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David Raksin, 92; Longtime Film Composer Had Hit Song ‘Laura’

Times Staff Writer

David Raksin, the noted film composer for “Forever Amber” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” whose hauntingly memorable theme song for the 1944 film noir classic “Laura” became one of the most recorded tunes in history, has died. He was 92.

Raksin, the last surviving major composer from Hollywood’s Golden Age and a onetime Communist Party member who reluctantly named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, died of heart failure caused by cardiovascular disease Monday at his home in Van Nuys, said his son, Alex.

In a more than half-century career in Hollywood that began in 1935 when he was hired to assist Charlie Chaplin with the music for “Modern Times,” Raksin received Academy Award nominations for his scores for “Forever Amber” (1947) and “Separate Tables” (1958).

He also wrote music for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947), “Force of Evil” (1948), “Carrie” (1952), “Pat and Mike” (1952), “Too Late Blues” (1961), “Will Penny” (1968) and more than 100 other films. And he composed music for some 300 TV shows, including the theme for “Ben Casey” (1961) and the 1989 TV movie “Lady in a Corner.”

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Singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, a longtime friend, told The Times recently that his favorite Raksin score was for the 1952 drama “The Bad and the Beautiful,” starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner.

“The synthesis of blues and jazz, combined with his classical background, created a hybrid that is a distillation of the disparate influences on David,” said Feinstein. Raksin’s musical style, Feinstein said, “is as recognizably unique as George Gershwin.... He wrote complex music, but he also was a great melodist.”

Lyricist Marilyn Bergman, president and chairwoman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the performing rights group, told The Times on Monday that Raksin “was a composer whose music was just as meaningful in a concert hall as it was on a soundtrack on a film.”

“I think that, along with people like Alex North and Bernard Hermann and Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, David Raksin was in the forefront of serious American composers,” she said.

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Raksin may be best known for his score for “Laura,” a romantic mystery starring Dana Andrews as a detective who falls for a woman (Gene Tierney) as he investigates her apparent murder.

Cole Porter, once asked what piece of music he most regretted not having composed, replied, “Laura.” And Hedy Lamarr, asked why she had turned down the title role in the film, said, “Because they sent me the script instead of the score.”

Alfred Newman, who headed 20th Century Fox’s music department, assigned Raksin to the film, produced and directed by Otto Preminger.

“I was typed as a composer for detective pictures, and they thought that’s what ‘Laura’ was,” Raksin once recalled. But he saw the movie as a love story.

At a meeting with Preminger after Raksin viewed a rough cut of the film, Preminger said he planned to use Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” to evoke the beautiful murder victim. Raksin objected, telling Preminger that while it was a great song, it was all wrong for the movie.

The meeting was on a Friday and Preminger gave Raksin the weekend to come up with something. The next morning Raksin received a letter from his then-wife, Pamela Randell, a model, singer and dancer who was working on Broadway.

“I couldn’t make head or tail of it and put the letter aside so I could get back to work,” he recalled in a 1976 Times interview.

When he still hadn’t come up with anything by Sunday night, he tried a technique he had used before: propping something up before him to divert his mind and get his creative juices going. This time, he used his wife’s letter.

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“Suddenly the meaning of her letter got through to me; she was kissing me off,” he recalled. “And then, like in a corny scene from a bad Warner Bros. movie about a composer, I found myself playing the entire first phrase of ‘Laura.’ “Audiences loved it so much that Raksin was deluged with fan letters.

He reworked the melody so it could be sung and, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, “Laura” became a hit in 1945. It’s among the most recorded songs ever, with more than 400 recordings over the years.

Raksin was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 4, 1912. His father was a music store operator who conducted an orchestra at a silent movie theater and sometimes played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Raksin began piano lessons at 6, but later switched to the saxophone. By 12, he was leading a small dance band, which he expanded in high school for broadcasting on the local CBS affiliate. He taught himself orchestration in high school and while majoring in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania played in society bands and radio orchestras.

Raksin was 23 and arranging Broadway musicals when he was invited to Hollywood to work on “Modern Times.” Credited as an arranger on the film, Raksin wrote down and developed Chaplin’s musical ideas, which the comedian hummed, whistled or played with two fingers on the piano.

Raksin was under contract to MGM in 1951 when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had been a member of the Communist Party from 1938 to 1940; he later said he was asked to leave after expressing opinions that were contrary to the party line.

Prior to appearing before the committee, Raksin sought the advice of Martin Gang, an influential entertainment lawyer who counseled clients to cooperate with the committee in order to be cleared from blacklists and return to work.

In a 1997 interview with The Times, Raksin recalled: “He said, ‘If you don’t talk, those bastards will put you in jail.’ Gang told me, ‘Don’t hide anything; they know all about you.’ ”

During his testimony, Raksin provided the names of 11 party members. But, partially ignoring Gang’s advice, he only named people, he later said, who were dead or already had been named. He denied knowing if others were party members.

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“It wasn’t an abject capitulation,” Raksin told The Times. “I told the committee they should leave the Communist Party alone, not try to crush it. But there I was, a guy with a family to support and a fairly decent career that was about to go down the drain.

“What I did was a major sin, but I think I did as well as most human beings would’ve done under torture,”

For decades, Raksin taught classes on composition for motion pictures and TV at UCLA and USC.

Raksin was the first film composer chosen by the Library of Congress to have a collection of his manuscripts in its music division.

His stage works include three produced musicals and several ballets, as well as incidental music for plays. His concert works, many of them adapted from his film scores, have been performed by several leading orchestras.

In addition to his son, an editorial writer for The Times, the twice-divorced Raksin is survived by his daughter, Valentina Raksin; and three grandchildren.

A celebration of Raksin’s life and work is pending.


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