I saw something that indicated the film was Raymie and the Barracuda (released as Raymie) and I knew it was featuring young David Ladd, son of movie star Alan Ladd. David was making a name for himself thanks in large part to his father. I made a U-turn and parked in the lot in a row closest to the beach. Looking around for David or costars Julie Adams or John Agar, I noticed out of the corner of my eye someone sitting in the car next to me. I did my best to look non-chalant as I looked over, perhaps fussing with some imaginary item on the seat next to me. There was no doubt it was Alan Ladd. His hair didn't look as blond, his face looked puffy and he looked either depressed or very mad. I couldn't tell. Had his window been down, I might have said something but I didn't dare bother him. Soon I leaned back, feigned sleeping and continued peeking at him through slits of eyes. For all my teenage cloak and dagger, he soon started up his car and left.
I now see photos of him at that time and I know I was right on the puffy face. And from all I can tell, it was depression, not anger, I saw on that face. I have always been an Alan Ladd fan. I am not saying he was the greatest actor in the world but he was good enough and he was a huge movie star... never mind that he was actually only about 5'5" tall. He was in some ways not much different from his two-time costar I recently wrote about, Gail Russell. They both were very shy and had an up-close-and-personal relationship with the bottle that grew worse as they got older. Trouble was... neither would get all that much older.
Coworkers and friends have always maintained that he was a very, very nice man. But they also sensed a deep sadness, a depression, and over the years there has been much speculation about why that might have been.
He was born in 1913 in Arkansas to a dirt-poor family who had such hard times that the young Alan was often ill and even malnourished. Those illnesses would pair up with a lot of accidents, careless and otherwise, over his entire life so that Ladd quite naturally learned doom and gloom was the order of the day. And rather than be strong and fight it, many would say he succumbed to it.
He was very attached to his mother... perhaps worthy of a trip to the psychiatrist's couch, perhaps not. Adding to that he felt an adult lifetime of guilt, when as a young actor starting out, his mother asked to borrow some money, saying she needed to go off somewhere. At first he apparently declined because she had her own drinking issues but then he gave in. She used the money to buy some drugs which she ingested and killed herself.
|With wife-manager-mother-figure Sue Carol|
After a brief early marriage, Ladd came across thrice-married Sue Carol, a former actress. She was looking for someone to represent in her capacity as an agent-manager. Ladd had a wonderful voice which led to radio gigs and it was during one of those that she first heard him, thrilled over the dreamy voice. But after negotiating a meeting with the man she had never even seen a picture of, she went positively gaga when he walked in the door. Never mind the diminutive frame, it was accompanied by blond hair, flashing emerald-green eyes, a handsome, tanned face, a movie star smile and a polite if a bit shy personality. She liked all she saw and she was certain she could turn him into a movie star.
She was seven years older than he was, a bit matronly and not exactly a glamour girl. What she was though was steely, hungry, ambitious and possessed of some Hollywood know-how. Whether he realized then that they would soon be married and that she would take over most aspects of his life, fulfilling mother role as strongly as any other, would only be speculation on my part. But let's speculate.
Young actors have married older, influential women before and lived to tell about it. All who I know of also divorced those women and went on to others and in some cases a slew of marriages. But not Ladd. True, he had been married before, but once he met Sue Carol, she encased him, leaving little breathing room. Other than one little public misstep (more on that shortly), the public was told the Ladd-Carol marriage as a solid one. If that were really so, why wasn't he happier? Perhaps more importantly, why wasn't he more like the movie heroes he played rather than being an introverted alcoholic? And how did all this... her, the depression, the booze... manifest itself? I have an idea.
But first, off to Paramount Studios we go. Carol had some ins there and got Ladd hired without much fuss. She might have had more resistance at other studios who had plenty of already-established leading men, but Paramount could always use a new pretty boy. And they liked that he would be obedient... their favorite kind of pretty boy.
Ladd had actually made a few films, the mighty Citizen Kane included, but all parts were about the size of a gnat's ass. Most of his characters didn't even have names... something like The Guy in the Shadows. But through Carol's maneuverings and Paramount's eagerness to get new meat, Ladd came out of those shadows rather quickly.
His first film there was the gritty film noir This Gun for Hire where he was third-billed (that wouldn't happen but once or twice in the future) as a sadistic killer. Robert Taylor made a similar splash at MGM when he made Johnny Eager. It was something called the handsome, sexy killer and likely the prototype for the bad boy roles that would come to populate films more and more. The public was used to the Cagneys, Bogarts, Robinsons and Munis, not a pretty one among them, and by and large they talked a lot. Here comes Ladd, blond and handsome as a prized stallion and he doesn't have much to say at all.
|With 4-time costar Veronica Lake|
Something else happened. This Gun for Hire's leading lady was Veronica Lake. Together she and Ladd practically stopped traffic. They were a dazzling pair. Paramount liked to say they were so hot they melt celluloid. She could be bad like him, too. She also was blonde and had one of the most famous hairstyles in Hollywood history. She was also short which made them a perfect coupling. He would rough her up through three more films, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia (my fave) and Saigon. If anyone's counting, they also appeared in cameo roles in a Paramount all-star extravaganza called Duffy's Tavern.
Paramount pulled out all stops to promote him, no doubt prompted not only by the receipts of his films but by the bags and bags of fan mail. They might have wanted to promote him as a romantic star by showing him at dinner with the young ingenue of the moment but that could not be. Nonetheless, he either topped or was at least on most of the popularity polls of the day.
Those early Paramount roles would soon evolve into war films, romance films and historical dramas. He made the popular Two Years Before the Mast, the moody western Whispering Smith and he was an excellent choice to get all spiffed up to play The Great Gatsby. When I saw Robert Redford play the same role years later, he reminded me of Alan Ladd. One of my earliest memories of Ladd was as a man framed for murder in the B-western Red Mountain co-starring Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy. It was a portent of things to come at other studios.
|Perfection as Shane|
He ended his long stay at Paramount in 1953 and the odd thing about that is it's the year he made the film that is regarded as his best ever... and I heartily concur... Shane. Ladd would find in George Stevens one of the best, most caring directors he would ever work with. It would be the last film for longtime Paramount star Jean Arthur and it would form a friendship with Van Heflin that would last the remainder of Ladd's life.
We know I love westerns and Shane is a western masterpiece. The American Film Institute ranks it as the third best western ever made. It is deserving due to its stalwart hero, actually a killer trying to reform, and the little boy who idolizes him. It seems a history lesson on the code of the west, a look at frontier life involving not only some wicked villains but decent people, particularly a family that Shane wanders upon. He reluctantly gets involved in their fight with land barons.
As good as Ladd is (and the same can be said of Heflin and a host of character actors), what gives the film its poignancy is little Joey, played winningly by Brandon deWilde. Who could ever forget him calling out to his hero at the end of the film.... come back, Shane?
While Shane is unquestionably the best film Ladd ever made, it is then particularly perplexing why his career rather nose-dived at this point, never really recovering. Once said, let's be clear. I loved the films that were yet to come. They were those Saturday matinee, buttered-popcorn delights that thrilled me beyond words when I was a kid. But in truth, he slipped into mainly B westerns, most of which tried to rework Shane in one way or another.
The Ladd films that I particularly loved during the rest of the 50s were Botany Bay, Drum Beat, The McConnell Story, Hell on Frisco Bay, Boy on a Dolphin and The Proud Rebel.
Ah, The McConnell Story, let's chat about that one. In the 1940s and 50s film biographies on war heroes were popular and it was sensible that sooner or later someone would get around to offering something on Joseph McConnell, the first triple ace pilot of the Korean War. Despite his fear of planes, Ladd took on the role because he was never to be filmed any higher than a couple of feet off the ground. In addition to McConnell's war exploits, it was, of course, a love story about his ever-patient wife, played by a professional screen wife if there ever was one, June Allyson.
|With June Allyson in The McConnell Story|
In real life, the film's stars fell in love but according to her anyway, they never fell into bed. There was a bit of a physical relationship but not a sexual one. They were both unhappy in their marriages; she wasn't getting enough attention from Dick Powell and he was getting too much from Sue Carol, who dogged his every step, never giving him a moment to himself. How he and Allyson pulled off what they did seems rather surprising.
The costars pleased one another immensely, agreed it could never go anywhere and more or less promised to love one another forever. The press, of course, got a hold of the story and ran something about it nearly daily. Sue Carol had a hissy fit over the constant news and it was reported he flounced off to their ranch for some rare alone time.
By the end of the 1950s he was pretty much a mess. Look at those films and see the facial changes just since Shane. It had been a rough decade. Friends and coworkers, still caring about him, noticed a deep melancholy had set in. His lifelong insecurities seemed to defeat him. He was more withdrawn, often ill and drinking even more than usual.
He would make a very careless professional mistake by turning down George Stevens to play the Jett Rink role in the epic Giant. James Dean would nab the sought-after part.
Ladd often spent time at the ranch, alone if he could manage it. In 1962 he came close to dying there from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Of course he had been drinking but claimed that he tripped over one of his dogs and the gun went off. Perhaps.
His family rallied around him as they had always done, would do after his death and most likely still do. I don't blame them. But were they reporting things accurately, deliberating inventing fiction or is it possible that they are simply mistaken? After all, if there's a secret life, the family would often be the last to know.
I think it's possible that Alan Ladd was gay. Yes, I know we've been over this route before in these pages, but hey, this thinking isn't reserved for just one or two in Hollywood. It's fairly widespread and always has been. To support my point of view, rumors always swirled about his sexuality, albeit a bit more circumspect in those tame 50s and early 60s. He was a little gorgeous guy with an older shrew of a wife. He was exceptionally close to his mother, drank alot and was ultra-sensitive. He had a rather chaste affair with an actress which he cultivated in the press as being something more. What more is there?
Well, here's something. He is credited with discovering actor Rory Calhoun, a bisexual actor who met Ladd while walking in the Hollywood Hills. Walking in the Hollywood Hills? And you get the handsome young man into the movies. Really?
Some may argue that Ladd hardly had the time for gay trysts with the ever-watchful Sue Carol always about. I say... oh stop. Let's get real. When a married, closeted gay actor wants to indulge in those extra-curricular activities, he finds the way.
But can he make it all ok in his head? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Ladd sure in the hell did a lot of drinking. What was he running away from? There is certainly the possibility of his height being a major culprit, too. He couldn't stand being called small, preferring instead slight. How humiliating it must have been for him to be the big hero and beat the bejesus out of a costar when it could never have happened in real life. He would stand on an elevated platform in scenes with taller actors. A few actresses would either stand in ditches or Ladd would stand on a box. Maybe that's good cause for a drink.
And maybe it's some of each of these theories and a whole lot more. Presumably we will never know. What we do know is this: after many years away Alan Ladd got a call from his old studio, Paramount, who wanted him to return for a role in The Carpetbaggers. It was a sleazy but wildly popular novel and much the same could be said about the film.
|Pummeled by George Peppard|
Ladd would have his first costarring role since his earliest days. George Peppard and Carroll Baker would be billed over him. He would be playing Nevada Smith, an old western cowboy down on his luck. (Hmmmm.) The highlight of the film was a truly wonderful fight scene between the two men. Ladd would be dead before the film went into release.
Apparently sober during the making of the film, he returned to marathon drinking after it finished. He seemed more depressed again as well and had sought the company of a couple of actor friends who were out of town working. Some friends reported that he seemed needier than usual. He went alone to another home in Palm Springs with only a butler in residence. He had complained of feeling fatigued and asked the butler to leave him undisturbed while he napped in the afternoon.
When the butler found him, Ladd was dead. As Sally Bowles says in Cabaret, it was too much pills and liquor. He had taken sleeping pills for years but his death was ruled an accident (or rather another one). There were of course whispers of suicide but the family closed ranks, saying he was happy and looking forward to his next film.
Regardless of the where or why of the truth, the cowboy had unsaddled his horse for the last time. He was just 50 years old.
Review of Hitchcock