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If you're a moviehead, you probably assume as I do that you can gaze upon the movie stars of any past era, in any culture, and understand what made them irresistible. Movies, after all, are a reflection of our own desires, aren't they? Or is that just what Freud would've said?
Hypnotic beauty, wit, identifiability, trustworthiness, grace, an explosion of personality - stardom has a volatile cocktail of fuel sources. But as it happens, fathoming the dynamic is sometimes difficult, and movie history is full of inexplicable mysteries. Decades hence, for example, cinephiles will probably furrow their brows over the new-millennium interest in Robert Pattinson. It's almost universally agreed now that Dan Aykroyd's film career was a complete mistake, and I don't think anyone has a good theory as to why Peter Lawford or Sonja Henie ever became stars.
There's plenty of room for subjective disagreement, and lots of gray between the inevitable movie icon and the stupefying head-scratcher, and it's into this no man's land we find Alan Ladd, a major Hollywood movie star of the middle century who's as hard to read, in terms of being a historical and cultural phenomenon, as a Sphinx. Very, very few of us, however impassioned we may be about movies from Griffith to the present, have many hosannas to toss toward Ladd's memory, and besides George Stevens's distinctive, totemic western Shane (1953), none of his films are remembered with much fondness or energy. Who was this short, bland-faced, blond-locked Midwestern guy, and why was he a name above the marquee title for twenty years?
Watching The Deep Six (1958), an earnest, boisterous WWII naval drama Ladd made with his own production company six years before he died, you can feel the question become too large to answer. Ladd became famous in This Gun for Hire (1942), for essentially inventing the granite-faced, ultra-calm man of violence, and his acting style thereafter ran the gamut from implacable to sleepy. By the late '50s, Ladd was trying to flex his muscles a bit, and in The Deep Six we're witness to him as a playboy artist, complete with snappy repartee. Directed quickly by Rudolph Mate (a veteran cinematographer who shot Carl Dreyer's best films, but whose directorial docket is mostly taken up with low-budget, double-bill fare of often bizarre pedigree), the film is an ungainly dance between formula and social issues, as Ladd's puffy, aging bachelor woos his sexy art director boss (Dianne Foster) with his Long Island beach house and local Basque restaurant (!).
Until, that is, the letter comes from the Dept. of Defense, at which point we realize what we thought was the '50s is actually 1942, and we learn that Ladd's semi-laconic swinger is both in the Navy reserves and a Quaker! He proposes marriage anyway, and goes off to his battleship, reflexively inhabited as it is by wisecracking, ethnically diverse enlisted men (naturally including a Borscht Belt comedian, Joey Bishop), a crusty captain (James Whitmore), and, for good measure, a bullet-headed officer (Keenan Wynn) who believes in summary executions and doesn't trust his new gunnery lieutenant's Quaker pacifism.
Conflict with the Japanese in the Pacific is decidedly besides the point; after a bajillion WWII movies already by the late '50s, the strategy here focuses on the shipmates' interactions through the prism of a relatively exclusive concern, Quakerism, which enables Ladd to feign pacifistic cowardice and then, on a number of set-piece occasions, prove everyone's suspicions wrong by stepping up and responding to the needs of battle.
The raft of supporting eccentricity is plenty juicy - particularly William Bendix as a Brooklyn-Jewish mess sergeant full of Yiddishisms (his "zaftig" wife wouldn't stop "hocking" him, etc.) But the strange, haunted soul of the movie is Ladd himself, and not merely because his stardom seems puzzling from this remove...Which it definitely does: few major leads from the Golden Age seem to be simply play-acting as baldly as Ladd, and none seemed as quietly consumed with self-loathing for doing it. Ladd's real-life story keeps peeking through the cracks of his acting - namely, the codependent crises of his epochal alcoholism and his apparent closeted homosexuality, which together compelled him to shoot himself in the chest, in 1962, and, just over a year later, kill himself finally via a heavy-duty OD of booze and dope.
Our culture has exhibited unlimited fascination with famous Hollywood suicides and tragic deaths, particularly when they intersect with sexual secrets and "outsider" identities, but even in this realm Ladd is hardly remembered, and much of his story remains undisclosed. Therein might lie the man's most bedeviling legacy. When we consider James Dean, we ponder a fiery career far too short; Marilyn Monroe, a victim of fame. Other Hollywood Babylon deaths have become legend, and other hidden sexualities (Rock Hudson's, for instance) have become a lens in which to see the individual's struggle in the merciless eye of modern media. But Ladd hasn't yet been rescued from obscurity, despite the seductive fact that his acting now seems like an extended and heartbreaking attempt to contain secrets, secrets that have still to see the light of day.
Producer: Martin Rackin
Director: Rudolph Mat
Screenplay: Harry Brown, Martin Rackin, John Twist (writer); Martin Dibner (novel)
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Roland Gross
Cast: Alan Ladd (Alexander 'Alec' Austen), Dianne Foster (Susan Cahill), William Bendix ('Frenchy' Shapiro), Keenan Wynn (Lt. Comm. Mike Edge), James Whitmore (Commander Warren Meredith), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Lt. Blanchard), Joey Bishop (Ski Krokowski), Barbara Eiler (Claire Innes), Ross Bagdasarian (Pvt. Aaron Slobodjian), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Austen).
by Michael Atkinson