Sunday, September 13, 2020

A Tribute to Alan Ladd

Note: I paid tribute to actor Alan Ladd here on the centennial of his birthday on September 3, 2013.

A few days past this year's birthday anniversary, here's another look at Ladd's work, this time particularly focused on some of his films which are available for viewing on DVD. Please click any hyperlinked title to read my extended review.

One of Alan Ladd's greatest performances -- though sadly also one of his least-seen -- was playing the title role in THE GREAT GATSBY (1949). The off-screen Ladd had much in common with Jay Gatsby: outwardly successful, but inwardly insecure and vulnerable, the perfect meeting of man and role. And like Gatsby, Alan Ladd died far too young.

Alan Ladd was born in Arkansas just over a century ago, on September 3, 1913.

Ladd's father died when he was quite young. His childhood was somewhat troubled, including accidentally burning down the family apartment and being raised by an alcoholic mother, a problem Ladd unfortunately repeated in his own adult life.

His family lived for a while in Oklahoma and then moved to California, where he graduated from North Hollywood High School. He briefly owned a hamburger shop and worked on studio crews; he also played small movie roles as early as 1932.

Throughout the '30s and early '40s Ladd turned up in bit parts and brief speaking roles in films for a variety of studios, even playing a pipe-smoking reporter in CITIZEN KANE (1941).

After an attention-getting supporting role in RKO's war film JOAN OF PARIS (1942), two significant things happened in Ladd's life: He married his agent, Sue Carol, who worked hard on Ladd's career behind the scenes, and he landed a career-making role in Paramount's THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). THIS GUN FOR HIRE was a complete reboot of Ladd's career, including his receiving the title credit "Introducing Alan Ladd as Raven."

His role as a coolly handsome, trenchcoat-wearing psychopathic killer created a sensation, and it was also the start of his popular pairing with sultry blonde Veronica Lake, seen with him here. From that point on Ladd was an "A" list star, working steadily in films for the next two decades; a brief career pause for WWII army service ended when he received an honorable medical discharge. Ladd's greatest role came over a decade after THIS GUN FOR HIRE, playing the title character in George Stevens' timeless Western SHANE (1953).

Desiring more control over his projects, in the mid '50s Ladd formed his own production company, Jaguar Productions. Most of Jaguar's films were released by Warner Bros.

Off the screen Ladd was married twice and the father of three children. His son Alan Ladd Jr., who became a prominent studio executive, was born during Ladd's brief marriage to his high school sweetheart. His children with Sue Carol were David, an actor who is the father of actress Jordan Ladd, and Alana, who had a brief acting career and married longtime former Los Angeles talk radio host Michael Jackson.

By some of Ladd's last films, such as the enjoyable GUNS OF THE TIMBERLAND (1960), he was still fit, yet his once-handsome face became noticeably puffy due to his drinking. An extramarital romance with June Allyson, his costar in THE MCCCONNELL STORY (1955), ended when she returned to husband Dick Powell; Ladd's sadness over that experience is said to have contributed to his emotional decline.

Alan Ladd died in Palm Springs on January 29, 1964. He was only 50 years old. A great talent, gone too soon.

Below is a selection of 10 Alan Ladd films providing a good overview of his career, including crime films, Westerns, and war movies.

Since the list below was originally compiled a few years ago, additional Ladd titles, including AND NOW TOMORROW (1944), O.S.S. (1946), and CALCUTTA (1947), have been released on DVD or Blu-ray.

We're still waiting for other Ladd titles to make their first appearances for home viewing, including SAIGON (1948), CHICAGO DEADLINE (1949), and THE GREAT GATSBY (1949); the latter two titles have been shown at several film festivals in recent years.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941) - This is a must for Ladd fans! The year before his breakout stardom in THIS GUN FOR HIRE, he played a smiling Disney animator who narrates the Baby Weems cartoon. He's pictured here with Robert Benchley. Seeing the handsome Ladd in Technicolor this early in his career is a treat. Besides a Disney Treasures DVD release, THE RELUCTANT DRAGON can be found hiding as an extra on the Blu-ray release of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949).

THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) - Putting behind him his decade in bit parts and small roles, Ladd burst onto the screen as a charismatic star, playing a sizzling, magnetic killer with a fondness for cats. It's a measure of Ladd's success in the role that he created such a sensation despite the fact he was playing a no-holds-barred villain. There's a scene where he comes close to executing Veronica Lake which is downright chilling.

THE GLASS KEY (1942) - Ladd and Lake's electric chemistry was again on display in this Dashiell Hammett tale of political corruption. In the scene where they first meet, they seem to be having a wordless conversation all their own while other characters' dialogue swirls around them.

CHINA (1943) - CHINA, costarring Loretta Young and Ladd's close friend and frequent co-star William Bendix, was a patriotic war film meant to encourage patriotism and support for our Chinese allies. Ladd plays an oil trader whose exposure to Japanese atrocities leads him to join the Chinese in the fight. This is a surprisingly tough and brutal film for its era.

THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) - Ladd, Lake, and Bendix are all on hand in this terrific film, with a screenplay written by Raymond Chandler, which finds ex-G.I. Ladd accused of murdering his wife. Once again Ladd and Lake's movie magic jumps off the screen, and the movie also has a great feel for Southern California.

WHISPERING SMITH (1948) - Ladd stars in the title role, playing a steely railroad detective investigating a series of derailments. An old friend (Robert Preston) -- who happens to be married to Smith's one-time love (Brenda Marshall) -- is mixed up in the mystery; a nice, solid studio Western of the era which provides pleasant entertainment.

CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. (1950) - An effective, moody film mixing war, film noir, and romance genres, capped with the presence of the Oscar-winning song "Mona Lisa." Ladd plays an O.S.S. officer whose wartime service ends when he is seriously wounded and the Italian girl he loves (Wanda Hendrix) is killed -- or so he thinks. Years later he returns to Italy to uncover the truth.

BRANDED (1950) - Another solid Western in which Ladd masquerades as the long-missing son of a rancher (Charles Bickford). It becomes more than a little awkward once he finds an attraction to his "sister" (Mona Freeman)! The fine cast includes Robert Keith, Selena Royle, Tom Tully, and Joseph Calleia.

SHANE (1953) - Ladd's greatest role as the mysterious loner who helps a pioneer couple (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) and is idolized by their young son (Brandon DeWilde). The ending, with the young boy calling "Shane! Come back!" is an iconic moment in film history.

THE DEEP SIX (1958) - This Jaguar production has its flaws, but Ladd was perfectly suited for his role as a quiet Quaker whose desire to serve his country during WWII is in conflict with his religious upbringing; he withstands being ostracized by some in the crew before ultimately performing a heroic rescue. This was another film with his dear friend William Bendix.

This post is adapted from an article originally published by ClassicFlix in 2014. Please note that the linked article has a typographical error for Ladd's September 3 birth date.


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