Did anyone in the mid-1940’s look better onscreen in a suit and fedora? Anyone more sartorially splendid? Was any actor more handsome? More terse?
Alan Ladd once said of himself that he had the face of an aging choirboy.
Whatever, by the early-to-mid 1940’s he was at the height of his reign as Paramount Pictures’ biggest male star. He was hugely popular with general audiences who flocked to see the seven movies he made with favorite costar, Veronica Lake, from 1942 to 1946.
The last of these — The Blue Dahlia with an Oscar nominated screenplay by Raymond Chandler — is a film noir stalwart that stands up to this day. Not great but influential in the sense that its plot reflects the anguish suffered by returning World War II vets (Ladd comes home to a cheating spouse, and costar William Bendix plays an emotionally and mentally volatile ex-GI with a steel plate in his head).
The ending of the picture is not one that Chandler wanted, but was imposed after the War Department ruled that Paramount could not show a returning war veteran as the culprit in a murder. To see which character is feebly substituted as the real killer of Ladd’s straying wife, rent out The Blue Dalia DVD.
Until 2012, that wasn’t all that easy. Frank had been unsuccessfully searching for a decent DVD version of the movie for a long time, and it wasn’t until four years ago that one materialized — courtesy of the TCM Vault Collection (thank you!). Why did it take so long?
Frankly, we don’t know. Film scholar Eddie Muller, who is interviewed on the TCM Vault disc, opines that for some reason Ladd has turned into a forgotten figure of the Forties despite his box office appeal and the succees of The Blue Dahlia. Muller also is mystified by this.
In short, why is Ladd the seemingly forgotten man of Forties noir?
Born in 1913 in Hot Springs, Ark., Ladd endured a hard scrabble childhood that more than occasionally left him malnourished. He was undersized as a result (his nickname was “Tiny”). At 5-foot-6-1/4-inches, the fully-grown Ladd was indeed one of the shortest leading male figures in Hollywood history.
He knew it and always resented it.
All manner of devices — hidden platforms, low camera angles, shoe lifts — were employed during filming to mask Ladd’s diminutive stature especially relative to his leading ladies. Ladd is perhaps best known today for his superb role as the weary, gentle-spoken gun fighter in director George Stevens classic 1953 western, Shane.
Next time you see the picture watch carefully how Stevens filmed the climatic gunfight scene showing Ladd squaring off against 6-foot-4-inch Jack Palance as the cold-blooded villain.
However short in stature, Ladd enjoyed a lengthy career, appearing in more than 90 movies. He also had his share of problems towards the end.
He eagerly sought the lead in Lawrence of Arabia that went to Peter O’Toole. A long second marriage to agent Sue Carol was showing signs of strain. Ladd embarked on an unhappy affair with June Allyson.
He died in 1964 in Palm Springs, California, of an alcohol-barbiturate overdose. He was just 50 years old. (Final factoid: As a struggling actor, Ladd appeared in a small role as a newspaper reporter in Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane.)