To say what Alan Ladd means to me is almost impossible, but I will try in my own awkward, inadequate way. Alan is a classic film star that I discovered about three years ago, thanks to the You Must Remember This Podcast, which spoke about one of his best film noirs, The Blue Dahlia, co-starring his perfect match, Veronica Lake. The film intrigued me terribly, not only because it had inspired the name of the infamous Black Dahlia murder, but because as soon as I looked up Alan’s picture, I thought “Hew boy, what a looker.”
And I was thrilled that the picture matched the talent. From the moment I saw him as Lt. Johnny Morrison, I knew that I had to see all of his films. And since then I have managed to see quite a few of them, although I still have a long way to go in watching the dozens of films he made, as both a leading man, supporting actor and so on and so forth. For me, Alan’s acting style is very modern. Whereas some of his contemporaries loved to chew the scenery, Alan preferred to say little and just emote his character. And while many have criticised him for this, I think that it has meant that his acting style has aged very well, and showed his generosity as a performer. He never felt the need to speak more than his co-stars to prove his stardom. His son David remarked on his habit of actually crossing out lines and asking the scriptwriter to give them to other actors.
Alan’s beginnings were not illustrious. His father died when he was very young, and his mother married again, to a man who brought few improved prospects to young Alan’s life. He, his mother and stepfather moved cross country from Alan’s place of birth, Arkansas, to California, and spent several months in a migrant camp in Pasadena before reaching their destination.
Looking back, I’m grateful for the sparseness and loneliness of my youth—my feelings of inadequacy, being “the kid behind the eight ball”. They were the most valuable assets I had going for me… I couldn’t slip back because I knew what I’d be going back to…
Despite Alan’s humble beginnings, he had a successful high school career, doing well in his studies and excelling in swimming. He opened up a burger bar upon graduation, but it failed, and so he turned his attention to acting, for he had displayed a talent for the arts in high school.
But things did not come easy, and he was eventually forced to go into radio work in order to support his young, devoted wife, Midge, and their baby son, Alan Jr, or Laddie as they called him. Around this time his mother also committed suicide by ingesting ant paste in the back of Alan’s car. This tragedy would plague Alan for the rest of his life, as he felt that he should have not dismissed his mother’s threats as idle ones.
Eventually fate would intervene, and one night an agent called Sue Carol, an ex silent film actress, heard him on the radio and decided she had to meet him. Despite Alan’s marriage, and their disparate ages, he and Sue Carol would become more than just client and agent.
He was very shy, but he had a wonderful smile. His eyebrows and his eyelashes were pitch black over level green eyes which were deep and unfathomable—an actor’s eyes. He was for me.
Their marriage, although purported to at times be a troubled one, lasted from 1942 until Alan’s death in 1964. It would be Sue’s dogged ambition that would help land Alan his first major role as that of Raven in This Gun for Hire. Director Frank Tuttle looked at mood shots of Alan and liked the way his appearance belied the possibility of brutality and danger. Alan would do a practice test with Robert Preston, who would eventually be cast as the good guy in the film, and also go on to be one of Alan’s good friends and frequent Paramount costars.
He was an awfully good actor. People never realised just how good he was. I ran over the lines with him. I didn’t do the actual test. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I was cast in the romantic lead in This Gun for Hire.
The pairing of Lake and Ladd would become a sensation. According to Alan’s biographer, Beverly Linet, the stars aligned for not only their pairing, but for Alan’s career at Paramount, the only studio that would have given him a chance at the time, due to various physical preferences for their leading men. Sterling Hayden’s departure for the army meant that Alan could take his place. And although they were disparate physically, this did not bother either the studio bosses or audiences. Alan and Veronica would create a sensation with their almost kisses and longing looks in Gun, and would go on to make three more hugely successful film noirs together, the best known of which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, The Blue Dahlia. Their acting styles, cool, calm, with just the right hint of banked passion, and their slight physical statures, were a match made in Tinseltown heaven.
But even without his perfect leading lady, for almost the entirety of the 1940s and much of the 1950s, Alan would be the crowning glory of Paramount, earning the nickname “Mr Paramount”. His films whether westerns or noirs, dominated the box office, and in 1954, along with Marilyn Monroe, he would be voted the most popular actor in the country. He would win several other similar awards during his career.
His career would begin to decline in the late 1950s, although he would continue to work. But like another of my screen idols, John Barrymore, Alan’s alcoholism would worsen as time went on, until he was severely dependent on it. This was, of course, exacerbated by increased career disappointment. But in 1964, when Alan was forty nine years old, he was cast by Edward Dmytryk, who had directed Alan in one of his first roles in Her First Romance over two decades before, as Nevada Smith. Life would imitate art: Alan would play Nevada Smith, an ageing cowboy come Western actor. While the character of Smith had only ever really been a top of the B’s actor, this role was definitely quite close to home and the bone.
While this film was touted as Alan’s comeback, George Peppard was the star of the picture, and playing a role remarkably similar to what Alan could have and probably would have played fifteen to twenty years earlier. Although Alan’s performance would be roundly praised in a film that was largely watched for sensationalism purposes, he would not live to see the praise of critics, something he had longed for in life.
Alan would die of an accidental prescription drug and alcohol overdose shortly after production of The Carpetbaggers. Much speculation of whether or not Alan committed suicide would abound, but as his son, David, put it, “a magic number” of pills and alcohol led to his father’s death, not suicide.
Alan’s death was felt by many, most acutely by his family and his friends from Paramount. His memorial service was held on what would have been his fifty first birthday. His legacy, through his children, most notably his oldest son, Alan or Laddie, lives on and on. As Alan Jr became a successful producer and green lit some major film projects.
But it’s Alan’s films in which he is immortal. Seventy seven years later he can still be seen with his large, haunted eyes in the part of Raven, or the triumphant war hero in Captain Carey USA, and of course, as the mysterious, antihero, Shane.
I like to think that somehow, some way, he saw and still sees the impact he had on the film industry. From his immortalisation of the trench coat and trilby combo, to the way he popularised the look of the pretty boy hero who proved he was tough, but still gentle. I love to see how modern his acting still appears. How his understated style can be seen in so many actors after him.
To me, Alan is just as great as Bogie or John Wayne, and that his impact is just as far reaching. Just because people don’t always remember him, doesn’t mean that the seeds of his career are not still evident in so many films that came later.
*Linet, B. Ladd: The Life, The Legend, The Legacy of Alan Ladd. 1979. Arbor House: New York.
*Thank you once again to my lovely, generous friend, Erica, for procuring this invaluable biography for me.
This is my contribution for my Blogathon about Alan. Please be sure to visit my blog to read all the wonderful entries about Alan.