The Short Life of Alan Ladd

I try to build double meanings into the titles of my posts — shame on you if you didn’t already get the one that heads this one.  Alan Ladd (1913-1964) was famously on the diminutive side: roughly 5′ 7″ , not terribly tiny so’s you’d particularly notice it out in the real world, but a little problematic on screens when an actor is surrounded by other actors and being looked at. BUT he had terrific looks, a tremendous voice, acting talent, and star quality, so producers and directors went the extra mile to compensate, putting other actors in holes or himself on small platforms in scenes where people are standing, or staging scenes so that Ladd might be on a horse or in a chair rather that on his feet. It was an interesting game to play, for it was common knowledge to audiences at the time. The movie and gossip magazines reported on it; it was no secret. Still, the lengths were went to.

I knew this little bit of celebrity gossip from quite a young age because my father’s favorite movie was Shane (1953). It took me years to realize (after seeing hundreds of westerns for a project I was working on) that, if asked, I would also call Shane my favorute western. Partially because it was dad’s favorite, but also on its own merits. (He also loved Huntz Hall, but I would hardly call Huntz Hall my favorite comedian). Shane is just one of those universal classics that has something for everybody. I mean everybody. We see it through the eyes of a kid, so kids definitely process it. Without getting all gender normative, let’s just say it also has plot elements that can appeal equally to men and women, enough physical action and hot-blooded romance to satisfy audience members who prefer either element. And it has that rare simplicity of story that all the best Hollywood classics share (I mentally associate it with King Kong and The Champ in that regard — FAIRY TALE level simplicity). It’s a rare western that makes you cry at the end. It’s so universal that WOODY ALLEN once wrote a lengthy essay extolling its virtues.

But interestingly, Shane was one of Ladd’s last well-remembered classics. Things slowly declined for him after that. A lot of it was bad decision making on his part. For example, Shane’s director George Stevens had wanted him for Giant (1957) and he turned it down. (Posterity is glad, the trio of James Dean, Rock Hudson and Liz Taylor is pretty indelible). But Ladd was a first rate star who deserved a first rate career.

Ladd’s famous vanity was back of many of his travails. It was his looks that gave him a career at all. His face has always reminded me of Gary Cooper’s. (His presence in Shane is a bit of stunt casting almost on that score. He is there to turn Jean Arthur’s head, among other things, right? Ordinary men identify with ugly, sweaty, unthanked Van Helfin). Unlike many actors, Ladd had no huge stage experience. He’d been spotted in a high school production of The Mikado, and then spent nearly a decade in bit parts in movies. Yet when you see him in those early bit roles, he leaps off the screen. I watched Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon (1941) recently and there he was, every inch a star, in a tiny speaking role as a Disney animator. You can also see him in similar sized roles in Pigskin Parade (1936), The Green Hornet serial (1940), The Howards of Virginia (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), The Black Cat (1941) and Laurel and Hardy’s Great Guns (1941). By then he’d also got lots of radio experience, proving he could act, and so was tried as a star.

Ladd is pretty exclusively associated with two genres: noir and westerns. In the noir genre, he was famously often paired with Veronica Lake, because at 4’11” she made him look very tall indeed. Some of his crime, gangster and noir films included This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), My Favorite Brunette (1947, a prominent cameo in the Bob Hope comedy), The Great Gatsby (1949, yes, believe it or not. Fitzgerald’s story was skewed to give it more of a gangster angle), Chicago Deadline (1949) and Appointment with Danger (1951). Whispering Smith (1948) was his first western. After Shane a lot of his better remembered films were in this genre, including The Big Land (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), and The Badlanders (1958).

Put upon by punks in “13 West Street”

Not long ago, I caught his penultimate film, the self-produced 13 West Street (1962) and found myself RIVETTED.  So much so I found myself wanting to do a post around the male equivalent of what are ungenerously called psycho-biddies. I did an extensive post on those kinds of films here, movies in which aging female actresses are shown in an incredibly unflattering light for the purposes of thrills and horror. In 13 West Street, Ladd plays a middle aged man who gets randomly attacked by a bunch of thugs when he gets caught in the wrong part of town. While he recuperates with a cane, he gets gaslit and tortured by the punks when no one else is around. The other people around him (including a cop played by Rod Steiger) assume that he is paranoid and obsessed, but it is really happening. Eventually, he takes his own revenge. That’s a rare arc for a male hero to play — to be vulnerable, old, wounded, attacked and not able to properly defend yourself. Male actors tend not to take such roles. But Ladd did a Bette Davis: he WENT there. So I thought of a new category which I provisionally called “psycho-buddies”. The problem? Like I said, most male actors won’t do this. I could only think of a couple possibly, Ray Milland in a few of his later films, maybe Henry Fonda in things like The Swarm. This is a rare case where I’d be grateful for suggestions.

But…you’ve probably never heard of this movie, right? So this was not a gamble that paid off particularly. And so we come to the other implication of our title’s double meaning. Several actors much older Ladd were still kicking around in movies when I was a kid in the ’70s. The aforementioned Fonda and Milland…Jimmy Stewart, John WayneCagney popped back in for Ragtime. But Ladd was not among the living.  His end was a sad tale. It seems like the Angel of Death had always sat on his shoulder. His father died of a heart attacl when he was four. When he was five he burned the house down when he was playing with matches. In 1937 when his career was just getting started, his mother committed suicide by ingesting insecticide — while she was staying at his house. He seems to have inherited this predisposition to despair. Despondent over the state of his career, in 1962 he shot himself in the chest — and miraculously lived. Surviving a suicide attempt is pretty mortifying. Ladd claimed an accident, but it pretty obviously wasn’t. In 1964 a combination of booze and pills finally did the trick. It was officially ruled an accident, but surely it’s well known and obvious that the behavior that leads to such overdoses is by definition suicidal? If you know something can kill you and you do it — that’s suicidal.

Ironically, at the time of Ladd’s death, a probable path to his career rebirth was in the can. He was second billed in The Carpetbaggers (1964), with George Peppard, Bob Cummings, Elizabeth Ashley, Carroll Baker, Martin Balsam, and Lew Ayres. It was one of the year’s hit films. Steve McQueen went on to play Ladd’s character in the film, Nevada Smith, in the eponymous prequel in 1966. 50 at the time of his death, Ladd might have kept going another 20, 30 years. If he’d only known.



Come back, Shane!