Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Christmas Album: Alan Ladd

Day Three of our Holiday roundelay finds us in Alan Ladd's well-appointed den in the mid-50s as he tries to recall which package was intended for whom, with, of course, the press corps along to document what might have been a private moment. The underrated actor may be best remembered for his iconic turn as Shane (1953) in director George Stevens' tale of a Western Lancelot, though I'm quite partial to his singular breakthrough role as "Philip Raven" (a great character name!), the brooding killer with a soft spot for cats in the Paramount adaptation of Graham Greene's This Gun for Hire (1942), which helped to make him a star. After a truly Dickensian childhood and early adult years, he appeared in a raft of films at Paramount in the forties, (often paired with Veronica Lake, a diminutive actress with whom he had little affinity off-screen). As an actor, he seems to have often been dismissed for his underplaying, his soft, blonde looks and his short stature, but the man had presence, an ability to convey thought on screen, and a beautifully modulated speaking voice.

Among the most memorable of his films are the hard boiled The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), as well as the intelligent soaper And Now Tomorrow (1944) with Loretta Young, and a manful attempt at a seagoing tale in Two Years Before the Mast (1946). Though his career after Shane unwound as the studio system faltered, Father Time had his way, and as the sensitive actor sought to self-medicate his own self-doubts away, much of his best later work, including the engaging western, Whispering Smith (1948), the noirish Chicago Deadline (1949), his good, heartfelt performance in the forgotten, well done version of The Great Gatsby (1949), and his exceptional work with children in The Proud Rebel (1958), and Man in the Net (1959) have been overshadowed by his last performance as--to my eyes, at least--the only worthwhile character in that harbinger of trash to come at the beginning of the '60s, The Carpetbaggers (1964). His sons Alan Ladd, Jr. and David Ladd have both gone on to become power players in the production of films today. One hopes that these descendants might be able to use their clout to get more of their father's films on dvd someday.

Now, if only one of those brightly colored packages might have held a good script for Mr. Ladd. Musing about his own unlikely success, the actor once commented, "I have the face of an aging choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight. If you can figure out my success on the screen you're a better man than I."


Laura said...

Love how the colors in the painting behind Ladd match the packages. :)

These are great photos and bios -- keep 'em coming! (I'm very partial to THE BLUE DAHLIA...)

Best wishes,

Moira Finnie said...

I'm glad that you're getting a kick out of these peeks at Christmas Past, Hollywood-style, Laura.

I can't figure out if that sort of early leisure suit that Ladd is wearing is truly pink in tone, (like the rest of the room), or if that's just the way that the film has aged. Photo sessions such as this one were a daily part of life in Chez Ladd, according to Beverly Linet's biography of the actor. Coordinated by Alan Ladd's wife, the agent Sue Carol, about once a month, family members would be groomed to a fare thee well and photographed in their home, looking oh, so happy to have their privacy invaded. Hmmm...

I like The Blue Dahlia very much too. I haven't seen it in years, so I'm glad to see that it is scheduled on TCM on Jan 10th at 10:00AM ET. said...

Thanks for the post Moria. Alan Ladd is certainly underrated. Love his self-deprecating comment too.

Keep up the great work. We appreciate it!

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks very much for visiting and for the kind word, ClassicFlix. I hope that you'll stop by again to enjoy our Christmas pics.

I think that Alan Ladd is an unknown actor to many in part due to the unavailability of his films for broadcast and even on dvd. (His Paramount films, too many of which are mouldering in a vault somewhere, do seem to be leaking out on dvd. I'm hoping that this may--cross your fingers--be changing for more of that studios classic work). In addition to access issues, Ladd's calm, restrained manner of acting also fell out of fashion once the movies began to become a bit coarser as well, starting in the late '40s, early '50s. In Shane, his last great film, Ladd said he "learned more about acting [from director George Stevens] a few months than [he] had in [his] entire life up until then." What a shame that the exploration of his remarkable ability to convey a depth of feeling within a moment of stillness failed to find much further good expression thanks to a series of circumstances. He seemed to be an actor swimming against the cultural tide of much of American life during his stardom, which, in many ways came to glorify gigantism, and larger than life qualities, physically and psychologically.(In these days of short attention spans and CGI explosions of action every few minutes, I doubt if that will be likely either, (though I should add that Peter Fonda came close to this quality in his performance in "Ulee's Gold" (1997).

I'd like to think that Mr. Ladd had a self-deprecating sense of humor too. God knows he needed one. Some of his reflections, particularly in interviews given near the end of his life, seem to indicate that there was also a self-lacerating edge to his insights into himself.

There was an interesting sadness in him, as well as a capacity for expressing bemused resignation to the way of the world and his own limitations, commenting that he may not know much about acting, but he'd learned a few tricks over time that worked for him. He tried to explain his reticence to an interviewer once, as much as to himself, commenting that "I wish I were the type who could walk into a place and have everybody love me. But I'm not, and there's no use wishing." Asked once if there was anything that he wished he could change about himself, he replied: "Everything." said...

True, he is very under-represented in the DVD market due to the lackluster classic output from Universal and Paramount's vault.

I've always likened his style to Gary Cooper -- very subdued, but he knew how to get his point across. And while he didn't have Coops stature or versatility, he certainly had a loyal following.

But other than Shane, his films don't have the broad appeal that studios and TV networks need to distribute and run his films. Whereas, for mass audiences, Coop has Mr. Deeds, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York and Ball of Fire to name a few.

I'll be coming back every day to check your posts!

Thanks again,



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