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."