themed films on the market when the war was perceived to be "winding down." Perhaps Laura was made on the optimistic assumption that war references would be outdated by release.

3:27 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald, I don't buy any of that DVD commentary about footage removed because of "conspicuous consumption" being shown. The cuts were made much later ... due to music rights expiring and nothing else.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incidentally, in the book Waldo Lydecker is described as rather corpulent. Laird Cregar would have been fantastic in that sense--though I understand the reason he was not cast is that anybody viewing the movie would immediately peg him as the villain.


7:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

But wouldn't it be great seeing what Cregar could do with that part ... in my alternate reality, I'd like option of changing casts in all my favorites, so each viewing really would be a new experience.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Linwood said...

Howard Rourke's nemesis critic in The Fountainhead, also fits nicely into the Lydecker mold.

4:49 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said... I mentioned, DOUBLE INDEMNITY was set before the war.
MILDRED PIERCE's action is set over several years from before and into the war--and it does make a few references...Monty wolf-whistling at Mildred's legs, saying he's glad that "nylons are out for the duration", while Mildred notes all the women's swimwear at his beach house and asks "Are you hoarding bathing suits", Mildren'd ex-husband Bert working in a defense plant.
(and something I never thought odd--Mildred's extended trip to Mexico after Veda leaves home. Since all of Latin America was neutral in the war, I understood the whole region pretty muc disregarded the war...other than dealing with German espionage efforts)

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always believed that Dana Andrews's talents were ever fully appreciated . . . until I read this article. Good show.

8:59 PM  
Blogger tomservo56954 said...

The song "Laura" immediately became so popular, its publishers went out and got no less than Johnny Mercer to add lyrics to it.

Paul Duca

3:33 PM  

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