Lake, Veronica (1919-1973)

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Lake, Veronica (1919-1973)

Remembered for her peekaboo hairstyle in Paramount's 1941 I Wanted Wings and a reputation for being difficult to work with, actress Veronica Lake managed in her relatively short period of stardom to appear in several movies that went on to become classics: more than half a century later, her performances in Sullivan's Travels, This Gun for Hire, and The Blue Dahlia still hold up.

Born in Brooklyn as Constance Ockleman, she was an attractive child, and she began to win beauty contests during her teenage years, while her family was living in Florida. When they resettled in Southern California, her mother urged her to try acting. By 1939, using her stepfather's last name, she was playing small parts as Constance Keane in such films as All Women Have Secrets and Sorority House. She also appeared opposite veteran tipsy comedian Leon Errol in a 1939 RKO comedy short titled The Wrong Room. A bedroom farce set in a resort hotel, it casts her as a newlywed who keeps fainting in Errol's vicinity, causing him to have to hide her unconscious body from his wife and other interested parties. In her largest part thus far, the young actress spent most of her screen time pretending to be out cold.

According to Lake, it was as Constance Keane that she introduced " the hair style of the century." The hair fell over one eye while she was playing a small part in Forty Little Mothers, a 1940 Eddie Cantor comedy. Director Busby Berkeley advised, "Let it fall. It distinguishes her from the others." The hair didn't attract attention, however, until producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr., who rechristened her Veronica Lake, cast her as the femme fatale in I Wanted Wings, a movie about three air corps cadets. In her first major movie role, the hair was long and blonde, and it kept falling over her right eye. The media referred to her as the girl with the peekaboo hair style, and the tag stuck with her throughout the Word War II years, even after she cut her hair. Although she didn't have many scenes in her maiden voyage under her new name, she made a very strong impression. Paramount executives were the first to realize her potential impact, and many of the ads for the film were dominated by a large head-and-shoulders glamour shot of her and her peekaboo hair style. "Blonde Bomber," read a typical headline, "She flew them into the Ground!"

Despite the gimmickry attached to her debut and the negative responses of some movie critics, Lake was a competent actress, although, from the start, Lake had a knack for antagonizing many of the people she worked with. Mitchell Leisen, who directed her in Wings, developed a strong dislike for her, commenting that "she was impossible. Every suggestion you made, she fought; you fought with her all day long."

Her next film was Sullivan's Travels, written and directed by the formidable Preston Sturges, released at the end of 1941. Her character has no name in this satire-melodrama about Hollywood and the place of comedy in a troubled world, and she is simply called the Girl in the script. Sturges, who'd already turned out three box-office hits for Paramount, was determined to have Lake in the role. The studio was opposed, suggesting everyone from Ida Lupino to Lucille Ball to Claire Trevor, but Sturges got his way, saying of Lake, "She's nothing much in real life—a quiet, timid little thing. But the screen transforms her, electrifies her—I think she's the biggest bet in the business." Lake was several months pregnant during the filming, which added to her usual difficulties. Sturges later complained that she was difficult to handle and often caused production delays. Joel McCrea, who costarred as Sullivan, vowed he'd never work with her again. Although the film was not initially as successful as Sturges's earlier ones, it has since come to be considered one of his masterpieces.

Lake next helped launch Alan Ladd's career as a star, appearing opposite him in the film noir This Gun for Hire early in 1942. The film starred Ladd as a hired killer mixed up with Nazi spies and Lake as a nightclub singer who accidentally gets tangled up with him and befriends him. A diminutive actor, Ladd didn't seem short when playing opposite Lake, who was just over five feet tall, and there was a strong screen rapport between them that audiences sensed. "We were a good match for each other," Lake recalled. A hit as a team, they were immediately put into another hard-boiled thriller, The Glass Key. That same year Lake also starred in I Married a Witch, a fantasy-comedy directed by expatriate Frenchman Rene Clair. After Joel McCrea turned down the role of the politician who weds a reincarnated seventeenth century witch, Fredric March played it. On the screen they seem compatible, but in her autobiography the actress admitted, "He gave me a terrible time! I hated Fredric March."

In 1943 she played a combat nurse in the serious war film So Proudly We Hail. She was back opposite Ladd in 1946 in The Blue Dahlia, scripted by Raymond Chandler, and she made her final film with him, Saigon, in 1948. Between 1943 and 1948, Lake was cast mostly in a series of weak comedies and dramas, playing opposite such actors as Franchot Tone and Eddie Bracken: her reputation for being difficult to work with and her assorted domestic troubles didn't help her career. With her second husband, director Andre De Toth, Lake made a Western, Ramrod, in 1947. McCrea, who'd apparently overcome his aversion by then, costarred. After being let go by Paramount, Lake appeared opposite Richard Widmark in Twentieth Century-Fox's 1949 Slattery's Hurricane.

Lake's life went into a decline after that. It was filled with a few low-budget films, tours in summer stock, a hostess job on a local television station, bouts of heavy drinking, a stint as a barmaid in New York, and unsuccessful attempts at a comeback. She died of hepatitis in 1973.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Chierichetti, David. Hollywood Director. New York, Curtis Books, 1973.

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

Lake, Veronica. Veronica. New York, The Citadel Press, 1971.

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Lake, Veronica (1919-1973)