Gone Too Soon: Alan Ladd

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.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire. Lake was one of Ladd's leading ladies who was actually shorter than him. The two were an instant sensation as a screen pair.

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.

This entry was posted in 1940s, 1950s, Actors, Drama, Film Noir, Western and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Gone Too Soon: Alan Ladd

  1. Pingback: Gone Too Soon Blogathon: The Contributors « Comet Over Hollywood

  2. Laura says:

    I enjoyed your post! I’ve only really started to become acquainted with Ladd’s work over the past couple years, and I’m really enjoying catching up with his films, including SHANE. I got a particular kick out of his early role as a Disney animator in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. I’ve definitely got to check out THIS GUN FOR HIRE — love the still you share here.

    Best wishes,

    • Thanks for reading, and the comment! I’m definately looking forward to checking out more of his stuff, but it seems a little harder to find than I thought, at least around here. Disney animator? That sounds like an interesting movie!

  3. KimWilson says:

    Mental illness most probably ran in his family. Hard to believe the man who played Shane had so many insecurities.

    • Very well put. It was kind of sad to read his biography. I wish he had been giving more roles that would’ve stretched his acting talent, especially in the middle/end of his career.

  4. A great tribute you have here of Alan Ladd. He was a great actor and like most I loved him in Shane.

    Interesting info about June Allyson. She certainly did attract the men. I’m glad though that Sue hung in there. Sue is as cute as a button. I’ve been doing a lot of research to do a bio on her.

    Alan seemed to be an adoring father and a good husband when he wasn’t fighting his demons.

    So sad that drugs and alcohol took another talented life.

    Well Done!

    • Thank you for the kind words. June Allyson’s autobiography was a great read. I’m a big Dick Powell fan, so it was nice to see her speak about him at great length, but also about Alan Ladd, which was a story I hadn’t heard about until she mentioned it.
      Thanks for reading!

  5. max fraley says:

    Thank you for keeping his image and name up front for those who are familiar with his career and for those just discovering this icon of Hollywood’s “past lane”. I saw Shane in 1953 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and it has remained one of my two favorite movies to this day.
    Ladd was magnificent. I’m pleased he is remembered so well for that performance. He deserves the applause.

    • Thanks for reading and the comment!
      He was quite the actor. I recorded This Gun for Hire from TCM about a month back, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

      • max fraley says:

        I’m the acting director of the free admission Long Beach Film Forum in L.B.,Ca. We feature vintage movies (up to 1982). Last year we ran a series of “Great” in the title movies and programmed Ladd’s THE GREAT GATSBY which had been seen by few in our audience (usually 35-50 patrons). Our new series saluting Paramount Pictures, 100 years, has THE GLASS KEY co-starring Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy with Ladd. Over our 17 year existence we have featured at various times Alan Ladd in SHANE, THE BLUE DAHLIA, WHISPERING SMITH and THIS GUN FOR HIRE. The more we see the more obvious it is that he had tremendous screen presence (wonderful speaking voice) and was consistently good. “As time goes by” I hope to add at least TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, CHINA, OSS, THE IRON MISTRESS, and WILD HARVEST to the list. It’s a guarantee SHANE will be revived for our programs frequently (once every 7 years). We welcome all comers to our Friday evening movies.

  6. leslie houlden says:

    I have been a great fan Alan Ladd since I was 10 years old my grandma took me to see a film at sleaford the film and alan was the main star it was Desert Legion and I am now 69 and still. Like to see his film and now I can see some old one vie the computer

    • It’s great that in this day and age we’re able to use technology to see old films, listen to old radio shows. I very much enjoyed exploring Alan Ladd’s biography a little bit, and look forward to seeing more of his films. Thanks for reading!

  7. Pingback: 2012 In Film | Lindsay's Movie Musings

  8. Walter Wheeler says:

    “Box 13” was a radio series produced by and starring Alan Ladd in the very late 1940’s and possibly into the very early 1950’s. The high quality series can be heard for free on internet archives.org. He did have a very excellent voice for radio drama.

  9. Madeleine says:

    Alan Ladd was a wonderful actor, I thought. there was something about him…a type of integrity was inherent. I am glad to see his films again…

  10. Larry says:

    I saw Shane at the movies when I was in high school 1950s. He had the ability to make the audience love and respect his ability and sincerity on stage. He was 2 inches shorter than me which made me believe It was okay to be short. Wish we could have him back.

  11. Veronica says:

    I really enjoyed reading about one of my most favorite actors (movie star). There will never be another Alan Ladd. Shane was one of the best movies Ladd played
    in. I was a teenager when I saw the movie, and I can remember crying when Shane was leaving town. I don’t know why Hollywood couldn’t put him beside all the little petite actresses. I can remember tiny actresses almost breaking their necks
    trying to look up to really tall actors. In fact, I don’t think hardly any of the men were very tall. Most were around 5’7″ – 5’9¨. I guess the tall actors were 5’10 – 6′.
    I’m 76yo, and I hv been going to the movies for a long time and I don’t think the male actors started getting taller until the late 60’s or 70’s. Seems as though everybody in the 50’s was little.

  12. I’m a Big Fan of Allen Ladd,I am 73,but I have a great deal of feelings for him and his son Jr,
    I’m a Country Music Promoter,here in Liverpool,UKGB,see quite a few of Allan’s movies,
    Paratrooper ,love him in that,one of the finest actors ever,he must have been depressed to do what he did on a overdose,it’s easily done,but he’s left a legacy behind in his children and his dearest wife,Sue Carol,Allan is very,very much missed by me David,I want to get in touch of all his family by Email,
    Could you make that possible for this BIG,BIG,LIVERPOOL,LAD,
    God Bless one and all,Bless Allen , his late Wife,

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