This is my contribution to Comet Over Hollywood’s Gone Too Soon Blogathon.
To be honest, the image that comes to my mind when Alan Ladd’s name is brought up is the soft-spoken sharpshooter in Shane. At the height of his popularity, Ladd was a desired Hollywood matinee idol, breaking out in his first starring role alongside Veronica Lake in 1942’s This Gun for Hire. Up to that point, his career had been playing small supporting roles, usually uncredited, for various pictures, including Citizen Kane. But for all the other roles that Ladd ever played, I think he’s best remembered for Shane because of the kind of performance it is. In that role, he is the myth of the American Cowboy, the lone gunslinger looking to put his past behind him, but forced to confront it time and again. He is deep-rooted in his values, and acts honorably. The character calls for an actor to have a grand screen presence, but at the same time, a sense of humanity that the audience can identify with. Alan Ladd had all these qualities, and I think that why he is most remembered for that role.
Ladd was born September 3, 1913 in Hot Springs, Arkansas to Alan Ladd, Sr. and Ina Raleigh Ladd. Not much is known of Ladd’s childhood, or his parent’s background, as his father died of a heart attack when Ladd was four. At age five, Ladd and a friend burned down the apartment mother and son called home, and Ina and Alan packed up and moved west to Oklahoma. There Ina remarried, and the family, in search of better fortunes, traveled to California. Ladd’s stepfather, Jim Beavers, started work as a set painter on the movie studio lots, and Ladd began to get the notion that movies might be the way that he could contribute to the family income.
A star athlete in track and swimming in high school, Ladd was briefly enrolled in an acting school at Universal Studios, but was let go due to the fact that he didn’t fit the usual “tall, dark and handsome,” criteria for a leading man. At 5′ 6”, Ladd’s height would be an obstacle he would have to face his entire career. But his deep speaking voice allowed Ladd to break into radio, which eventually led to the opportunity of screen acting.
After meeting Sue Carol, a former actress turned acting agent, Ladd started to break into films with small bit parts. According to Beverly Linet’s biography on Alan Ladd, the actor was close to signing a contract with RKO after his success in Joan of Paris. But the lead role of Raven in This Gun for Hire was open, and Ladd was asked to screen test for the role at Paramount. Given the job, and paired with Veronica Lake, Ladd became a household name. It was his good looks, paired with his calm intensity, that made Ladd an intriguing noir leading man.
Success lead to more noir pairings with Lake in The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia. Ladd had married Midge Harrold in 1936 and had a son, Alan, Jr., but he had fallen in love with Sue Carol through their professional relationship. After divorcing their significant others, they married in 1942. Carol and Ladd had two children together: a daughter, Alana, and son David.
June Allyson said in her autobiography that she and Ladd fell in love while filming The McConnell Story, although not much came of it, since Sue made it clear that Alan wasn’t going anywhere, as did Allyson’s husband Dick Powell.
At the height of his popularity during the 1940s and 50s, Ladd found that his parts at Paramount weren’t getting any better as his fame increased. The studio was content to march him out in any mediocre part as long as the money was coming in. Because of his height, Ladd would either stand on top of boxes, or the leading lady would stand in a trench to give the Ladd the illusion of being a taller man. He eventually moved on from Paramount, seeking greater freedom in his film choices, but the little insecurities began to pile up, and Ladd’s drinking problem emerged.
Besides the success of Shane, which wasn’t even expected to be a hit, Ladd never found the kinds of roles that would push his acting talent late in his career.
On November 2, 1962, Ladd shot himself in the chest with a gun. The trade magazines all said it was an accident, he was cleaning his gun, or was going to investigate a strange noise and tripped. He survived the incident, but a little over a year later on January 29, 1964, was found dead of an overdose of pills and alcohol. Again ruled accidental, it was never clear whether it was a mistake made by a man spinning further out of control, or conscious decision. Buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale, Ladd was just 50 years old.
In looking at Alan Ladd’s life, it’s a sad tale of a young man whose life was marked by tragedy. The death of his father at a young age, experiencing his mother’s suicide when he was a young man, growing up in poverty. On the one hand, these life events drove Ladd to create a life for himself and his family that would be different from his own upbringing, but those experiences would haunt him for the rest of his life.
It just shows how fickle stardom can be. When looking for materials to do some research on Ladd, I found only one biography written on him, first published in 1979 and now out of print. For whatever reason, Alan Ladd went the way of other leading men like Dana Andrews, people who in their heyday were huge stars but today don’t hold the name recognition of a Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart. In his time, Ladd was said to be highly accommodating to his fans, generously signing autographs and mailing publicity photos at every request.
Thanks to Jessica for hosting this blogathon. I enjoyed looking into the life of an actor that I knew virtually nothing about, but was enchanted by his screen presence. I now look forward to exploring more of Alan Ladd’s films, especially his noirs. But I will probably always remember him as that mysterious cowboy, riding off into the distance. We’ll never know what his fate will be, but he left in indelible mark on each member of that homesteading family, and in turn, all of us watching the film. Such was the talent of Alan Ladd.