Arts Listings

Pacific Film Archive Presents the Work of Otto Preminger

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:09:00 AM

Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Movie,” a 14-film retrospective of the famed Hollywood director’s work, opened last weekend at Pacific Film Archive. The series, which continues through Dec. 20, ranges from the romantic film noir Laura (1944) to the bizarre 1968 LSD crime burlesque Skidoo (starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Mickey Rooney, George Raft—and Groucho Marx as God) and includes such well-known titles as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), St. Joan (1957), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960) and Advise and Consent (1962). 

Laura features a score theme song so celebrated that Cole Porter once said the theme was the melody he most wished he’d written, and Hedy Lamarr, when asked why she turned down the title role (played by Gene Tierney), quipped, “They sent me the script, not the music!” 

As a musical footnote to Laura, film composer Mark Adler, who studied with David Raksin, the composer of both the theme and score, recalled Raksin’s story of how the music was made. 

Adler, a former East Bay resident, whose office was at Fantasy Films in Berkeley and who won the 1998-99 Prime Time Emmy for music direction for “The Rat Pack,” studied with Raksin at UCLA in the 1970s. He reminisced about his teacher, who died in 2004 at the age of 92, with admiration and affection. 

“It’s one of the rare films where you can’t separate the film from the score,” Adler said. “Not every film is open to that kind of scoring, serving the purpose of the film both dramatically and psychologically. And I believe it was the first monothematic film score. The theme gets buried, comes the obsession that Dana Andrews, the detective, has with the image of Gene Tierney, the leading lady, who’s presumed dead.” 

Adler recounted Raksin’s own story of how he composed the music. “David told the story a number of times over the years, of how he watched an early cut of the film with Preminger. The film was considered a thriller by the studio; David immediately saw it as a love story. As a film composer, he was mostly assigned to horror and detective films, to darker stuff. Ironically, he wasn’t thought of as a love-story type of composer.” 

Preminger told Raksin he was thinking of “Sophisticated Lady,” by Duke Ellington (who later scored Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder), for the theme. “David said he told Preminger that was wrong,” Adler recalled, “and Preminger gave him the weekend to come up with something different.” 

When Raksin got home, he found a letter from his wife, “a Broadway dancer,” Adler said, “and put it aside to work on the music.” On Sunday night, without a note written, Raksin read the letter, “which told him his wife was leaving him. He sat down and came up with the theme for Laura. It must have hit him in the heart; the melody tumbled out after a weekend of frustration.” 

The theme itself became a sensation; the studio “was flooded with letters asking where to get the music—that never happened for Hollywood music. So they decided to make a song of it. One lyricist came up with an opening ‘Two Hearts’—and David said, ‘No, I was thinking “Lau-Ra!”’ and insisted on Johnny Mercer for the words.” The result has been recorded over 400 times, reputedly second only to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” 

Adler recalled Raksin’s screening of a “pivotal scene” in the movie for his students. “Dana Andrews, wandering around in Laura’s apartment, looking for clues, keeps gazing at the painting of her. There’s no dialogue. Preminger was considering cutting the scene; it wasn’t working. David said if the scene was cut, the audience wouldn’t understand that the detective was falling in love with a dead woman. He was pushing on insubordination by telling Preminger, ‘You can’t cut the scene!’ David used a Socratic approach when he played that scene for us: first we saw it without music, and it was fairly flat. The detective was just walking around. Then he ran it with music but no comment—and the music was playing the psychological subtext, the character’s inner, unarticulated feelings. It was a place where music can make a difference.” 

Adler spoke of Raksin as “musically adventurous. The ‘Laura’ theme is a very direct melody but with a complex harmonic quality. It only settles on the tonic key for a second before moving somewhere else, creating a restlessness, which served the quality of the character. 

“And he always had his ear to the ground. I realized he had his compositional antecedents to ‘Laura’ when, in a casual reference, he played a Jerome Kern piece, and I could see he might have emulated Kern’s sense of modulation in writing the ‘Laura’ theme. But I don’t think he did it consciously. His ear was so open to what everyone was doing; he was such a fan of Gershwin and Kern. In the ’80s and ’90s, when he was in his 70s and 80s, he referred to contemporary music in interviews, even to Snoop Doggy Dog.” 

Raksin composed more than 100 film scores—and more than 300 scores for TV—including such films as Force of Evil (1948), The Bad and the Beautiful and Pat and Mike (both 1952), and his favorite, Father of the Bride (1960). He was assisted in his career by referrals and commissions from many friends and acquaintances, including Leopold Stokowski, George Gershwin and Igor Stravinsky, who tapped Raksin to arrange his “Circus Polka” for Ringling Brothers, with choreography by Balanchine. 

Raksin first came to Hollywood in 1935, to assist in scoring Modern Times with Chaplin, who whistled and hummed what Raksin would then orchestrate. 

Adler also recalled Raksin’s presence at a new recording of “Laura” by conductor John Maucheri at the Hollywood Bowl with the Welsh National Orchestra, when Maucheri made a stylistic consultation with Raksin. “When Laura was made, the more Romantic-sounding Viennese guys dominated Hollywood music [Preminger, too, was a ‘Viennese guy,’ in theater], like Alfred Newman, the studio head of music, whom David had asked, ‘Will it work?’ referring to Laura, because monothematic scoring was so new. David considered himself a modern composer; he’d studied with Schoenberg and listened to Berg. He didn’t conduct the original music for Laura; Newman did and made things more ‘schmaltzy,’ more 19th century, according to David. He didn’t like adornment. So the new recording was a leaner, more modern score. Now we have that sense in film scores—but this was 65 years ago.”  

Adler keeps a saying by Raksin in his studio: “Most people say that life is a matter of living in harmony—and of course, it isn’t. For me, it’s a matter of counterpoint. That’s the way I think.” 

A 1998 interview with David Raksin by Charles Amirkhanian for KPFA’s “Speaking of Music” series, from the archives of Other Minds, is available online through Other Minds or Wikipedia’s entry for David Raksin. 




A career-spanning retrospective running through Dec. 20 at Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way (between Telegraph Avenue and Bowditch). $5.50–$13.50 for double feature, general admission). 642-1124.