Today marks the centennial of the birth of Alan Ladd (September 3, 1913 – January 29, 1964). Ladd was in many ways the quintessential movie star of the studio era. Although his stardom was nurtured by Paramount Pictures, the studio to which he was under contract throughout the 1940s, it was the audience that made him a star. Moviegoers clearly loved him and clamored for his movies. He struck such a chord with them in the 1940s and early 1950s that pretty much anything he made satisfied them. Paramount didn’t put a lot of money into his movies nor, with rare exceptions like the 1949 version of THE GREAT GATSBY, did they allow him to take on challenging roles and riskier subject matter. He specialized in a certain kind of medium-budget, mid-range action film in various genres that formed the foundation of the studio system: crime melodramas, westerns, war movies, and globe-trotting adventures. A sampling of titles should convey the type of movie Ladd appeared in: CHINA, CALCUTTA, SAIGON, SANTIAGO, BRANDED, RED MOUNTAIN, DRUM BEAT, SASKATCHEWAN, THE BIG LAND, HELL BELOW ZERO, HELL ON FRISCO BAY, APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER, CHICAGO DEADLINE, THUNDER IN THE EAST, DESERT LEGION, THE IRON MISTRESS. He often played the reluctant hero, a loner out for himself, devoted to his own self interest, who ultimately does the right thing and helps the underdog.
I’m a huge fan of Ladd and I like most of his movies. He made about 45 starring roles from 1942 to 1964 and I count at least 23 I actively like. (There are still about 15 I’ve never seen.) I discovered most of his films on television broadcasts in the 1970s and ’80s. He wasn’t the type of actor like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, James Stewart or Henry Fonda, whose films played revival theaters. You had to find them on late-night TV. I actually only saw five of his films in theaters, one when it was reissued in 1972 (THE CARPETBAGGERS) and four at revival theaters (THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, THE BLUE DAHLIA, SHANE). But his films were consistently enjoyable, generally well-made, and never dull. The people who made these films were studio workhorses who knew how to turn them out quickly and efficiently, with all the elements audiences came to expect from a Ladd film. And audiences were rarely disappointed.
Despite the image he would develop, Ladd’s first starring role (after a decade in bit parts and B-movies) was as a hired killer with a touch of psychosis in the crime thriller, THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), which was also the first film to pair him with his frequent leading lady, Veronica Lake. Ladd had a hard edge in this and his other early movies, including THE GLASS KEY (1942), a political murder mystery based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett; LUCKY JORDAN (1942), in which he plays the title character, a gangster who gets drafted and gradually becomes a patriot; SALTY O’ROURKE (1945), in which he plays a gambler involved in a racetrack scheme who gets turned around by the love of a good woman; and THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946), a post-war film noir written for the screen by Raymond Chandler, in which Ladd plays a returning war veteran accused of the murder of his faithless wife. He’s quite surly and violent in his first war movie, CHINA (1943), in which he plays a freelance trucker in China who initially makes deals with the Japanese but turns against them after witnessing an atrocity and machine-guns three of them in cold blood. He softened quite a bit in later films as he perfected a steady, soft-spoken but firm way of dealing with situations. He hardly ever raised his voice, although he was quick to throw a punch or pull a gun when necessary, but only when seriously provoked. In fact, he’s way too nice in some of his films, particularly in situations where a little outrage is called for. In WHISPERING SMITH (1948), his first western, for example, Ladd’s longtime buddy (Robert Preston) goes rogue and commits some violent crimes, yet Ladd keeps trying to be nice to him and persuade him to flee the region, and start fresh somewhere else, even though it’s obvious to us that Preston has gone off the deep end and needs a quick trip to the hoosegow.
In the fact-based DRUM BEAT (1954), Ladd plays a peace commissioner charged with making peace with a rebellious band of Modoc Indians led by Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) in Oregon in the 1870s and leads a group of officers and officials, unarmed, into peace talks with Captain Jack and his cohort even though they’ve been warned of a trap by other Indians. It seems pretty foolhardy and it doesn’t end well for Ladd and his group. Sometimes good intentions aren’t enough. I couldn’t help but think that the Ladd from THIS GUN FOR HIRE, LUCKY JORDAN and CHINA wouldn’t have been so easily gulled.
For the first decade or so of his career, Ladd was an extremely handsome man and worked well with the leading ladies he was cast with. He had a tender, gentle quality in his intimate scenes with women and you could easily understand his appeal to them. Female co-stars offered glowing praise of him when interviewed decades later for the book, Ladd: A Hollywood Tragedy, by Beverly Linet. These include Geraldine Fitzgerald, Mona Freeman, Virginia Mayo, and June Allyson. They would often tell him what a fine actor he was and he would contradict them, insisting, “I’m no actor.”
Ladd was famously short and worked best with other short actresses (Veronica Lake, June Allyson, Mona Freeman, Virginia Mayo). When the actress was taller than him, he had to stand on a box or the actress had to stand in a ditch so as not to appear taller than him. This contributed to his overall insecurity, which dogged him to the end of his life. But a certain segment of the audience identified with Ladd and his shortness may have contributed to this. I was a short and skinny kid up until my mid-teens and I always had a soft spot for Ladd and the similarly diminutive Audie Murphy. In REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, the character of Plato (played by the short Sal Mineo), a misfit bullied by the other teens, has an 8 X 10 still of Ladd taped to his locker door. I’ve always interpreted this as one short bullied teen admiring an equally short guy who refused to be bullied.
Ladd was a very physical actor, although as illness and a succession of accidents took their toll on his health and appearance in the 1950s, he was compelled to use stuntmen in his later films. Before that he often did his own stunts. There’s a scene in DRUM BEAT where he fights Charles Bronson in the rapids on location in Arizona and both actors are clearly onscreen struggling with each other in the turbulent waters. But just six years later, when he has to fight Gilbert Roland (eight years older but far more robust than Ladd) in GUNS OF THE TIMBERLAND, they both have to use stuntmen. In his last film, THE CARPETBAGGERS (released in 1964 after Ladd’s untimely death), Ladd has to fight George Peppard in a brawl that devastates a hotel suite, but it’s the obvious stuntmen who do all the work. When this scene was featured in the film’s Mad Magazine satire, Ladd’s character announces to Peppard’s character, “And now my obvious stunt double will beat the tar out of your obvious stunt double,” as the two stars step aside to watch their stuntmen fight. I read the Mad satire first and when I saw the movie, I could see what they meant. (I liked the movie, and Ladd’s performance, anyway.) Ladd aged pretty quickly in the later 1950s and he does look old and tired in GUNS OF THE TIMBERLAND. Just compare these shots from 12 years apart, in WHISPERING SMITH (1948) and TIMBERLAND (1960):
I never disbelieved a performance by Ladd. He always came off as exactly who he would have us believe he was, no matter what Ladd himself thought of the character or of his performance. Granted, he didn’t have much range and did not get the Oscar nominations that contemporaries like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, or Richard Widmark would get. Nor did he get to work with the more prominent directors like John Huston, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wellman, or Vincente Minnelli, to name a few. Ladd had his most acclaimed role in SHANE (1953), directed by George Stevens, arguably the biggest name director (followed by Raoul Walsh) with whom Ladd would work. It helped that Shane was very much a Ladd type of character and the plot basically drew heavily on a traditional western formula. It was all given an aura of class by Stevens’ direction and the higher-than-usual-caliber-for-a-western cast, as exemplified by Van Heflin, Jean Arthur and MEMBER OF THE WEDDING alumnus Brandon de Wilde. Ladd’s Shane is a gunslinger who has to earn the respect of the farmers and townspeople and restrain his fists and trigger finger, even to the point of letting a bad guy humiliate him. But eventually, as the provocations escalate—as they inevitably must in a Hollywood western from that period—the gloves come off and Shane gets to cut loose and save the day for the good people of the town. Ladd was very pleased with his work on the film and considered Stevens the best director he ever worked with. He got the best reviews of his career, but he didn’t get many chances to follow up on this success and was soon back in studio potboilers like THUNDER IN THE EAST, BOTANY BAY, DESERT LEGION, SASKATCHEWAN and HELL BELOW ZERO, all perfectly enjoyable genre entertainments, but not prestige projects like SHANE. When such a chance did come along, Ladd unwisely turned it down. Stevens wanted him to play the Jett Rink role in GIANT (1956), which eventually went to James Dean, but Ladd rejected it because it wasn’t the starring role, which went to Rock Hudson. Ladd regretted this decision for the rest of his life.
I watched nine films of Ladd’s before doing this piece: THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, CHINA, WHISPERING SMITH, THE IRON MISTRESS, BOTANY BAY, DRUM BEAT, GUNS OF THE TIMBERLAND, and THE CARPETBAGGERS, two of them (CHINA and BOTANY) for the first time. I enjoyed them all and am sorry I didn’t have time to watch more, including one tape full of Ladd films I hadn’t seen before which I’d recorded off TCM a year or two ago. The big revelation here was CHINA (1943). Here, Ladd plays an American opportunist who is reviled by the Chinese officers who confront him because he makes a good living selling gasoline to the Japanese army, which is advancing across China in 1941, when the film is set. Ladd and his partner (William Bendix) are caught in a Chinese town being bombed by the Japanese and are compelled to carry refugees—a truck full of schoolgirls and their American teacher (Loretta Young)—to safety in an area held by Chinese resistance fighters. To make a long story short, Ladd is eventually converted to the Chinese cause when he comes upon the scene of an atrocity by the Japanese (the rape of a schoolgirl and the slaughter of her parents and a baby) and is soon fighting alongside the Chinese patriots, with help from Young’s schoolgirls. It’s one of the rare Hollywood films about the war in China and offers a rare acknowledgement of Japanese atrocities in China. (There is even a reference to Nanking.) More importantly, it has a large number of Chinese supporting characters with significant speaking parts, all played by Asian-American actors and not whites in “yellowface,” and they even have scenes where they confer among each other rather than consult either of the three white American characters. Philip Ahn (seen in the still below) plays the leader of the resistance band and essentially calls the shots. He is joined by his brothers, played by Richard Loo and Victor Sen Yung. (Interestingly, all three actors appeared in the “Day of the Dragon” episode of “Bonanza” that I wrote about in “Asian Stars in TV Westerns, Part 1” on January 8, 2013.)
As a Ladd film, CHINA was one of several films he made set in third world settings, where he invariably starts out as a self-interested opportunist, but is eventually won over to a cause. Here, still trading off his cold-blooded killer image from THIS GUN FOR HIRE, he mercilessly guns down the three Japanese soldiers (one of whom is an officer) after they’ve raped the schoolgirl and when asked by Young about it afterward, he comments how easy it was, how he didn’t feel a thing, echoing a scene in THIS GUN FOR HIRE, where, asked a similar question about killing someone, he declared, “I feel fine.” (The rape in CHINA occurs off-camera, but we hear the girl’s screams, making it painfully obvious what has happened—an instance of how the needs of wartime propaganda trumped censorship issues.) Ladd, at the height of his powers here (he was 28 or 29 at the time), then plunges into the combat scenes with raw vigor, swimming, climbing, punching, shooting, stabbing, and running. A new action star was born.
THIS GUN FOR HIRE is always a revelation every time I see it and remains, for me, Ladd’s finest performance. It’s one of the few roles where he gets to act, which means, in this context, the chance to play a part outside of the persona he soon created and perfected in film after film. He’s Raven, a hired killer, a career path chosen after abusive treatment as a boy by a guardian resulted in a permanent disfiguring and his killing of the guardian. There’s a truly chilling and harrowing scene where he describes the incident and you can feel his deep-rooted pain. Even though he’s a bad guy and even kills one innocent person, a policeman chasing him, he’s still a sympathetic figure. It seems a bit far-fetched, but in his quest for vengeance against a client who betrayed him he gets turned around to first get evidence of the client’s sale of a lethal chemical weapon to an unidentified enemy of the U.S. (presumably the Japanese). The persuader is Veronica Lake, in the first of four films she’d make with Ladd in the 1940s. She was short, like Ladd, but also had a way of speaking with him that was perfectly modulated to fit his soft-spoken style of delivering dialogue. And she had a way of focusing on him as if he were the only person in the world and he responded in kind. I’ve rarely seen two performers so carefully in sync. I don’t know if they were directed that way or if the two figured out instinctively to do it that way or if it was just sheer luck.
One of my favorite Ladd films is THE IRON MISTRESS (1952), directed by Gordon Douglas after Ladd left Paramount for Warner Bros. Ladd plays Jim Bowie, the famed knife fighter of the Mississippi and most of the film takes place in New Orleans in the pre-Alamo phase of the Bowie legend. Based on a novel of the same title by Paul I. Wellman, the film focuses on Bowie’s emergence from farm country to become a wealthy New Orleans gentleman where he courts a fiery redhead, Judalon de Bornay (played by the normally blond Virginia Mayo), whose opportunistic nature causes problems for a lot of men in the city. (The nature of the land deals which make Bowie rich is never properly explored, glossing over some extreme shadiness in his real life.) In the course of it all, Bowie gets into various duels and brawls, using his specially-made Bowie knife (crafted from ore deposited by a meteor), before winding up in Texas, where, after being wounded in a fight, he is nursed to health by his future wife, Ursula (Phyllis Kirk), the pretty daughter of the Mexican governor of San Antonio, Don Juan de Varamendi (Edward Colmans).
Shot on beautifully crafted backlot sets and studio interiors, the film gives us a vivid tour of old New Orleans and the freewheeling mix of splendor, squalor, outlawry, and peculiar codes of gentlemanly behavior, which invariably force men into duels. Wherever pleasures are to be found, legal or illicit, the town’s leading citizens are always on hand. Bowie’s first friend in New Orleans is none other than the French painter who became world-famous for his detailed renderings of birds and other wildlife, John James Audubon (played by George Voskovec). When Bowie first meets him, in fact, Audubon is being thrown out of his room, paintings and all, by a landlady who wants to be paid in cash, not pictures. Ladd has cash and saves the day for Audubon.
I consider this the best film about Bowie I’ve ever seen and that would include all the films about the Alamo, which covered the last phase of Bowie’s life. Ladd was nearly 40 when he made this, a good deal older than Bowie would have been in this phase of his life, but Ladd was still handsome and physically vigorous enough to pull it off. He looked the part and looked great opposite Virginia Mayo, who was short enough so that Ladd didn’t have to stand on a box when doing scenes with her. I don’t know how historically accurate the film is, although I believe it closely follows the novel on which it’s based (which I’ve read, but over two decades ago). I can’t confirm, for instance, whether Bowie ever really met Audubon. The trouble with doing any work on Bowie is that so much of what’s been filmed about him is based on legend. When I went looking for biographies of him, I didn’t get very far. Whatever may have existed has long been out of print and unavailable by inter-library loan. But I did find this novel, plus another one about him, Tempered Blade, by Monte Barrett, which served as the basis for the TV series, “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” (1956-58), the only other filmed work about Bowie that covers his New Orleans days and which also includes Audubon as a character.
THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964) was Ladd’s last film and would have marked a new direction for him as a character actor. It’s a far-fetched Hollywood melodrama based on a trashy popular novel by Harold Robbins with characters very loosely based on some actual historical figures from the 1920s and ’30s, with Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard) modeled on Howard Hughes and Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker) supposedly based on Jean Harlow. Ladd plays Nevada Smith, a former western outlaw (born as Max Sand) turned aide to Jonas Cord Sr., who cuts his ties to the Cords when the senior Cord dies, even though he was more of a father to Jonas Jr. than Jonas Sr. He starts a Wild West Show, which fails, and then goes into the movies to work in B-westerns, eventually becoming a star. I’m pretty familiar with most B-western stars and I have a hard time figuring out who Nevada Smith is supposed to be based on. IMDB says Tom Mix, although I’m not sure why. In any event, Ladd plays an aging westerner who puts his skills and background to use in a new profession and the part fits him beautifully. He’s supposed to be somewhat old and faded and a father figure to a young, hustling firebrand full of ideas and drives and appetites. As I mentioned earlier, the film culminates in a bruising fight between the two men that trashes a hotel suite and leaves Cord Jr. somewhat chastened. It’s not a great movie, but it’s quite watchable and Ladd’s scenes are quite good. If he’d lived, he could have played more seasoned character parts and stretched his acting wings without having the burden of being the star.
When I was a child, the first I remember hearing about Ladd was when I read a biographical comic book about his son, David Ladd, who had a brief tenure as a child star. As a child, I saw David in the film, A DOG OF FLANDERS (1959), and I believe the comic book came out around the time of that film. The only thing I remember from that comic is a scene where David, as a toddler, is thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool by his father in an effort to teach him to swim by necessity. I was startled by the seeming casual cruelty of this particular teaching method and it didn’t encourage a favorable opinion of Ladd at that early stage. I remember the ads for ALL THE YOUNG MEN (1960), a Korean War film featuring Ladd’s name prominently, a film I wouldn’t see for another eleven years. I remember reading Ladd’s obituary when he died in January 1964. THE CARPETBAGGERS opened a couple of months later. I don’t remember what the reviews for Ladd’s performance were like, but I eventually saw the film when it played on a reissue double bill with THE ADVENTURERS (1970), another Harold Robbins adaptation, around 1972. I had seen a 16mm screening of ALL THE YOUNG MEN, at a church film program in 1971. Aside from that, I’d only seen some Ladd movies on TV, including SHANE. Only gradually did I catch up with more Ladd, mostly on TV, throughout the 1970s. At some point, I got to see THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY and THE BLUE DAHLIA on the big screen at repertory houses. And I saw SHANE on a double bill with GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL at a Washington Heights theater sometime in the 1970s. (Both were subtitled in Spanish.)
For this piece I also re-read Beverly Linet’s paperback biography of Ladd, Ladd: A Hollywood Tragedy (1979, Berkley Books). It’s quite a sad tale, emphasizing his unhappiness, both in childhood and in late adulthood, and slow decline throughout the 1950s and early ’60s. It’s more focused on his home life, especially after he married his agent, Sue Carol, following his divorce from his first wife (and the mother of Alan Ladd Jr.), and fathered Alana Ladd and David Ladd (future husband of Cheryl Ladd). The book is very weak on Ladd’s films and usually dismisses them in a line or two, with little about their actual production unless he had some kind of accident or illness while shooting. I suspect the author had not bothered to watch many of his movies in preparation for the book. She uses review excerpts from The New York Times more than anything else when citing reaction to Ladd’s movies. Somehow, I don’t think Bosley Crowther’s opinions should dictate the historical record of how these films were received, especially when they were boxoffice hits.
One good aspect of the book, though, is the range of interviews conducted with Ladd’s co-stars, most of whom speak highly of him. The actresses interviewed, including Geraldine Fitzgerald, Mona Freeman, Virginia Mayo, June Allyson and Olivia de Havilland, all attest to how much they liked him personally and how much they admired his talent as an actor, even though he often shrugged off such praise. June Allyson breaks my heart when she says, in an interview conducted for the book, “I’ll always remember Alan as one of the kindest, gentlest, sweetest men I’ve ever known.” Virginia Mayo says, “Alan was such a wonderful person. I really loved him more than anyone else I ever worked with. I had some leading mean I disliked intensely. But Alan was really very, very sensitive, even more than Gregory Peck. I think that was unfortunate, because nobody was that sensitive to Alan in return.” She describes a scene she did with Ladd in THE IRON MISTRESS: “In one scene I remember very distinctly I had to tell him I was married, and the look on his face was so unusual, so expressive—beautiful but sad. All the emotions played across his face. I had never seen that look on any man’s face in acting.”
I wanted to watch a lot more Ladd films for this piece, including at least 16 I recorded on VHS tape over the years from TV showings, five of which I still haven’t seen even once. Most of the films I watched for this piece were on VHS. Only one, WHISPERING SMITH, was on DVD. As far as I can tell, few Ladd films ever made it to DVD. This is the value of having an archive of films on VHS. The films I didn’t get to but am eager to re-watch include LUCKY JORDAN, SALTY O’ROURKE, CHICAGO DEADLINE, BRANDED, APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER, RED MOUNTAIN, DESERT LEGION, THE BLACK KNIGHT, SANTIAGO, and THE BIG LAND. I don’t have THE GREAT GATSBY (1949) on tape, but I’d love to see that again also. I can’t imagine that Ladd wasn’t better in the role than later actors who’ve played the character. Ladd films I still haven’t seen include: O.S.S., CALCUTTA, SAIGON, CAPTAIN CAREY U.S.A., THUNDER IN THE EAST, HELL BELOW ZERO, BOY ON A DOLPHIN, THE MAN IN THE NET, ONE FOOT IN HELL, and 13 WEST STREET. I have seven of them on tape.
The Ladd family name continues in film with his granddaughter, Jordan Ladd, daughter of David and Cheryl Ladd. I’ve only seen her in DEATH PROOF, the Quentin Tarantino-directed second half of GRINDHOUSE (2007). Interestingly, her co-star in that, Sydney Poitier, is the daughter of Sidney Poitier, who co-starred with Alan Ladd in ALL THE YOUNG MEN. In looking over the pictures of Jordan Ladd on a Google Image search, I see her mother’s beauty, but I also see some of her grandfather’s features. I tried to pick the photo that most reminds me of her grandfather and this is it: