David Raksin, 92, `Laura' song composer

August 10, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

David Raksin, the noted film composer for Forever Amber and The Bad and the Beautiful who turned his hauntingly memorable score for the 1944 film-noir classic Laura into one of the most recorded songs in history, died yesterday of heart failure at his home in Van Nuys, Calif. He was 92.

Mr. Raksin was 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.

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, Mr. 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), and more than 100 other films. And he composed music for some 300 TV shows, including the theme for Ben Casey (1961).

Singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, a longtime friend, said his favorite Raksin score was for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), 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 Mr. Feinstein.

Mr. Raksin may be best known for his score for Laura, a romantic mystery starring Dana Andrews as a detective who falls for the woman whose murder he is investigating.

Cole Porter, once asked what piece of music he most regretted not having composed, replied, "Laura." Audiences loved Mr. Raksin's song so much that he 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.

Mr. Raksin grew up in Philadelphia and 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 station. 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.

Mr. Raksin was 23 and arranging Broadway musicals when he was invited to Hollywood to work on Modern Times. He 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.

Prior to appearing before the committee, Mr. Raksin sought the advice of Martin Gang, a lawyer who counseled his clients to cooperate with the committee to be cleared from blacklists.

During his testimony, Mr. Raksin provided the names of 11 party members. But he only named people, he later said, who were dead or already had been named.

"It wasn't an abject capitulation," Mr. Raksin said in a 1997 interview. "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," he said.

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