Ladd, Alan (1913-1964)

views updated

Ladd, Alan (1913-1964)

A compact tough guy actor, Alan Ladd arrived at stardom by way of a pair of film noir movies in the early 1940s. After nearly a decade of small parts, he was given the role of Raven in Paramount Pictures' 1942 This Gun For Hire, a somewhat toned down adaptation of the Graham Greene thriller. Although he didn't get star billing—that went to Robert Preston and Veronica Lake—Ladd stole the picture playing a sort of existentialist hired assassin. He managed to make the cold, doomed character unsettling and yet appealing. The scenes between him and Lake suggested to the studio that they would make a bankable romantic team, and before his first major film was released Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were working together again in The Glass Key, a dark, violent version of Dashiell Hammett's novel. Brian Donlevy was the ostensible star, but Ladd was again the one who got most of the attention, as well as thousands of fan letters. Both films, which hit theaters fairly close together, got good reviews and did well at the box office. This Gun For Hire grossed $12,000,000. From 1942 to 1964 Alan Ladd appeared in nearly fifty more movies. Many were run of the mill action pictures, but included on the list were The Blue Dahlia, The Great Gatsby, and Shane.

Born in Arkansas, Ladd grew up in Southern California where he attended North Hollywood High. He was interested in acting early on and also excelled at track and swimming. His mother committed suicide before his career took off, a fact he kept hidden throughout his lifetime. In 1939, agent Sue Carol, a moderately successful movie actress in the late 1920s and early 1930s and ten years Ladd's senior, became his agent. She began to get him movie work at various studios. Ladd played small parts in Rulers of the Sea at Paramount, the first Green Hornet serial at Universal, and somewhat larger parts in a string of Poverty Row productions. He also can be heard, though only dimly seen, in the early scenes of Citizen Kane, where a group of news people is viewing the "News on the March" short about the life of Kane; and in Disney's The Reluctant Dragon he is in a live-action sequence explaining the Baby Weems storyboard to the touring Robert Benchley. He got a featured role in RKO's Joan of Paris, which starred Michele Morgan and Paul Henreid. In 1942, having divorced his first wife, Ladd married his agent.

Ladd also had a career at the microphone. A self-trained radio actor, he started getting parts on local Los Angeles broadcasts in 1936, and within two years was playing small roles on national programs like Lux Radio Theater. After he became famous, he frequently starred on the Lux show and it was Ladd, not Bogart, who appeared as Rick on their 1944 dramatization of Casablanca. In 1948 Ladd produced, syndicated and starred in a successful radio mystery series called Box 13.

During the 1940s, with some time out for service in the armed forces, Ladd was on the screen in fifteen more films. In two of them—The Blue Dahlia and Saigon —he again played opposite Veronica Lake. His height has been variously reported, but he was apparently about five foot five. That made Lake, at approximately five feet, an ideal romantic movie partner for him. Among the other actresses he worked with in the 1940s were Loretta Young, Gail Russell, Dorothy Lamour, and Donna Reed. William Bendix, who became a close friend offscreen, was in several of Ladd's movies, playing his loyal sidekick in China, The Blue Dahlia, and Calcutta. During the 1950s Ladd starred in twenty-three more movies, the majority of them not especially memorable. He did, however, star in George Stevens' Shane in 1953, a Western that has earned the status of a classic and which some critics feel contains Ladd's best performance.

Somewhere along the way, however, Ladd had picked up a drinking habit and his excesses started to show on his face from the middle 1950s onward. In his last picture, The Carpetbaggers made in 1963, he played a supporting role. He died in January of 1964 of an overdose of sedatives taken while drinking.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Eames, John Douglas. The Paramount Story. New York, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Halliwell, Leslie. Mountain of Dreams. New York, Stonehill Publishing Company, 1976.

Linet, Beverly. Ladd. New York, Arbor House, 1979.