The Draining of Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake (Constance Frances Marie Ockelman, 1922-1973) was born on this day. It’s rather perfect that she shares a birthday with Louise Brooks, also highly intelligent, who also chafed at being a sex symbol, threw away star status, and then fell precipitously.

Lake had been acting in bit parts for a couple of years when she attracted notice for her signature “peekaboo” hairstyle in I Wanted Wings (1941). With Sullivan’s Travels (1941) her career began to take off. I found her prominence in this ad for the film rather telling — to say that she is foregrounded over co-star Joel McCrea and writer-director Preston Sturges is to understate it grossly:

Even at this early stage, Lake was known for being “difficult”. It does speak volumes that Sturges, who liked to work with the same actors again and again, never cast her again. And McCrea, offered a chance to appear with her in a film the following year, refused (although he did finally co-star with her in the western Ramrod several years later).

Next came the all-star WWII musical Star Spangled Rhythm (1942). With This Gun’s for Hire (1942) she became associated both with noir and Alan Ladd, with whom she shared a chemistry as well as a diminutive stature. The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946) were other pairings in this vein. She was terrific in the Halloweeny screwball comedy I Married a Witch (1942). Another frequent co-star was Eddie Bracken, with whom she appeared in Bring on the Girls, Out of This World and Hold That Blonde, all in 1945.

Lake was a major star throughout the World War Two era, and a favorite pin-up with servicemen. In 1944 she married director Andre de Toth, who directed her in Ramrod (1947), and Slattery’s Hurricane (1949).

In the post-war period however, things began to slide. She’d had mental health problems since childhood, and she had developed a drinking problem. Her roles got smaller. Then in 1948, Paramount dropped her contract. The IRS seized her house for back taxes. She was bankrupt.  Stronghold (1951), an independent feature in which she had a small role, was her last film role for some time. She divorced De Toth in 1952. She acted in theatre and on television through the mid 1950s. She was married to a third husband from 1955 through 1959. By 1962 she was discovered working as a cocktail waitress and living in a fleabag hotel, her anonymity maintained through the use of the logical alias “Connie De Toth”. In the intervening years there had been numerous arrests for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.

Publicity about her situation resulted in a minor revival of her career. She was cast in an off-Broadway musical in 1963, hosted a local tv program in Baltimore, and had a supporting role in the 1966 Canadian thriller Footsteps in the Snow.  In 1969 she released her dictated autobiography and used the proceeds to underwrite her last starring film vehicle, the extremely low budget horror film Flesh Feast (1970). To see her in this film, which looks like a home movie, is saddening. The idea that it would have either revived her film career or made her any profit is unthinkable.  One aspect I find interesting and sad, though. She plays a lady mad scientist in the film and there’s something not just convincing but oddly diligent in how she observes the surgical niceties (e.g., puts on her rubber gloves) when she does her experiments. I found it ironic. In early publicity, she had claimed to have previously been a med student at McGill University, and had even said that after her career flamed out she wanted to go “back to med school”. And she’s oddly natural at spouting the sci fi dialogue in the film. She’s living a fantasy here.  Veronica Lake: woman of science. MAD woman of science, but scientist nonetheless.

What would have happened next is anybody’s guess, for she died not long after, of cirrhosis of the liver, at age 50.


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