How Jack Luden Went from Cough Drops to Heroin

Jack Luden (1902-1951) started out with every advantage. The nephew of the founder of Luden’s Cough Drops, he attended posh private schools like the New York Military Academy. He was in the process of trying out for the 1920 Olympics when a broken leg ended his athletic career. This may have been the seed of his future troubles.

In 1925, he was one of 17 aspirants selected to attend that year’s class at the Paramount Pictures School, along with Thelma Todd and Buddy Rogers. When the class was cut down to a half dozen a few months later, these three were still among them. Groomed for stardom, all three were cast in the 1926 film Fascinating Youth, an auspicious beginning. Next, Luden had a small part in It’s the Old Army Game (1926) with W.C. Fields. Fields must have liked him; he also put Luden in Two Flaming Youths (1927) and Fools for Luck (1928). From 1926 to 1927 he starred in a series of comedy shorts for F.B.O. (soon to become part of RKO). From 1927 to 1929, he appeared in features at Paramount, usually in fairly decent supporting roles, even starring in the western Shootin’ Irons (1927) his best known role.

Circa 1930 his fortunes sank rapidly. Talkies had come in; a stammering problem hindered his progress in the new game. At the same time, he developed a heroin habit, which was apparently an open secret. He parted ways with Paramount, took to shoplifting, and did short term jail time for petty theft. Even so, he managed to keep working as a bit player throughout the ’30s. He’s in one or more films every year of that decade except for 1931, presumably a low point.

In 1938, Luden pulled himself together for a second chance, when he starred in four B movie westerns for Columbia, playing a character named Breezy Larkin. These didn’t click and he slid back down to extra roles. Although plenty of his walk-ons are in well-known films. They included Rose of Washington Square (1939), Susanna of the Mounties with Shirley Temple (1939), My Favorite Blonde with Bob Hope (1942), The Glass Key (1942), I Married a Witch (1942), So Proudly We Hail (1943), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), See Here Private Hargrove (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), Incendiary Blonde (1945), and They Were Expendable (1945). The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945) was his last film.

At this point, his heroin habit seems to have flamed out of control, and he gave in to being a full time scam artist and drug dealer. In 1950 he was arrested for possession and check kiting and sent to San Quentin, where he died nine months later at the age of 49.