September 3, 1913– Alan Ladd:
“If you can figure out my success on the screen, you’re a better man than I.”
In Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Sal Mineo’s character, Plato, opens his school locker and longingly gazes at James Dean reflected in a small mirror. Tucked behind the mirror is a photo of Alan Ladd.
Ladd was the number one box-office star of 1954, the year that I was born. I never understood his appeal until I saw George Steven‘s Shane (1953) in Film Survey class in my early 20s. I think that Shane is the very best Western film of all-time, and Westerns are one of my top genres. Its success as a film classic owes a lot to Ladd’s performance.
Ladd was sort of the Tom Cruise of his day, short of stature (not quite 5’6″), intense and deeply closeted. He came across as cold, cruel, calm, bitter, and handsome. He removed his shirt whenever he could and we appreciate that in our male stars. In his great Film Noir roles, he could reduce murder to an act as casual as crossing the street. But, Ladd’s cool manner and beautiful deep voice made him especially well-suited for his finest role: movie star.
Before working as an actor, Ladd worked as a studio carpenter, and for a short time he was part of the Universal Pictures studio school for actors. But Universal decided he was too blond and too short, and they dropped him.
Ladd still wanted an acting career and he began getting small parts on radio shows and on stage during the 1930’s. In the early 1940s he was receiving feature rolls in B-movies at independent studios, like Republic Pictures. He appears briefly as a reporter in Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), a sailor in Souls At Sea (1937) with Gary Cooper, and a waiter in Last Train From Madrid (1937) starring Dorothy Lamour.
But, it was his stunning starring turn in the terrific film noir This Gun For Hire (1942) that Ladd was able to join the ranks as one of Hollywood’s hottest male stars. Ladd’s handsome, blonde, green-eyed, vicious trench coat wearing persona knocked out audiences. He was named Favorite Male Star by Photoplay Magazine for this flick. It was to be the only acting award he ever won. The taut thriller also stars luscious Veronica Lake. Ladd and Lake made seven films together. At 4’11’’, Lake was a perfect match for Ladd . He played opposite many different leading ladies, but the diminutive Ladd had to stand on boxes to reach a visually desirable height, unless his co-star agreed to stand in a trench.
Throughout the 1940’s, Ladd was a big box-office draw, appearing in all sorts of genres: Dramas, Westerns, War movies and Crime films. Getting older, just as his career began to slip, he was cast in the leading role in Shane, a performance that would put him back way on the top and cement his legacy. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is listed at number four on the American Film Institute‘s ranking of the 100 Top Films Of All Time. The scene in which Ladd and Van Heflin struggle together, shirtless, to remove a tree stump is Hollywood homo-eroticism at its dizziest.
Ladd was the perfect actor to play the lead in my favorite film version of The Great Gatsby (1949). His performance captures F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tragic hero with every nuance, every movement, every hidden torment.
In 1942, Ladd married his agent/manager, former silent film era actor Sue Carol who was a decade older. Despite Ladd’s fathering of three children, he frequented hot spots in Hollywood’s gay subculture. He was a regular at gay director George Cukor’s Sunday afternoon pool parties attended by closeted celebrities and attractive young men from the bars and gyms.
His dream role was as gay adventurer T.E. Lawrence and Ladd lobbied hard for the role when it was announced that a film of his life was to be made in 1962. But, director David Lean rejected the idea, casting Peter O’Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia, a disappointment from which Ladd never recovered.
He was such a sad person figure in so many ways: Booze, pills, depression and insomnia loomed large for Ladd. His father died when he was four years old and his mother killed herself with poison. In 1962 he almost died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while alone at his ranch. He had been drinking and claimed that he tripped over one of his dogs and the gun went off. Asked in a 1961 interview: “What would you change about yourself if you could?” Ladd replied: “Everything.”
He may have realized that his time as a leading man was coming to an end, and his closeted gayness might also have contributed to his emotional state at the end of his life. Shortly after his 50th birthday, Ladd was found dead in his Palm Springs home from an overdose of sedatives and alcohol, an apparent suicide. Ironically his last role was that of a washed-up actor in The Carpetbaggers (1964), his 92nd film.
His children went on to have careers in show business. David Ladd took up acting and Alan Ladd Jr. is very successful and well-liked in the biz as a film producer and studio executive.
“Alan Ladd was awfully good in putting across what he had, in his looks and in his manner; he had something very attractive, a definite film personality which he had worked hard to perfect.”