Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake

Paired together for seven films during the years of WWII, blonde, diminutive stars Alan Ladd (1913-1964) and Veronica Lake (1922-1973) are a fascinating look at both the successes and failure of Hollywood’s star system. Ladd and Lake were allegedly teamed up because of their complementary heights: he was 5’5” or 6” and she was 4’11”. They were first teamed up for their best, noir effort This Gun for Hire (1942). Ladd plays an icy assassin, Raven, who is double-crossed by his greedy, traitorous boss. Lake co-stars as a nightclub singer and the girlfriend of the detective after Raven. She is accidentally drawn into helping him and they team up to bring down a ring of traitors selling chemical warfare to the Japanese.

Their best films together were all noir or crime: The Glass Key (1942), based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel about crooked politics and murder; The Blue Dahlia (1946), about a soldier returned home from the war to find his wife unfaithful and then murdered; and Saigon (1948), where a former solider and pilot learns that his friend has a limited time to live… They also appeared in three musical comedies as themselves – Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and Variety Girl (1947) – though these were generally all meant to raise money for the war effort.

Like his famous character Raven, Ladd had a difficult childhood. His father died when he was young, he was allegedly viciously bullied about his height, and his mother remarried and moved the family around. Soon after his stepfather died in the ‘30s, she committed suicide. Ladd’s climb to fame was long and grueling, as studios claimed he was too small, too blonde, and just didn’t have the right look. He sampled a variety of careers before finding success, including newspaper employee, hot dog stand owner, and salesman. He was discovered by agent Sue Carol, thanks to his radio work, and she quickly found him small roles in Hollywood films like Citizen Kane (1941) and Joan of Paris (1942).

He hit it big with his first film with Lake, This Gun for Hire (1942), and became a star seemingly overnight. Soon after, he divorced his wife and he and agent Sue Carol were married. Ladd briefly left to enlist in the Air Force, but was given an honorable medical discharge and soon returned to cinema. He was in a few films without Lake, mostly war movies or other noir efforts, including China (1943), And Now Tomorrow(1944), Calcutta (1947) and Chicago Deadline (1949), and his last noir, Appointment With Danger (1951). Though he was a wildly popular personality at the time, his efforts without Lake were simply not as successful.

Blaming the studio, Ladd left Paramount and went to Warner Bros. for the western Shane (1953), the biggest film of his career, but he failed to win any awards and his career fell steadily after this. He started his own company, Jaguar Productions, where he cast his children alongside him. Here his drinking problem seemed to overwhelm him and there was an incident when he was either shot or accidentally shot himself. He allegedly remained sober for his last film, The Carpetbaggers (1964), but died a before its release from an overdose of a mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

Lake had an equally sad life with a rough start, a brief, but bright rise to fame, and an even more tragic fall. Allegedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Lake – born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn – was encouraged to act by her parents as a form of treatment (?!) and had life-long troubles with her mother, who later sued Lake when she failed to keep up with her acting school repayments. Like Ladd, Lake’s father died when she was young due to a work accident. Soon after, her mother remarried and the family relocated several times. Thanks to her beauty and her trademark peek-a-boo blonde hair style, she found success relatively quickly in war films (I Wanted Wings) and romantic comedies (I Married a Witch) before being teamed up with Ladd in 1942. Some of her costars would later comment that success was quickly and easily handed to her, but she threw it all away.

Despite her fame, she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with and plenty of colleagues disliked her. Though she later had nice things to say about him, she and Ladd were allegedly not friends, and her alcoholism and mental health issues certainly isolated her from her colleagues and later her family, including her children and several husbands (one of whom was director Andre de Toth). Like Ladd, she supposedly began drinking heavily as her career declined, which worsened her reputation. Also like Ladd, she switched studios from Paramount to 20th Century Fox, which effectively marked the end of her career. When her Hollywood lost interest, her alcoholism increased, but she remained active. She got her pilot’s license and wrote an autobiography, Veronica, where she frankly discussed her lifelong issues with mental illness and addiction. She was forced to hold down conventional jobs and when she was discovered working as a waitress in a hotel, support flooded in from her fans (and Marlon Brando). She turned it all down, choosing instead to keep her pride.

Though often considered a sex symbol or star more than an actress, she does have some good performances, namely in the fantastic Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Delightfully, her final film – which she co-financed – came more than a decade after her retirement. Flesh Feast (1970), a low budget horror film from Brad F. Grinter, the director of Thanksgiving-themed cult movie Blood Feast (1972), concerns Nazis trying to clone Adolph Hitler. She died a few years later due to alcohol related complications – both Ladd and Lake strangely died at the age of 50.

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