Alan Ladd: Escaping the Demons
By John J. Raspanti
“If you can figure out my success on the screen, you’re a better man than I.” -Alan Ladd
“I have the face of an ageing choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight.”
– Alan Ladd
“Alan is a big star to everyone in the world except Alan. He thinks he’s in the business on a rain check.” – Sue Carol, his wife/manager
Alan Ladd was a walking contradiction. On screen he projected a cool confidence, a smooth poise and the ability to handle any problem. Off screen his nagging self doubts consumed him, he over reacted to imagined and real criticism and as he grew older he relied more and more on alcohol.
A struggling actor until his dynamic appearance in 1942’s This Gun for Hire, he became a Goliath onscreen who reached the heights of movie stardom. In reality though he was more a David, a man who couldn’t stand the shoe lifts the studio made him wear and the platforms he had to stand on. Even though he loved the fans, there were times he hated making personal appearances. He was convinced he could ‘hear’ the fans whispering about his lack of height. Always the actor, Ladd would glance over and smile.
Inside where nobody could see, Alan was dying.
Alan Ladd was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas on September 3rd, 1913. His childhood was difficult, his father died when he was five. Alan witnessed his father’s death, even though all he could remember of his namesake was a faceless figure who was always tired. His English-American mother Ina soon relocated the family to Oklahoma City. Always close, mother and son relied on each other to for survival. After a few months his mother remarried and Alan had a new daddy who he really never got to know. In 1920 the family migrated to California hoping for a fresh start. Alan’s step daddy Jim Beavers promptly found work as a laborer. Living in a garage in 1920’s the family struggled. Alan watched as his mother slowly lost her spark for living. She began to drink more. Beavers found more work painting sets at a movie studio. Things were tough, money was scarce.
Alan’s nickname in school was ‘tiny’. Say it to his face and you were asking for trouble. Alan learned how to fight and he learned how to win. He was a bundle of nerves and haunted by anxiety. He enrolled at North Hollywood High School at the age of sixteen. The year was 1930 and Alan was thinking about getting into the movies. He kept these dreams to himself and joined the track team and promptly became the star. Alan joined the swim team and practiced his dives and strokes for four hours every day. Nobody called him ‘tiny’ when he was in the water, if anything the other kids looked up to him. The girls always paid attention to the handsome guy with the blonde hair. He was now a local celebrity, covered by the sports pages. Alan even had dreams of making 1932 Olympic swimming team. That dream died when he as he said ‘lost his nerve’ after hitting his head on the board.
Alan returned to his other dream, the movies in 1933. Universal was taking on young hopefuls and training them. Ladd applied and got in. He even made his film debut in Tom Brown of Culver and three other lesser films. The parts were small but Alan didn’t care. The studio wasn’t very impressed though and bounced him after four months. They kept telling him he was too short. Alan graduated from high school in 1934. He opened up a hamburger and malt shop near his old high school. He called it ‘Tiny’s patio’, the name he hated it so much. Sadly this venture only lasted a few months. Not sure what to do, he kept a close eye on his mother who was growing more and more morose. She was also drinking heavily. He moved over to Warner’s Brothers and worked as a grip eventually landing on the Captain Blood set and witnessing the star making performance of an unknown named Errol Flynn. Soon he was out of work again. He loved acting and was not going to give up. His mother in her sober moments kept telling him to strive for something better. Alan kept listening.
Alan got married in 1936 to Marjorie Harrold. His stepdad died of a heart attack soon after the marriage. He took the news hard; his stepdad was only fifty two years old. I have to get going he told himself, I have to work harder. His distinctive baritone voice was his greatest asset. He was finding radio work and still doing bit parts in the movies. He wondered if anybody even noticed him. In 1937 Alan became a daddy but on November 29th, 1937 his life was turned upside down. His mother, lonely and depressed about aging borrowed some money from Ladd to get something. He figured it would be booze, she said no…but still he was angry with her and walked away. A few hours later Alan and his wife heard some screaming. It was his mother, they brought her into there apartment and watched helplessly as her life left her. They were shocked, what had happened? They found out later that she had taken the money Alan had given her, gone to the store and bought arsenic. She then gulped it down. Alan mostly kept the pain to himself but still felt responsible for his mother’s death. If only he had taken her suicide threats seriously he thought. Alan mourned and then desperately tried to find some more work. He kept getting the same comments,’ too short’ and ‘too blonde’ but he kept pushing. He worked harder on his voice, looking for whatever edge he could find.
I’m going to make it. Nothing is going to stop me. Nothing. I want it too much. -Alan Ladd
Then in 1938 he met Sue Carol. Sue had liked what she had heard of Alan on the radio. She called him and told him to stop by her office, when he did she found something else to like.
“He came into my office wearing a long white trench coat. His blonde hair was bleached by the sun. He looked like a young Greek god, and he was unforgettable” -Sue Carol
Alan signed with Sue after much thought and reflection. He wasn’t nearly as impressed by her as she was of him, but still she had one thing going for her that nobody else in the business had. She truly believed in him, and told him constantly that he would make it. Alan would laugh and shrug. As badly as he wanted ‘it’ he didn’t believe it would ever happen. Sue soon found more bit parts for Alan. By now he was even receiving an occasional credit. He was in a total of seventeen movies in 1940 alone and later auditioned for Citizen Kane. Orson Wells mocked Alan…
“Tell me about yourself pretty face. With that pretty face you think you’re something of a hot shot, don’t you?”
Alan tried to control himself, but gazing at Wells smirk he stormed away. He soon heard the famous booming voice. “Hell, come back! Where do you think you’re going?” “You got the part!” Surrounded by darkness in the picture, indemnifying Alan was a challenge if not for his voice…again. Citizen Kane didn’t help Alan’s career, so it was back to bit parts and whatever else he could get. In 1941 he had one line in the Laurel and Hardy feature Great Guns (A package of cigarettes honey!) and was seen briefly in nine other films. Alan’s relationship with Sue grew more personal late in 1941. His wife seemed unaware or unsure what to do, Ladd himself was torn. But he loved Sue, so he walked out and filed for divorce. Sue who was also married followed Alan’s lead and filed for divorce from her husband. Within weeks of there divorces being finalized they were married. Sue was ten years older than Alan but that didn’t matter. He was happy and his break was lurking nearby. Paramount wanted a baby faced type to play a cold blooded killer named Raven. Sue pushed for Alan, the studio wanted to test him for the part and for once, for whatever reason he felt confident. The test went well, his height or lack there of actually helped Alan this time. The studio could care less. He was now at his full height (either 5’5″or 5’6″)
The movie was in titled This Gun for Hire. Cast alongside Alan was the smallish Veronica Lake. There scenes together provided the sparks the studio was looking for. Alan spent hours in front of the mirror perfecting the look he wanted for Raven. He knew this was his chance and he wasn’t going to blow it. Alan’s hair was dyed black which gave him a more sleek and sinister look. The key to the Raven character was Ladd’s ability to make the cold blooded killer somewhat sympathetic. Alan achieved this with the help of a complex script that showed a killer that liked cats and had probably been abused. His performance was rich and compelling. The film opened to mostly good reviews but Alan was an overnight sensation. The critics couldn’t get enough of him, even comparing his performance to Cagney’s in Public Enemy.
Ladd couldn’t believe it. He was now a star.
He made a public appearance soon after This Gun for Hire opened and was shocked by the people that wanted to see him. He was jostled and pushed and forced away from the fans by some studio people. He loved his fans and never wanted to appear too’ big’ for them. “I think any movie star who refuses autographs has a hell of a nerve” he said.
Ladd made a promise to himself…he would never turn down a fan’s request no matter how small or unimportant it was. It was a promise he would keep.
Paramount rushed Ladd and Lake into another hardboiled thriller called The Glass Key.
Not as well made as Gun it still made the studio money and reinforced their thinking on Ladd. His onscreen character was mean, cruel and could kill someone as easily as crossing the street. His popularity continued to climb; he was featured in 16 articles and received tens of thousands of letters. In 1944 and 45 his four films continued to rake in the money even though most of the critics dismissed them as ‘lousy’. Alan took some of the criticism hard…his doubts in himself reinforced by the sharp words of the critics.
“I never fail to feel let down when I see myself on the screen…Maybe I can’t act, but I know the gimmicks. I studied acting all my life and I knew what’s good for me”
In 1946 Ladd was back in the dark and shadowy world of film noir. His co-star was again Veronica Lake and the film The Blue Dahlia is one of his best. Penned by the creator of Phillip Marlowe, the celebrated Raymond Chandler, Dahlia is a return to the production values of This Gun for Hire. Ladd plays returning war veteran Johnny Morrison who finds that his wife has been cheating on him. He storms out of their house and within hours discovers that he is the number one suspect in her death. His friends William Bendix (at one time a real life close friend) and Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver) are on hand as his close pals who want to help. Alan delivers Chandler’s gritty dialogue with an edge and the film also includes one of Ladd’s best and brutal fight scenes. Even the critics liked Dahlia, which of course was a box office smash.
Throughout the rest of the 40’s Alan’s string of box office successes continued. In 1948 he starred in his first color film and western Whispering Smith. A year later he was cast as Jay Gatsby in the big screen adaption of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Some were critical of Alan’s casting, but most who have seen the film consider his portrayal of Gatsby as the definitive one. His lack of height still haunted him. Co-starring with Ladd for the fourth time was Howard Da Silva who towered over Alan. For some of there scenes together Paramount build a raised platform, which…humiliated Alan even more. The film failed to generate the heat at the box office so within months Alan was back in the typical ‘Ladd film’ Chicago Deadline playing a tough as nails newspaper man.
At home he was now the father of three even though his oldest Alan Ladd Jr. was kept virtually hidden in the shadows. This was Sue’s idea …”Why talk about something that was so painful to Alan” she would say referring to his first marriage, and the media would oblige. Eventually ‘Laddie’ as he was called began to appear in more photos with his father and would over time grow up to be one of Hollywood’s most successful executives. Alan’s daughter Alana was born in 1943 followed by another son David in 1947. From all accounts Alan was a doting dad, who enjoyed spending as much time as possible with his children. As the new decade kicked in Alan stayed close to the tough as nails format starring in Captain Carey, Appointment with Danger, Branded and The Road to Hope. His next five films were mostly considered average, and Alan himself was getting bored and even angry. He would dismiss the criticism with a wave (New York Times critic Bosley Crowther could be very vicious) but deep down Alan felt all the slashing comments.
“I’m the most insecure guy in Hollywood” he told a friend.
He desperately wanted to do an ‘important’ film. As usual he didn’t say anything, but his friends had noticed that he had begun to drink more than usual. He needed something…his career momentum had slowed and even his popularity with the viewing public was ebbing. Then in 1951 director George Stevens called. He wanted to make a western and he wanted Alan to star in it. Stevens told him the name of the film…Shane.
Alan liked George Stevens immediately…
“I learned more about acting from that man in a few months than I had in my entire life up until then. Stevens is the best in the business”
Alan absorbed everything that Stevens told him and in turn delivered without doubt his greatest screen performance. Ladd never looked better, his golden looks and magnetism shinning through in his portrayal of Shane, the mysterious loner and gunfighter, a basically good man troubled by conflicting emotions. He comes out of nowhere to help a family, is idolized by a precocious little boy and gains the respect of the ranchers he’s trying to help. Near the end of the movie…he knows his days are numbered…
Shane: (speaking to another bad guy named Ryker) Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days? What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.
A few minutes later Shane is face to face with Wilson…His antithesis…an evil man…always dressed in black.
Shane: So you’re Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What’s that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane (provokingly): I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.
A great western and a great film, Shane is tremendously entertaining with rousing performances by all. Ladd and Brandon DeWilde’s (as Joey the boy who idolizes Shane) scenes together are touching, funny and beautifully played.
The film garnered outstanding reviews, with Alan stunning some of his harshest critics with his soulful acting. A few of them even admitted that maybe they were wrong to ‘kid’ Ladd, about his lack of depth. The movie was nominated for best picture and best director but Alan was somehow excluded in the best actor category. This omission is shocking, perhaps driven by politics (Ladd was leaving Paramount for Warner’s) or simply his peer’s inability to admit they were wrong. Whatever the reason Alan’s tremendous achievement carries the film. Though he joked that Shane was a ‘fluke’ his friends knew that with the right material Alan could soar. Everyone that is except Ladd himself, who rolled his eyes, his insecurity as always in place…haunting him.
In the mid 50’s Alan was making films for Warner Brothers and hating it. He was second guessing his decision to leave Paramount, a decision that Sue had pushed for. Paramount had given him his biggest break and he felt at home there. He was also constantly catching the flu or a virus and hurting himself either on the set at home or on the road. It was one mishap after another. Holidays were tough too. Each new year brought back memories of his mothers suicide, Alan withdrew into himself and at times deeper and deeper…into the bottle. He battled insomnia and soon grew reliant on sleeping pills.
In 1955 he made a pretty good film called The McConnell Story.
Rumors were flying that he was having an affair with his co-star June Allyson but according to June the rumors’ were just ‘that’…rumors. June did like Alan quite a bit…and enjoyed working with him.
“Alan was so totally professional. We never had any problems with our scenes together. When I would tell him what a good actor he was he wouldn’t believe me”
After The McConnell Story, Alan starred in Hell on Frisco Bay with Edward G. Robinson. The film was a minor hit but something wasn’t right. Alan was growing more restless by the minute. To friends he seemed to have it all. To the most important person, himself, he felt empty. His own film company was now producing most of his films. His next two Santiago and The Big Land, were mostly savagedby the critics and his loyal fans were beginning to stay home. He then agreed to partake in an adventure film called The Boy and the Dolphin which turned out to be a disaster. The film co-starred Sophia Loren and Alan felt ignored by director Jean Negulesco, He sleepwalks through the film barley registering anything. His appearance was changing too, as most moviegoers were shocked at his bloated face and body. It was as if he had aged ten years overnight. Alan could see what was happening but continued to drink. He agreed to do ‘Dolphin‘ for the money and regretted his decision immediately. He needed a hit and in late 1958 it came. The movie was titled The Proud Rebel and Alan decided that his eleven year old son, David, would be perfect as his son in the film. He was right. Rebel received some outstanding reviews with David getting the lion’s share. Ladd was a proud papa and for a few weeks his energy and zest for living retuned. But soon he was gone again, diving back into the depths of depression with family and friends like Van Heflin and reunited friend William Bendix trying to help him. He dabbled in television with Aaron Spelling but quickly grew frustrated. He was back on the big screen in The Badlanders (a pretty good film) and The Man in the Net with neither film posting the big box office of his earlier films. His marriage to Sue was suffering as Alan spent more and more time alone at his ranch in Hidden Valley or there new home in Palm Springs.
Alan’s deterioration as a movie star and person continued. He wanted another great script but nothing was coming. He couldn’t stand waiting so he took what was offered, and then almost immediately hated the film he was working on. A vicious cycle indeed, but he didn’t know what else to do. He told some reporters he was taking a break from making movies but the reality was that the offers were slowing down. In 1962 he made Thirteen West Street co-starring Rod Steiger.
Steiger, as almost everyone else who worked with Alan, liked him…
“Alan was a very sweet and a very kind and a rather sad man. He was exhausted, really. He was never unkind of had an unkind word. He never gave anyone any trouble. He was always there on time and always left on time, but one had a feeling he was waiting for it all to end”
In November 1962 it almost did.
Out at the ranch again, alone, and drinking Alan fell asleep. Hours later he awoke. He could hear his dogs howling. He felt something wet and realized there was blood…his blood. He probably made a call and passed out. It was reported that he had been cleaning one of his guns and it had accidently fired. That was story number one. The bullet had missed his heart by an eighth of an inch. He was in the hospital for over a month. When he came home he told a reporter, story number two. He had been awakened by a noise; he grabbed a gun and went to investigate. Somehow he tripped over one of his dogs and shot himself. The ‘stories’ raised a lot of questions. Alan’s friends didn’t know what to think. Sue refused to think the worse and stayed by Alan’s side. The Hollywood community could care less, Alan was yesterday’s news. He went home but the depression that was swallowing him up worsened. He wanted to work, but no offers came in. He tried to rest but couldn’t sleep. He went back to the site of the shooting and hid out. Alan was the same age as his mother had been when she died.
Then in early 1963 a surprise call came. It was his old studio, Paramount and they wanted Alan to come home. The movie they were making was called The Carpetbaggers. He wasn’t being offered the starring role…that was given to George Peppard. Alan pondered and then agreed. He knew the movie wouldn’t be very good but working again and going back to Paramount was an offer he couldn’t pass up. He quit the booze, lost some weight and showed up on the set on time and ready to go. The studio gave him the superstar treatment. Employees he hadn’t seen in years came up and shook his hand. Alan nodded and smiled; stunned by the love he was feeling. It was all so bittersweet. But no matter how good he felt for a time, the depression was always lurking nearby…ready to zap him. He couldn’t believe how exhausted he always was.
After completing the film he retuned home and began drinking again. His insomnia was worse than ever, he called Van Heflin and William Bendix nightly. They tried to help. But nothing was helping. In January 1964 Alan drove to his other home in Palm Springs to…rest. But that was impossible. Everything seemed so hopeless. Within a few days of arriving Alan Ladd was dead. He was only 50 years old. Rumors swirled about, had Ladd got it right this time? His family felt otherwise. It was an accident, pure and simple. Alan had reached the “magic number’…the one with too much alcohol and too many sleeping pills. After an autopsy was performed the doctor agreed with his family. His death was an accident, not a suicide, a tragic accident.
A few months after his death The Carpetbaggers opened. The reviews weren’t very good, but ironically Alan received some of his best notices in years.
Alan Ladd made it all the way to the top of his profession. He did it the hard way, through grit and determination. Though he was considered a star, he never acted like one. He always had time for everybody. This included the regular people who worked at the studio, and most of all the fans whom he never let down. His self doubts ate him up, he never believed he was good enough…but given the right role Alan could deliver the kind of performance that would live forever in movie history.
Just take the time to watch Shane…and you’ll know what I mean.