David Raksin

Film composer and writer of 'Laura'
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The Independent Online

"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 . . ." One of the most recorded of all popular songs, "Laura" was written over a hectic weekend in 1944 by the 32-year-old David Raksin. Composer of more than 100 film scores, he also wrote for television, the theatre and the concert hall. When asked in a Radio 3 interview how he decided on the appropriate style of music for a given film, he replied, "You do what comes supernaturally."



David Raksin, composer, conductor, arranger and teacher: born Philadelphia 4 August 1912; married first Pamela Randell (marriage dissolved), second 1959 Jo Kaiser (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975); died Van Nuys, California 9 August 2004.



"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 . . ." One of the most recorded of all popular songs, "Laura" was written over a hectic weekend in 1944 by the 32-year-old David Raksin. Composer of more than 100 film scores, he also wrote for television, the theatre and the concert hall. When asked in a Radio 3 interview how he decided on the appropriate style of music for a given film, he replied, "You do what comes supernaturally."

Raksin was born in Philadelphia, where his father ran a music shop. "My father started me off on the piano, and he got mad at me because I wanted to play baseball instead," he said. "So he changed me over to woodwinds." At 12 he formed a dance band and at 15 joined the Musicians Union. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, he worked for the bands of Benny Goodman and Roger Wolfe Kahn.

In 1935, after studying under Arnold Schoenberg, Raksin arrived in Hollywood. His work impressed the composer-conductor Alfred Newman, who, as musical director of Charles Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), hired Raksin to orchestrate Chaplin's music for the film. When Newman later became a force at 20th Century-Fox, he arranged to have Raksin signed by the studio.

Apart from the big-budget Suez (1938), Hollywood Cavalcade and Stanley and Livingstone (both 1939), he was assigned only minor films. Despite his lowly status, Raksin swiftly gained a reputation as an autocrat; when he reported to Alfred Hitchcock, having been assigned the score for Lifeboat (1944), Hitchcock snapped, "I don't need you! My whole film is set in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Where would the music come from?" Raksin snapped back, "Where would the cameras come from?"

When Raksin was assigned to Laura (1944), the film's producer-director Otto Preminger told him he wanted to use Gershwin's "Summertime" as the main theme. The rights to the song proved unavailable, so Preminger plumped for Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady". Raksin wanted to write a new theme instead, and was given the weekend to compose a suitable melody. By the Monday, he had produced a theme that not only found favour with Preminger but with all who saw the completed Laura. Johnny Mercer added the evocative lyric, and the song reached No 1 on the Hit Parade.

After working again with Preminger on Fallen Angel (1945), Raksin composed the music for If the Shoe Fits (1946), a short-lived Broadway musical based on Cinderella. Back in Hollywood, he scored Preminger's Daisy Kenyon, Forever Amber (both 1947) and Whirlpool (1949). For other directors he scored The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Force of Evil (1948) and Right Cross (1950), which many of Raksin's former friends renamed "Double Cross" after his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

In 1951 he admitted to membership in the Communist Party in the late 1930s before naming 11 other people. Unlike most of those he named, Raksin worked steadily over the next two decades, scoring such films as The Bad and The Beautiful (1952, one of his finest scores), Preminger's River of No Return (1954), Al Capone (1956), Separate Tables (1958), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), and What's the Matter with Helen? (1971). For many years he was Professor of Music at the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

In 1965 he wrote the score for The Redeemer, a feature about the last three days of Christ's life. Raksin had just watched a rough cut of the film when the projectionist said to him, "I don't get it. Everybody on this picture is Catholic - except you, and you're Jewish. How do you explain that?" Raksin replied, "Influence. I'm a relative of the deceased."

Dick Vosburgh

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