During Hollywood’s heyday, there were more many more lead actors than the usual suspects you can name off the top of your head. Here are five who hit the big time in their day but aren’t as well remembered as some others:
Howard took up acting as a therapeutic remedy after suffering from shell shock (what posttraumatic stress disorder used to be called) during World War I, and within a few years was a celebrated stage actor. To modern audiences, Howard’s acting seems stagey and mannered, but it stood him in good stead for roles like aristocratic but noble Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and world-weary traveler Alan Squier in The Petrified Forest (the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star, thanks to Howard’s insistence that Bogart, his costar from the hit Broadway production, repeat his stage role on film).
The quintessential British actor also played the heroic Scarlet Pimpernel in the film of that name, one of the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet (though he was about twice Romeo’s age), and Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. He served in World War II and was killed in 1943 when a plane he was riding in was shot down.
Ladd overcame a deprived childhood (which partly accounted for his slim 5-foot-4 build) to become one of the most popular actors of his day, though he never achieved critical success. His matinee-idol stardom is ironic, considering that his first effort to get into films (after running a hamburger stand) failed, and he worked in radio for a while.
Then, after several dozen small roles, came a key part in the gritty film noir This Gun for Hire, costarring the even more diminutive Veronica Lake (they appeared together in six other films), and Ladd, an “overnight” sensation, became a genre stalwart: The Glass Key, based on a Dashiell Hammett story, was the follow-up, and The Blue Dahlia came a few years later.
By the 1950s, however, although he kept busy, with the exception of the classic western Shane, Ladd’s glory days were over (though he unwisely turned down leads in Giant and Bad Day at Black Rock). He ultimately attempted suicide twice; the second attempt, in 1964, was successful.
Strapping 6-foot-3 McCrea grew up near Hollywood and appeared as an extra and did stunt work before getting larger roles. Will Rogers mentored him, but it took years of work in comedies and straight dramas before he achieved his dream of appearing in westerns, none of which gained classic status, though he was popular.
McCrea’s boyish charm and regular-Joe persona were ideal for films like Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’s sharp comedy about a successful movie director who hoboes around to see what life is really like out there during the Great Depression, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, with McCrea as a plucky newspaper reporter who uncovers international intrigue. Late in his career, he costarred with career doppleganger Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s western Ride the High Country.
Powell’s career began during the silent-film era, and it had just started to click when sound films came along, but it only got better. Nevertheless, he was unhappy with the roles he was getting. But then came Manhattan Melodrama, his first teaming with frequent costar Myrna Loy, with whom he also worked on the celebrated comedy-mystery The Thin Man — for which he was nominated for the first of three Academy Awards for best actor — and its sequels, as well as The Great Ziegfield (an Oscar winner for best picture).
He also appeared with Carole Lombard in the classic comedy My Man Godfrey (they had been briefly married a few years before but remained close after their divorce). By then he had costarred in Reckless with Jean Harlow, after which they fell in love and became engaged, but she died two years after they met. He continued to work well into the 1950s but had trouble remembering his lines for Mr. Roberts and retired after completing that film.
Like Alan Ladd, Raft grew up poor, in New York City’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood (he remained close with childhood friend Benjamin Siegelbaum — otherwise known as Bugsy Siegel — and was notorious for alleged mob conections), and this background gave his tough-guy persona a compelling authenticity, though his first love was dancing.
Raft first got attention in a small part in Scarface, and three years later won the lead in the 1935 version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (the same part played by Ladd seven years later). He costarred with James Cagney in the prison drama Each Dawn I Die and with Humphrey Bogart, playing his brother and trucking partner, in They Drive By Night. But he’s also remembered for turning down three films that cemented Bogart’s star status (High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca), while few of Raft’s films are remembered. He later played a parody of his gangster roles in Some Like It Hot and on comic Red Skelton’s 1950s TV series.