Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alan Ladd at 100

It was 100 years ago today, on 3 September 1913, that Alan Ladd was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He would become one of the best known and most popular leading men of the late Forties and early Fifties. Indeed, he ranked as one of the top twenty box office stars in the Motion Picture Herald poll from 1943 to 1954, ranking in the top ten three times. He has maintained a following of fans to this day, nearly 50 years after his death on 29 January 1964.

While Alan Ladd would become one of Holllywood's top stars, he did not have a particularly easy time getting there. His father died when he was only four years old and his mother later moved the family to Oklahoma City. In Oklahoma City his mother married a house painter named Jim Beavers. When young Mr. Ladd was eight years old the family moved again, this time to North Hollywood, California. As a child Alan Ladd was not very big and as a result he was called "Tiny". Regardless, he proved a gifted athlete, proving particularly adept at swimming and track. In fact, he had planned on training for the 1932 Olympics, but was sidetracked by an injury. Of course, Mr. Ladd was also interested in acting and while at North Hollywood High School he performed in many of the school's productions. After graduation he pursued acting, working jobs ranging from gas station attendant to lifeguard. He even operated his own hamburger stand called  Tiny's Patio. For a time he was also a grip at Warner Brothers.

In his pursuit of an acting career Alan Ladd applied to Universal Pictures' acting school. He was thought both too blond and too short, but Carl Laemmle approved him for a "provisional trial contract" to study acting at the school. It was during this period with Universal that he made his film debut, in an uncredited bit part in Tom Brown of Culver (1932). Unfortunately, in the end Universal dropped him. Alan Ladd appeared in bit parts for the next few years, including a chorus boy in Murder at the Vanities (1934) and the Chief Quartermaster  in Hold 'Em Navy (1937). He found work in radio, working on the soap opera Jerry at Fair Oaks and Lux Radio Theatre.  He continued to play small parts in film in the early Forties, including a student pilot in the serial The Green Hornet, a storyboard artist in Disney's The Reluctant Dragon, and perhaps his most famous bit part of them all, a reporter in Citizen Kane. At the same time, however, his career was on the rise. His big break came in the form of agent Sue Carol, who signed him after hearing him on the radio.  With the 1939 film Rulers of the Sea, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Margaret Lockwood, he had a somewhat more substantial role than he had in previous films.

It was with the film noir This Gun for Hire that Alan Ladd finally achieved stardom. In the film Mr. Ladd played one of film's first anti-heroes, the hit man Raven. Playing opposite Mr. Ladd was another actor of short stature, Veronica Lake. The two proved to be a good team, appearing together again  in The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). Following This Gun for Hire the man that Universal had thought was too blond and too short would be one Hollywood's top stars. He made a number of successful films between the years 1943 and 1954, including The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946),  Whispering Smith (1948), Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950), and Shane (1953). As mentioned above, he was in the top twenty of the Motion Picture Herald poll of top box office stars every year from 1943 to 1954. What is more, he was a popular star outside the United States as well. From 1946 to 1951 he ranked in the top ten most popular stars in the United Kingdom. In 1954 he ranked #1 on the list.

Alan Ladd's status as a top box office star for eleven years can perhaps be best explained by his flexibility as an actor. Then as now, actors often played one sort of role and rarely strayed from it. Even at the height of his career however, Alan Ladd played a wide variety of roles. Raven in This Gun For Hire was an amoral hit man. In And Now Tomorrow (1944) he played Dr. Merek Vance, a physician who helps the poor. While Alan Ladd is well known for his films noir of the Forties, later in his career he began to appear more in Westerns. He played the railroad detective of the title in Whispering Smith (1948).  And, of course, his most famous film may well be Shane, in which he played the title character. Mr. Ladd even played Jay Gatsby in the 1948 version of The Great Gatsby and did rather well in the part. Alan Ladd could play nearly any role, from a U.S. Postal Inspector (Appointment with Danger) to a spy (O.S.S.) to a commoner posing as a knight (The Black Knight). What is remarkable is that he was convincing in nearly all of these roles. As an actor Alan Ladd was truly a chameleon.

Sadly, after leaving the studio where he had made his best known films, Paramount, Alan Ladd's career went into decline. The late Fifties and early Sixties he appeared in rather undistinguished films, such as The Proud Rebel (1958) and One Foot in Hell (1960). His role as Nevada Smith in The Carpetbaggers in 1964 could have led to a comeback, but sadly it was not to be. On 29 January 1964 Alan Ladd was found dead at the age of 50. The cause was a cerebral oedema brought on by alcohol and a mixture of three other drugs.

 While Alan Ladd has been dead for nearly fifty years now, he remains remembered for the many films made at the height of his career. As mentioned above, he was a talented actor capable of playing a wide variety of roles, everything from a hit man to Jay Gatsby. Mr. Ladd possessed a charisma that often carried over to his characters, making audiences often sympathise with characters who would not have been necessarily sympathetic otherwise.  On a personal note, I have to confess I have always liked Alan Ladd because he was a short man in a career where height is a valued commodity. While reports of his height vary,  5 foot six appears to be the most commonly cited. Regardless, he stood below the average height for men of the era, and yet he played gangsters, spies, and Western heroes. While this may not seem important to many, for young men self conscious about their height, it is something that is very good to know. Regardless, Alan Ladd was a remarkable actor of considerable talent. It should be little wonder that he had the success that he did and that he is still remembered today.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Terry. I tend to overlook Ladd, but in reading your words, you're quite right. He was incredibly versatile. Thanks for giving me another angle to view his work from.

rcocean said...

Great write up. To be honest, I get tired of the constant talk, and cracks, about Alan Ladd's height. The man was 5-6 and a champion swimmer. Bogart was 5-8, not exactly a giant, and he was actually taller than Muni, Garfield, E.G. Robinson and Cagney. And in my recent times, De Niro and Dustin Hoffman don't exactly "look down" on anyone. Amusingly, both Brando and Burton (who I've always thought of average height) sometimes wore lifts.

I'm not sure why Ladd seems to be singled out for the "Wow, he sure was short" treatment. Not directed at you, and I'm really that big of a fan of Ladd's.