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Alan Ladd Profile

* Films in Bold air on TCM in August

He was the unlikeliest of tough guys: blonde, boyishly good-looking, short in stature and self-described as an "undernourished featherweight." Yet there was always something about Alan Ladd - a barely concealed pain, a tense wariness of the world, a vulnerability and masochistic air of tragedy - that served him equally when playing a psychotic killer or a loner hero. The persona was more than an actor's trick; Ladd's own life was more troubled than any character he played on screen, and his personal demons were finally his undoing at a relatively early age.

He was born in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1913, and grew up fatherless, undersized and nicknamed Tiny. His mother moved them to California when he was a child, and as he grew older, he excelled in sports, particularly track and swimming, more suitable for his small frame, and began training with an eye on the Olympics until an injury put an end to that dream. Over the years he worked a variety of odd jobs to help make ends meet, including gas station attendant, lifeguard, and hot dog vendor, eventually making it into the fringes of Hollywood as an extra and crew member. He made his acting debut at the age of 18 in a tiny part in Tom Brown of Culver (1932), but producers didn't see much in the pint-sized hopeful, so he was relegated to uncredited bits over the next seven years. Money was so tight he couldn't even afford to live with his first wife, and he witnessed his destitute mother's agonizing suicide from ant poison in 1937. It was not an auspicious start to either a screen career or a life.

What Ladd did have going for him, however, was a distinctive, resonant voice, and that got him some freelance work on the radio. It was there, in 1939, that he was discovered by agent and former actress Sue Carol. She took him on as a client, getting him steady work including small parts in an RKO comedy starring Gene Raymond and Wendy Barrie, Cross-Country Romance (1940), and a Victor Mature swashbuckler, Captain Caution (1940), a harbinger of roles to come for Ladd. Some of the roles were in "A" pictures - The Howards of Virginia (1940), a Revolutionary war drama starring Cary Grant; They Met in Bombay (1941), with Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell as jewel thieves - but most of them were forgettable. One production that did stand out, however, was Orson Welles's audacious directorial debut, Citizen Kane (1941). It's a bit part for Ladd, and you don't even get to see him in the deep chiaroscuro of cinematographer Gregg Toland's lighting scheme. But if you pay close attention, there's no mistaking that one of the reporters with pipe in mouth at the film's conclusion, the one who says "Or Rosebud," is Alan Ladd.

That famous film did nothing for Ladd's career, however, and he plugged along in a number of mostly uncredited roles (ten in 1941 alone). He and Carol married in 1942, and she got him a good role (as an RAF pilot called Baby) in a big budget picture, Joan of Paris (1942), an acclaimed anti-Nazi drama from RKO. But it was his next film that made him an overnight star. In This Gun for Hire (1942), Ladd played a laconic contract killer with fascinating complexities: his love for cats, a background of childhood abuse, and a single-minded thirst for revenge. It was a rich and compelling characterization, and although he was only fourth billed, today we think of it as an Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake movie, the one that launched this screen team on a seven-picture streak for home studio Paramount. Perfectly matched - she was just as diminutive, with a similarly cool but vulnerable appeal - they became two of the company's biggest stars, their images so identifiable they could parody themselves in all-star revues and guest spots.

Ladd's popularity continued unabated over the next few years, as Paramount's answer to Bogart: taciturn, coolly cynical, deadly when necessary. The trace of both violence and suffering that seemed to lurk beneath his placid surface served him equally well in the film noir crime dramas he made with Lake (The Glass Key, 1942; The Blue Dahlia, 1946), adventure stories in exotic settings (China, 1943; Calcutta, 1947; Saigon, 1948), and his first starring swashbuckler, Two Years Before the Mast (1946), in which his capacity for suffering was fully exploited in the brutality and torture his character endures. In the late 40s, he starred for the first time in a Western, Whispering Smith (1948), as a tough-as-nails railroad detective. The move to a new genre would prove to be a fruitful one, giving him some of his best roles in later years.

While Ladd's films were popular entertainments, they were rarely considered prestige productions. At the decade's end, he tried his hand at a high profile literary adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of the 1920s The Great Gatsby (1949). With his ability to suggest dark secrets and a quiet pained longing, Ladd seemed an ideal choice for the role of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, the poor boy who makes a fortune through shady means, all of it for the love of his beautiful but spoiled Daisy. But the picture failed to click with either the public or critics and unfortunately remains out of distribution today, unseen in decades, leaving no chance to re-evaluate Ladd's performance.

The 1950s stuck more closely to the two-fisted Ladd formula, starting with a good role in a tale of postwar intrigue and romance, Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950), which spawned the hit Oscar®-winning song "Mona Lisa." With some diminishment of his star status, he nevertheless kept active throughout the decade with seafaring adventures (Hell Below Zero, 1954, in which he was a whaling ship crewman), thrillers (The Man in the Net, 1959, a sharp suspense story under Michael Curtiz's direction), aviation/war dramas (The McConnell Story, 1955, where he was paired with June Allyson and had an affair with her during production) and one Arthurian adventure (as The Black Knight, 1954). He also continued to do well with Westerns, particularly when they played to his film noir strengths, as in The Badlanders (1958), an Old West retelling of W.R. Burnett's novel The Asphalt Jungle, which had been filmed in its original contemporary setting by John Huston in 1950. But the Western that stands out, in fact the most iconic and legendary Alan Ladd role of all, was Shane (1953).

This was the American Western hero in his most classical mode: the man of few words who comes out of nowhere and takes arms to preserve a way of life that, in the end, has no place for someone of his violent, individualistic nature. So he moves on, further into the wilderness, away from civilization, doomed to be a loner but remembered as legend. There were greater Western stars - John Wayne, Randolph Scott - but no one except Ladd better fit the myth as visualized in Shane. If he had made no other film in his life, he would still have gone down in Hollywood history as the solitary figure receding into the distance while a young boy calls after him, "Come back!"

Ladd never again attained the heights reached in Shane. As the years went on, and his alcoholism and personal instability increased, his looks ran to puffiness, his popularity waned, and the opportunities dried up. More frequently, derisive stories circulated about his height (5' 6"), although he was certainly not the first actor to have to stand on a box to look equal in height to his co-stars. Depression and self-doubt plagued him more and more frequently (reportedly due to the end of his affair with the married Allyson). "I have the face of an ageing choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight. If you can figure out my success on the screen you're a better man than I," he said, and his wife and manager confirmed his low self-esteem: "Alan is a big star to everyone in the world except Alan. He thinks he's in the business on a raincheck."

In June 1962 he released 13 West Street, a kind of proto-Death Wish (1974) in which he played a man mugged by a gang on the streets of Los Angeles who seeks revenge despite cop Rod Steiger's efforts to curb his vigilantism. It was an interesting study but not a huge hit, and several months later, Ladd was found lying unconscious in a pool of blood at his home from an "accidentally" inflicted gunshot wound. He had one last good role, as the washed-up cowboy star Nevada Smith (a character later played by Steve McQueen in a 1966 film of the same name) in The Carpetbaggers (1964), the film version of Harold Robbins's thinly disguised pulp novel about Howard Hughes and Hollywood. The big-budget soaper was generally trashed by critics but a box office blockbuster. It wasn't enough, however, to save Alan Ladd. Less than three months before the release of The Carpetbaggers, he was dead at 50 from an overdose, quite possibly intentional, of sedatives mixed with alcohol.

by Rob Nixon

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