"I never fail to feel let down when I see myself on the screen."
— Alan Ladd
Alan Walbridge Ladd, an actor best known for his starring role in one of the Western genre's most beloved movies, Shane, was born in 1913 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a spa town full of tourists, whose most famous ex-resident these days is former US President Bill Clinton. His father, Alan Ladd Sr., was an American-born freelance accountant, and his mother, Ina Raleigh Ladd, was an English girl who came to America when she was 19. How they ended up in Hot Springs is not recorded; presumably business was good there, since besides playing host to endless streams of tourists visiting the spas, Hot Springs also became a hotbed of illegal gambling during the first half of the 20th century.
"I'm the most insecure guy in Hollywood. If you had it good all your life, you figure it can't ever get bad, but when you had it bad, you wonder how long a thing like this will last."
— Alan Ladd
Alan Ladd Jr. was born on September 3rd, and we don't know much about his childhood until its defining moment, which was to influence the rest of his life: in 1917, when he was four years old, his father keeled over in front of him and died of a massive heart attack. Unsure what to do next, and living on a small amount of insurance money from her husband's death, Ina kept them both in a small apartment until July 3rd, 1918, which is when Alan found a box of matches and accidentally set fire to the place. In fact, he managed to burn down the entire apartment building, which wasn't constructed of the most durable of materials.
History does not seem to record if anyone died in the blaze, but Ina seems to have decided enough was enough, and they moved to Oklahoma City, where she tried to settle down and build a new life, despite having no family or friends in America. She married a painter called Jim Beavers whose employment was at best irregular, and, finding that they couldn't make ends meet in Oklahoma, they decided to move to California. Alan spoke later in his life about this journey as a kind of living hell, a trip which they made in a busted-up Model T and which took four months to complete. He remembered always being hungry, since they couldn't afford to buy much food, and that when they finally reached California he lived on potato soup for weeks. They moved from a homeless shelter in Pasadena to Hollywood, where Jim finally got some kind of work, painting movie sets for a studio that would soon go bankrupt.
"I'm grateful for the sparseness and the loneliness of my youth - they were the most valuable assets I had going for me. They've been the force behind everything I've done."
— Alan Ladd
In school, Alan became known as "Tiny" because he was always the shortest in his class. It seems certain that this had something to do with his family's poverty — at the age of twelve he was hospitalized with a stomach condition brought on by malnutrition, and this and his disrupted home life resulted in his falling several grades behind at school. Even so, he remained the smallest in his class, and to combat this, and the inevitable bullying that accompanied it, he took part-time jobs that would build up his muscles, such as hauling crates. He also trained hard at swimming and diving, eventually becoming a school champion and beginning to train for the 1932 Olympic Games. This dream, however, came literally crashing down when he hit his head one day while practicing high diving and was knocked out. No permanent damage was done, but he found that he was too nervous about having another accident to train properly. In those days they didn't have psychological coaches for poor young sportsmen, and he quit swimming for good.
He graduated high school at the age of 20 and the height of 5'4". Wanting to make the best of a bad thing, he opened a hamburger and malt shop in North Hollywood, and called it "Tiny's Patio". It was opposite the swimming pool — perhaps because he thought his reputation as a champion swimmer would attract some custom, and perhaps because the pool contained some of the only happy, successful moments of his entire life up to that point, and he couldn't bear to go far from it yet. Whatever his reasoning, Tiny's Patio was a failure and closed within a year.
He'd had some success as an amateur actor in school, and this was Hollywood after all, so Alan enrolled himself in acting classes (paid for by a friend of his mother) and worked in Warner Brothers as a carpenter and grip. Around this time he met his first wife - a girl called Marjorie Harrold who with the nickname "Midge", and at 5'1" tall, didn't make him feel tiny. They had a son together in 1937, who they called, in memory of his father, Alan Ladd Jr. They all moved in together (Alan, Alan Jr., Marjorie and Alan's mother Ina) and lived in a shabby little apartment full of second-hand furniture, but this arrangement didn't last long either. Life hadn't been good to Ina. Her second husband Jim had died a while back, and since then she had been an alcoholic. Three months after moving in with her son and his new family, she killed herself by swallowing ant poison, and became the second of Alan's parents to die before his eyes, writhing in agony.
I just want to make pictures that are entertaining. I'll leave the scenery chewing to someone else.
— Alan Ladd
It took a long time for Alan to get traction as an actor. He was too short, too blond, too pale, and the only parts he could get at first were in radio productions, where his rich baritone finally attracted the attention of a talent scout, Sue Carol, an ex-actress herself and 10 years older than him, who got him cast in Citizen Kane (an uncredited role as a newspaper reporter). So far so good, but Alan and his family still had to scrape by on what he could get from bit-parts and the radio, until his big break in 1942. He was cast as a hired assassin called Raven in This Gun For Hire, a part for which he dyed his hair black, and the sensitivity and intensity of his portrayal, as well as his cherubic good looks, made him instantly famous. Fittingly, the killer he played was a complex character who had had a hard childhood, and who combined a single-minded quest for revenge with some endearing qualities such as a love of cats.
Unfortunately for his wife Midge, who struggled through a lot of bad times with him, Alan's success came with a price. He divorced her and a week later married his agent, Sue, who continued to land good roles for him. He made a series of well-received films during the 1940's, and became one of Paramount Studio's most valuable stars, appearing in The Blue Dahlia alongside Veronica Lake, who had also been his co-star in This Gun For Hire. At 5'2", Lake was his ideal on-screen woman, and they did a total of four films together. He also starred in Two Years Before The Mast and The Great Gatsby, and also (in 1948) in his first Western, Whispering Smith. His popularity was based on his on-screen persona — cool, collected, outwardly unemotional but intense, and with a sense of hidden danger or ruthlessness. He was often compared to Humphrey Bogart, another small man with an intense, brooding presence.
Although he would have been a major star anyway, Alan Ladd's Hollywood immortality was ensured by his starring role in the 1953 Western, Shane. He plays the archetypal Western hero - arriving at some small town from out of nowhere, speaking few words, doing the right thing (as violently as necessary), and disappearing into the sunset when his job is done, knowing that although he can fight for ordinary people, he can never be one of them. You knew that he was the good guy because he wore a white hat and he shot the bad guy, who wore a black hat. Jack Palance also contributed greatly to the film's success with his chilling portrayal of the cold-blooded gunslinger, Starrett. Originally, it had been cast to star Montgomery Clift as Shane and William Holden as Starrett, and when neither of them wanted the roles, the film was nearly abandoned, until being bought by Paramount.
After this, Alan could do almost anything he wanted in Hollywood, and by the end of his life had starred in almost eighty films, including The Big Land, All The Young Men, and The Carpetbaggers (his last role), none of which achieved quite the same level of commercial and critical success as Shane. He became possibly Hollywood's most bankable star at the height of his fame, and thanks to some shrewd property investments in Beverley Hills and Palm Springs, he finally ensured the financial security of his family for as far into the future as he cared to see.
Health Problems, Depression and Death
"I have the face of an ageing 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."
— Alan Ladd
Alan struggled all his life with illness, injuries, insomnia and depression. His childhood problems with malnutrition were noted above; the stomach illness that took him out of school stayed with him for a long time, resulting in his receiving a 4F (unfit for service) during the time of World War II. He also suffered from shingles, and became dependent on alcohol and sedatives to help him sleep. He seems to have been accident-prone: when playing football with his son, he injured his hand, and either through bad luck or neglect the wound became infected, resulting in gangrene which almost caused the hand to require amputation.
By the late fifties Alan's looks had started to go. His face was getting puffy from alcohol and substance abuse, and depression got the better of him more and more. It seems that although he did the best with his life that he could, better than anyone could ever have imagined, he never quite escaped the psychological demons laid down for him by his parents and his early life. One of the saddest stories concerns a journey by himself and Sue to Hot Springs to see if they could find anyone who had known his parents; no one remembered them. Searching for quotations online, one finds a similar theme over and over: modesty and insecurity, a touching honesty, and a feeling of finding his own success perplexing and almost unreal. One suspects that he felt he didn't deserve all the adulation he got — after all this was "Tiny", the poor bullied kid who could never get anything right. This was the boy who saw his whole world collapse over and over when he was young, and probably suspected that the same thing could happen again at any time. His frenetic work rate towards the end of his life may have been a result of his perception of himself as having a limited time as a big star, and wanting to make the most of it while it lasted.
"I'm working myself to death."
— Alan Ladd
In 1962 he was found in his home with a gunshot wound to his chest - he admitted that it was self-inflicted, but claimed, in public at least, that it was an accident. It seems clear with hindsight that it was his first suicide attempt, and his second followed on January 29, 1964, when he was fifty years old. He was found dead at home in Palm Springs, having taken a fatal overdose of alcohol and sedatives, and was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.