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Retro Redux: Laura Lives On – Musically

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Sometimes movies — even classics — end up being less remembered than the music contained within. A good example is the 1944 film, Laura, which is considered one of the best cinematic mysteries ever made and still has many fans, but probably isn't remembered as much as its timeless theme song.

When producer/director Otto Preminger began putting the pieces together for his film production of Vera Caspary's novelized play, he had some pretty firm ideas for how he wanted to do it. One of those concerned the theme song, which would be played whenever the portrait of the mysterious Laura was shown. Preminger thought that Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" would fit the bill, but that didn't work out, so he hired songwriter David Raksin to produce a new song. It caught Raksin at a key moment in his life. His wife had just left him, and his melancholy mood certainly helped him compose a haunting melody that fit perfectly into the movie.

The film, which starred Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb, did well, but the song did better — or at least had more staying power in later years. It would eventually have lyrics added by the talented Johnny Mercer, and would become a jazz and pop standard, one that — according to ALLMUSIC — has been recorded almost 2000 times.

Although I'm sure some of the cutting-edge crowd dismissed the song, the instrumental version became an obligatory part of every jazz performer's songbook. One of my favorites is by Coleman Hawkins (clip), but everybody from Charlie Parker (with strings!) to Dave Brubeck has tackled the song.

The version with lyrics has probably generated even more recordings. Bandleader Woody Herman — who was a passable singer — had a popular record of the song, as did almost every vocalist around. That includes female singers like Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald, but it always seemed to me that the song made more sense when performed by a guy. One of the best was the smooth and mellow Dick Haymes, but most music fans gave the nod to Frank Sinatra (clip).

One thing is sure. Although you seldom see much about the movie any more, the song continues to live on.

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