But She’s Only a Dream – Or Is She?

Portrait of Gene Tierney used in the film, Laura

Portrait of Gene Tierney used in the film, Laura

Laura is both a popular song title and the title of a Hollywood film. It is impossible to speak of one without the other.

So let me begin with the song.

Laura is a 1945 popular song composed by David Raksin, with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer It has since become a jazz standard with over four hundred known recordings. In 1945, five separate recordings of Laura appeared on the Billboard pop charts with the Woody Herman and His Orchestra’s rendition reaching #4 and becoming a million-seller hit. Other versions include Johnnie Johnston (#5), Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (#6), Jerry Wald and His Orchestra (#8), and Dick Haymes (#9). Six years later, Stan Kenton saw his version of the song featuring Bud Shank’s alto sax, reach #12.

Shortly after the film Laura was released, Abe Olman of Robbins Music asked songwriter Johnny Mercer to write lyrics for Raksin’s theme. Although Mercer had seen the film, he confessed that he really did not remember the tune. Olman provided Mercer with the music and advised him that the title had to be Laura. After a few weeks, Mercer grew to love the song and completed the lyrics. When Olman asked Mercer to add lyrics to Laura, Mercer was faced with a double challenge. He would not only have to write quality lyrics for a complex and established song, but also pen words that would perpetuate the weighty intrigue of a character with whom the public was already acquainted. Mercer created what many feel is an example of his finest work, immortalizing a tune that might otherwise have drifted into obscurity.

Johnny Mercer’s lyrics extend the feeling of mystery and intrigue in the introductory verse (that hardly anyone ever sings), and subsequently by describing Laura through a series of elusive attributes: a “face in the misty light,” “footsteps down the hall,” “a floating laugh on a summer night,” and as a woman on “a train that is passing through.” With no variations and just a sixty-two-word refrain, the lyrics are handled economically as well as effectively. Here are Mercer’s lyrics:
You know the feeling of something half remembered,
of something that never happened, yet you recall it well.
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
that you’ve never met as far as you could tell, well. . .

Laura is the face in the misty light,
footsteps that you hear down the hall.
The laugh that floats on a summer night
that you can never quite recall.
And you see Laura on the train that is passing thru.
Those eyes, how familiar they seem.
She gave your very first kiss to you.
That was Laura but she’s only a dream

Now to the film.

Movie poster for the film, Laura

Movie poster for the film, Laura

But Laura is more than a popular song. It is also a classic film. According to United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, Laura is a film worthy of preservation because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Laura was produced in 1944 and directed by Otto Preminger. The film stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Clifton Webb. The screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt was based on the 1943 novel of the same title by Vera Caspary. Vera Caspary wrote her story first 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. Publicity for the film at the time promised: “Never has a woman been so beautiful, so exotic, so dangerous to know!” and Gene Tierney (in her signature film role as Laura) delivered with exquisite elegance and sublime, breathtaking beauty the role of the untouchable “work of art.”

The film is a stylish murder mystery in the film noir genre. Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood’s classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

I will give you enough of the film plot to whet your appetite. At the outset of the film, it is established that the title character, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), has been murdered. Clifton Webb’s voice offers a narration off-screen that begins, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her, and I had just begun to write Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. . .”

Tough New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the killing, methodically questioning the chief suspects: Waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), wastrel socialite Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and Carpenter’s wealthy “patroness” Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). The deeper McPherson gets into the case, the more fascinated he becomes by the enigmatic Laura, literally falling in love with the woman’s painted portrait. (A piece of trivia: The portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura appeared in two other films, On the Riviera (in color) co-starring Danny Kaye, then later in Woman’s World starring Clifton Webb. In Woman’s World, the painting hung on a wall amid portraits of several other women who were supposed to have been former romantic interests of Webb’s character. The portrait of Tierney/Laura is, in fact, a photograph of Tierney done over with oil paint.) As McPherson sits in Laura’s apartment, ruminating over the case and his own obsessions with her, the door opens, the lights switch on, and in walks none other than Laura Hunt, very much alive! Well, that should be enough to make you go out immediately and either buy or rent the film if you have not already seen it.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) gazes at the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in a scene from the film Laura

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) gazes at the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in a scene from the film Laura

This adaptation of Vera Caspary’s suspense novel was begun by director Rouben Mamoulien and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, but thanks to a complex series of backstage intrigues and hostilities, Otto Preminger was ordered by his bosses at 20th Century Fox to take over the troubled production of Laura. Preminger had wanted to use Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady as a musical motif for Laura, but composer David Raksin felt it did not suit the character. Raksin was then given the weekend to come up something new. By Sunday, with nothing satisfactory on paper, he read a “Dear John” letter from his wife, and the haunting melody seemed to write itself. Raksin came back Monday with the Laura theme and Preminger not only liked it, but also used it extensively throughout the movie as the idée fixe for the mysterious title character. Raksin’s theme and variations are played throughout the film and, with a few exceptions, constitute the soundtrack. The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it plays under, and it plays under quite a lot in the film. Indeed, the Laura theme became virtually the only music used in the film, appearing in numerous orchestrations and arrangements throughout the movie. For example, in a self-conscious gesture, the film’s characters even refer to the soundtrack theme. When Detective McPherson enters Laura’s apartment with her mentor Waldo Lydecker and her fiancé Shelby Carpenter, McPherson turns on the phonograph and plays – you guessed it – Laura.

When it was released, the film was a moderate success, but the Laura theme, with lyrics added later by Johnny Mercer, became one of the most popular movie themes of all time.

To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, right click on the song title, then right click on Save target as
Woody Herman and his Orchestra, vocals by Woody Herman Laura
Johnnie Johnston, Paul Baron and his Orchestra Laura
Freddy Martin and his Orchestra (instrumental) Laura
Jerry Wald and his Orchestra, vocals by Dick Merrick Laura
Dick Haymes, Victor Young and his Orchestra Laura
Stan Kenton and his Orchestra, (Bud Shank, alto sax; Maynard Ferguson, trumpet; Shorty Rogers, trumpet) vocals by the band Laura

Laura Theme
David Raksin (from the film soundtrack) Laura (From “Laura”)

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