A n iconic figure of the 40s and 50s, Alan Ladd went through a tough journey before converting into one of the most famous Hollywood legends of the 20th century. He was born on September 3, 1913, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and was the only son of the couple formed from English Ina Raleigh and Alan Ladd. His father had different accounting jobs that generated for the family the money they needed, but this situation changed when Alan was 4. One day, the father crashed on the floor in agony after suffering a heart attack and died. This left the family without a steady income, which pushed them to regroup and try to find other ways of making a living. However, their fortune was not yet to arrive. On the contrary, one year later, Ladd found a case of matches and accidentally started a fire that burned their apartment to the ground. Without a place to live and low on money, Ina had no other chance than try and find work in another city. So, they moved to Oklahoma, where she wedded artist Jim Beavers.
Things didn’t improve for the family. Beavers didn’t make a lot of money, and food was often not enough. This may have been one of the factors for which Ladd always looked skinnier and smaller than his schoolmates, who ended up calling him Tiny. The Ladd family started a new journey, this time to California, which, in a way, made them part of the Okies who left their state for California in the 1920s to try and survive through the Great Depression. Ladd himself depicted the road to California as being similar to the one represented by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, with them traveling on an old truck and often having nothing to eat.
Even if in California their lives didn’t improve considerably, at least they started living more organized. After briefly living in a migrant camp, they relocated to San Fernando Valley, where Beavers got hired. Ladd was signed up for high school, where he discovered his passion for diving and swimming and took part in school plays.
While acting as Koko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s play The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu in high school, he was spotted by a scout, who retained him for a long-term agreement with Universal Pictures. Woefully, although the agreement could have brought him a steady job for up to 7 years, he was let go after only 6 months since the producers considered that his short figure and fair hair were not looking well on the camera.
His looks followed him through the beginnings of his acting career, and lead to him obtaining no parts or only minor ones. Through the 30s, when America was struggling to get up again from a deep economic crisis, Ladd survived by taking several odd jobs from hot dog vendor to lifeguard. His first contact with the world of entertainment appeared later and implied him playing small roles on the radio. Yet, no one saw him, and he was forced to take a job as a grip on the WB studios.
During this period, he wedded Marjorie Jane Herold and had a son with her. His mother, who in the meantime had turned into an alcoholic and degraded visibly, moved in with them. She would commit suicide a few months later by ingesting ant poison.
His luck started to rise one day, nonetheless, when former screen actress turned into a scout Sue Carol spotted him on a radio show and helped him land his first major acting job. Ladd divorced Marjorie and got involved with Carol, with whom he had two children. Thanks to Carol, he was cast as a reporter in Orson Wells’ masterful production of Citizen Kane in 1941, and in 1942, he got the part that made him a Hollywood god.
Although slow to start, Ladd’s career proved to be filled with successes, with him receiving no less than 80 parts until the end of his life and playing next to prominent actresses like Sophia Loren, Veronica Lake, and Olivia de Havilland. Nevertheless, he is mostly remembered for a succession of movies that made the public gasp while watching them on a large outdoor movie screen or at the cinema.
Made after Graham Green’s novel A Gun for Sale, Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire was a hit from the first day it was released. The public just loved Ladd for his cold and violent act as criminal Philip Raven who, despite his murderous nature, finds in himself the heart not to let stage magician Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), who was trying to hold him, be slain.
If Lake was Tuttle’s first choice for the female lead, he did have a hard time finding the male lead. He eventually settled on Ladd who didn’t only do a great presentation but had such chemistry with Lake that they were cast together in a few other movies later.
The New York Times wrote a favorable assessment in which it portrayed Ladd as having gunned his way into cinema. The Los Angeles Times also saw the film as a fantastic accomplishment and the public approved by going to the cinema to see it or later renting the tape for a movie night at home.
When this picture was finally released in 1946 after being postponed multiple times due to the financial uncertainty caused by WW II, it was deemed by the Los Angeles Times as a huge phenomenon, and it did become extremely well-liked the year it was released. The film directed by John Farrow was grounded on Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s book, which recounted the ventures of Dana on the ship Pilgrim led by the tyrannical captain Thompson. The movie centers on an individual story, that of a shipping magnate’s son, who is kidnapped aboard the ship and compelled to travel on it. Dana follows his story and, in the end, writes it.
In 1945, Ladd was by now a Hollywood favorite. Still, the word was that he was about to be sent back into the army after he had served 10 months in 1943 when he was honorably dismissed due to stomach problems. This made Paramount go crazy about finding a movie in which they could cast Ladd before being sent to the front. Finally, they found out that writer Raymond Chandler was thinking to turn the book he was writing into a script, and after producer John Houseman read it, Paramount bought the script. It was Chandler’s first unique script and Ladd’s first film noir, and the critics once again appreciated Ladd for his “steel-like quality”, as he played a dismissed naval flier who returns home to find his wife having an affair and then being murdered. Soon he finds himself needing to hide as he turns into the first suspect for the police.
Although this cannot be called the best film made after Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, it did produce some fuss when it appeared, with mixed reviews coming from the critics. Many of them agreed that the movie failed to transmit the glamorous and agitated atmosphere of the 20s, but this may have had to do with the censorship of the times, which considered that a movie presenting the practice of bootlegging and living a meaningless life may lead to the opening of a new Jazz cycle.
Nevertheless, Alan was thought to be perfect for the role and received great personal appreciation. Producer Richard Maibaum recounted in 1986 that, before the production of the movie began, he paid a visit to Alan Ladd and was astonished to see how many clothes the actor owned. Just like Jay Gatsby, he seemed to have a strong feeling of possession meant to counterbalance the years in which he was poor.
Grounded on the novel with the same name written by Jack Schaefer, Shane was the first film to be projected in “flat” widescreen, which was a technology developed by Paramount. The technique offered the audience a wider panorama compared to what television was able to provide. It was also a color movie that ended up costing the company 3.1 million dollars. Aland Ladd played the main part and was joined by other big names like Jean Arthur and Van Heflin. The movie was received with enthusiasm and made $8,000,000 over its first run in North America.
One of Ladd’s highest triumphs, The Carpetbaggers made over $28 million at the domestic box office and about $13 million in home rentals. It presented Ladd as a cowboy movie star who assists his friend, Jonas, as he tries to manage an industrial empire he had inherited from his father. Launched at the start of the sexual revolution, the movie has many scenes that include characters kissing or hugging.
Fame was not gentle with Ladd, as he often turned to sleeping pills and alcohol to be able to rest. In January 1964, as he was taking a break at his residence in Palm Springs in an attempt to recover after a knee injury, Ladd was found dead by his butler. The reason was an overdose on alcohol and pills, which lead to brain damage and caused his death. At his funeral, a lot of fans arrived to pay their respects and take a last look at their favorite actor.
Alan Ladd died not only a well-off man, leaving behind a nice fortune that become even bigger as The Carpetbaggers was released shortly after his death, but an example to be followed for future actors. The 5ft 6 star who had to step on a box almost every time he was filming a love scene so he looked taller than his female partner is today studied at Film Schools and is still admired by many film enthusiasts who play his movies on their short-throw projectors in their living rooms, enjoying his way of acting and great looks.