Tuesday, October 6

Peekaboo: Veronica Lake

One ponders how she felt being most famous for a hairstyle...  more so than for her acting chops, which is too bad. In film noir she stood out as a femme fatale actress and there was no doubt she was a troubled and troublesome one.  By the time Veronica Lake waved goodbye to Hollywood, they were quite happy to see her go.

Her hairstyle, featuring long blonde locks covering much of the right side of her face, was copied by hordes of women during WWII.  Those who worked in defense plants, it seems, were getting hair caught in machines with varying unpleasant results.  It apparently happened enough that the government got involved and asked Lake's home studio, Paramount, to encourage her to cut her hair or alter the style. 

She was born in Brooklyn in 1922 (some sources say 1919) with the un-movie starish name of Constance Ockleman.  When her widowed mother remarried, the girl became known as Constance Keane.  The family alternated between living in New York and Florida, but it was in the latter location that she entered a beauty contest. Although placing third, one of the judges told her mother that Connie was quite the pouting beauty and she would be perfect for Hollywood. 

Soon the family was living in Southern California.  Young Connie had never expressed a desire to be an actress (some would say she was too withdrawn to have much success) but Mama was a go-getter who saw a potential income for the family.  She also said that Connie had a mental illness, namely schizophrenia, and the thinking was that a Hollywood career would provide some needed treatment.  No kidding.  Let's see how that worked out.

She attended an acting school where she befriended a movie extra who thought she could get Connie some jobs.  She worked in that capacity for a while, mainly at RKO.  She developed a sexy persona and made sure she was seen in all the Hollywood hot spots.  She also got herself an agent and a husband.  In short order she was signed to a small role in Paramount's I Wanted Wings (1941) and her name was changed to Veronica Lake.

The film, starring Ray Milland and William Holden, was an expensive and unabashedly patriotic war film that does not hold up well today but the public flocked to it.  Lake played a slinky nightclub chanteuse and that same public stood up and took notice.  (She would sing in a number of films although her voice was dubbed.)  She feuded with leading lady Constance Moore, gaining an early reputation for being difficult, and Paramount stars apparently were dismayed when she was offered a contract.

Sitting on Joel McCrea's knee

She hit the big time the following year with Sullivan's Travels, in my opinion the best thing she ever did.  The film's genius director-writer Preston Sturges thought she had the makings of being a top actress, choosing to disregard an obvious attitude problem.  She could be soft and compliant one moment and filled with fury the next.  But he managed, in large part, to bring her under control, to essay the part of The Girl (her character didn't otherwise have a name), a down-on-her luck wannabe actress who tags along with a hobo on the road.  She doesn't know for most of the plot that he is actually a movie director out to rediscover life's values.  The cross-country wry comical exchanges between Lake and Joel McCrea make this a winner.  They looked so perfectly paired but when Paramount wanted him to costar with her in I Married a Witch, he squawked life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake.  Oh yeah?   It was good that she was dressed in such loose clothing because she was pregnant with the first of her four children.

One might wonder why such a temperamental newbie would be tolerated.  For one thing, she was only barely tolerated and more importantly, there was that contract.  It's also important to note that it wasn't renewed.  And because of that contract, the studio might as well make the best of it.  After all, her female following was enormous and the fan mail among Paramount's highest.  It was her indifferent manner (maybe a female Mitchum) punctuated with occasional bursts of rude comments that the public liked... you know, those smartass babes I frequently mention.  Oh yes, and that hair. She was a decent actress when she had the right material and the right director.  And the right costar.

They were movie magic

It began as a pairing out of necessity.  New Paramount contract player Alan Ladd was 5'5" and it was proving difficult to find leading ladies who were not vertically challenging for him.  Lake, at 4'9", fit the bill.   In four dramas they would become one of Hollywood's most famous screen teams.  It didn't hurt that film noir was the genre that would showcase both of them to their most glittering advantages. 

At the same time, she and Ladd became good friends on their sets.  Both were outsiders, aloof, often at odds with Paramount, uncomfortable in their roles as sex symbols.  They did not socialize with one another but Paramount promoted nonsense in the movie magazines that they were romantically involved, despite the fact that both were married.  He didn't raise quite the number of ruckuses that she did but he was amused that she did.  

This Gun for Hire (1942) was a routine film that was certainly enlivened by the presences of Lake and Ladd.  He plays a conscienceless killer who forces a nightclub entertainer to join him on the trail to find those who earlier double-crossed him.  The mailroom became so flooded with requests for more, more, more that they were quickly reteamed in The Glass Key (also 1942).  Her come-hither, sullen look was in full display in a plot not all that different from This Gun for Hire.  She accompanies him on his fist-flailing journey for justice.

She was busy in 1942.  If there was relative peace on the Ladd movies, it was back to business as usual on the set of the comedy I Married a Witch.  Lake was the witch (I think there's a pun here)who falls in love with gubernatorial candidate, Fredric March, and loses her powers.  She publicly said that she loathed March, apparently because he was a little too frisky in trying to bed her.  It would not be outlandish to think she didn't cross hair brushes with costar Susan Hayward, herself a hellion on film sets.  

I am unaware of whether she jumped into the patriotic fervor because she thought she should or because Paramount told her to but jump she did.  She sold war bonds on rallies across the nation but ran into trouble at one Boston event when she berated a crowd for not fully respecting her dignity as a star.  Not surprisingly, she received some of her worse press.

She would say to anyone who cared to listen that she didn't pay attention to what anyone thought or said.  But there were those who thought it mattered greatly to her.  She did not suffer fools gladly and her belligerent outbursts on film sets were all around the studio by lunchtime.  By the time she had noticed the stares and the avoidances, she put on her plumage display and began a close, personal relationship with alcohol.  I am reminded that she shared similar stories with two other actresses, Frances Farmer and later Barbara Payton, but Lake had a much bigger career.

The battling costars of "So Proudly We Hail"

From her contretemps with March to the set of So Proudly We Hail (1943) she was in a surly mood.  You may recall when I mentioned that 40s movies are largely war films and women's films?  Here we have both wrapped up in one movie.  It's a tribute to the brave nurses stationed on Bataan with Lake playing a prim racist (the Japanese blew up her fianc√© at Pearl Harbor).  Her death scene is one of the highlights of the film.  None of the three leads, including ranking Paramount stars, Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard, got along but one can bet Lake was in the thick of things. 

In 1944 she was in the war drama The Hour Before the Dawn and  received scathing reviews playing an Austrian refugee living in England who is also a Nazi agent.  Her accent was wrong and she did somehow seem out of her element.  Her drinking noticeably increased as did her paranoia and her temperament took on new dimensions, even for her.

It was around this time that studio production chief Buddy Da Sylva left and folks around the lot didn't treat Veronica Lake so well.  Derogatory comments were popping up everywhere.  Writer Raymond Chandler referred to her as Moronica Lake.  It was much the same that happened to Betty Hutton, another studio troublemaker.  Protector Da Sylva was gone and the other side began to draw battle lines. 

She was put into a series of comedies with titles like Bring on the Girls, Out of This World, Hold that Blonde, Miss Susie Slagle's, The Sainted Sisters and Isn't It Romantic, all sleep-inducing and ruinous to her career.  A number of them co-starred Paramount nitwit Eddie Bracken, an acquired taste, who was Hutton's most frequent costar.  However he survived film after film with these two is worthy of serious contemplation.  He famously said that Lake was known (around the lot) as the bitch and she deserved the title

In 1944 she married her second husband, director Andre De Toth, whose temperament matched hers, and by 1946 all-too-frequent reporting of their fiery clashes did nothing to enhance her image.  Also damaging to her reputation was the lively coverage of her mother suing Lake for support.  All her life she had a torturous relationship with her mama and at one point had promised to always support her.  The settlement was handled out of court but the court of public opinion was another matter.

In 1946 she was teamed for the third time with Ladd in what I consider their best film together, a noir mystery, The Blue Dahlia.  He is a returning war veteran accused of murdering his unfaithful wife.  He meets Lake who aids him in finding the killer.  Swathed in her zombie-like sexuality she and Ladd both exuded a palpable nervous energy in characters formed of scar tissue.

United Artists asks for the services of both De Toths for the western, Ramrod.   Joel McCrea must have found it galling to be her leading man again.  She is a deceitful landowner whose foreman, McCrea, stands up for her in a dispute before learning of her treachery.  It was a sluggish affair, not too successful. Her final pairing with Ladd in Saigon (1948) also failed to meet expectations.  The story of adventurers in postwar Indo-China proved little more value than being on the bottom of a double bill.

Paramount did not renew her contract and she was told to not let the front gate hit her in the butt.  In 1949 she and De Toth joined Richard Widmark and Linda Darnell at 20th Century Fox for Slattery's Hurricane. The story of a moody, adulterous storm-spotter had the makings of being a good film (written by The Caine Mutiny's Herman Wouk) but may have been damaged by censors.  Lake's part as a secretary was not the comeback she had hoped for.

Desperately in need of money, she was furious when she found out that De Toth had turned down roles he deemed not suitable for her.  Stronghold (1951) about a southern woman who flees to Mexico during the Civil War was not good and no one saw it.  She did some television.

Drinking more than ever, she divorced De Toth, receiving custody of her two children with him.  She received little alimony.  It was widely reported that she had an IRS-induced bankruptcy.  Her mother would occasionally alert the press that Lake was still suffering from schizophrenia.  Gathering her children, she fled to New York.  Never a very attentive mother, soon her kids were living with their fathers.  She drifted from one flophouse to another and would earn a brief paragraph in a newspaper when she was arrested for public drunkenness or disorderly conduct. 

All too aware of the shrunken circumference of her life, she slipped into a netherworld that kept her out of the public eye.  In 1963 a reporter found her working as a waitress in a seedy restaurant and $7-a-night hotel.  Because she used the name Connie De Toth and no longer looked like the movie queen with the peekaboo hairdo, no one knew who she was.  She switched jobs and gained renewed anonymity for a few years and then was found again working in a Greenwich Village bar.  It paid her cheap rent and bought her booze, she offered.  It also produced a short third marriage.

Her plight became known to the public which led to some minor TV work and even an off-Broadway appearance.  She moved to England and had a brief fourth marriage.  She penned her memoirs and found a publisher.  She returned to the states and from the money she got from her bio she co-produced and starred in her final film, Flesh Beast (1970), a sparsely-budgeted horror film about Nazis. 

In 1973 she was travelling through Vermont when she suddenly got sick.  She died there a few days later from hepatitis and acute renal failure.  Veronica Lake was 50 years old.

She once said as her Hollywood career was obviously ending...
 I had a reputation for saying what I thought.  I hadn't played the Hollywood game very much and a certain resentment built about that.  I'd adopted a cockiness to cover my obvious inadequacies.  And I found as my confidence increased, I saw little or no reason to change myself and my approach to functioning in Hollywood.

That just about sums it up.

Next posting:
Movie review

No comments:

Post a Comment