American actor Alan Ladd (1913–1964) emerged as one of the most bankable movie stars in 1940s-era Hollywood and gained enduring fame by being cast in the title role of the classic western film Shane. Popular with audiences for his cool blond screen presence, Ladd built his career playing villainous-charmer types in gritty film-noir dramas during the World War II years. He forged an especially appealing on-screen chemistry with flaxen-tressed siren Veronica Lake.
Film star Alan Ladd spent much of his career under contract to Paramount Studios and secured his status as a leading man in 1942 with a breakthrough role in This Gun for Hire, a gritty underworld drama that first paired him with Hollywood star Veronica Lake. The film that ensured Ladd's status as one of the most iconic screen heroes in American film, however, was Shane, a 1953 Western in which his title character turns up in a community torn apart by injustice, rights a few wrongs, then vanishes once again into a vast Technicolor landscape that won the film's cinematographer an Academy Award.
Born on September 3, 1913, Alan Walbridge Ladd was the only child of an accountant who suffered a fatal heart attack in front of his four-year-old son in 1917. Ladd's mother, Ina Raleigh Ladd, was an English immigrant who had been in the United States for roughly a decade by the time she became a 30-year-old widow with a young son to support. Ladd was born and spent his early childhood in the thriving resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. A series of preventable tragedies, financial disasters, and alcohol-soaked dramas figured in his upbringing; while they propelled him to success in his chosen career, few people knew the full details of his dysfunctional family history.
Shortly before his fifth birthday, Ina left Ladd at home alone with a playmate. When the boys discovered a box of matches they narrowly escaped the fire that burned down their apartment house. Forced to leave town, Ina moved the family to Oklahoma City, where she married housepainter James Beavers. In 1920 the trio moved to California, a four-month journey made in a barely drivable Ford Model T. Ladd later remembered this as a period of deprivation and food scarcity during which they spent time harvesting potatoes as migrant laborers in Arizona. Arriving in Pasadena, California, they lived in an encampment for homeless families that were living out of their cars until Beavers found steady work as a painter of film-studio sets.
In early 1930, Ladd began classes at North Hollywood High School, where he excelled in track and field athletics and became an especially gifted swimmer and diver. His typical adolescent growth spurt had been stunted due to malnourishment, prompting classmates to give him the nickname “Tiny” despite the fact he was a year or two older than others in his grade. Handsome and diligent, Ladd found that with proper athletic training his size lent him an advantage in certain sports. Apart from sports, his favorite pastime was visiting the El Portal movie house, a cinema that was still standing near the intersection of Lankershim Boulevard and Weddington Street eight decades after Ladd graduated from high school in 1934.
Ladd's earliest roles came when he was a high-school athlete whose collection of swim trophies gained him minor renown. Signed by low-budget horror-thriller studio Universal Pictures, he appeared in a slew of uncredited bit parts beginning with Tom Brown of Culver in 1932. After graduating, he opened a small hamburger stand called Tiny's Patio in North Hollywood. In the pre-interstate era, North Hollywood consisted of scattered exurban communities on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, wedged roughly between present-day Van Nuys and Burbank. Ladd's stepfather's health had been debilitated by paint fumes and his mother was a heavy drinker with boundary issues and a history of financial imprudence. Tiny's Patio was Ladd's attempt to employ his parents and provide a steady income for the household. When it failed, he concentrated his efforts on finding acting jobs in Hollywood.
In October of 1936, Ladd wed Marjorie “Midge” Harrold, the sister of a high-school classmate. The couple hoped to keep their marriage a secret for the first few months while Ladd struggled to establish a career in radio plays, but they broke the news after a few months when Midge became pregnant. Their son Alan Jr. was born on October 22, 1937, and shortly after that the Ladds moved into a rental on North Morrison Avenue near North Hollywood Park. Ina, who had disappeared for a time after receiving a survivors'-benefit insurance payout following the death of Ladd's stepfather, now returned and moved in with the couple. Ladd and his mother quarreled regularly about money and her alcohol use. One evening she pleaded for a few nickels and promised him she would not to spend it on alcohol. Instead she bought arsenic-laced ant paste, which she ingested while sitting in his car in the driveway of the North Morrison Avenue address. Ina died horrifically in front of Ladd and his wife on November 29, weeks after the birth of her first grandchild.
Ladd's fortunes improved after his solid performances in several radio plays caught the attention of a woman who was starting a new Hollywood talent agency. Hailing from an affluent Chicago family and going by the name of Sue Carol, she had been a bit-part contract player in the late 1920s and had made some advantageous connections through her friendship with Dixie Lee, the wife of crooner Bing Crosby. Carol worked assiduously to land solid film roles for Ladd, and his bit part in Rulers of the Sea, a 1939 naval drama, helped propel him into small roles in 14 feature films released during 1940. In 1941 his film credits included a brief appearance near the end of Orson Welles's classic Citizen Kane as “Pipe-smoking reporter.”
Sue Carol was instrumental in ginning up publicity for her handsome client, even writing articles about him for Photoplay magazine, which she published using a pen name. Their professional relationship turned personal at some point, and Ladd eventually left Midge and “Laddie,” as they called their young son. He married Carol, who was ten years his senior, and the couple had two children of their own. Meanwhile, Ladd signed with Paramount in mid-1941 and studio bosses gave him one of the leads in This Gun for Hire, an April 1942 release that became his breakout role. Based on a bestselling noir novel, A Gun for Sale by espionage-tale master Graham Greene, the film featured Ladd as Philip Raven, a psychopathic hitman who undertakes vicious assignments for corrupt politicians and venal tycoons. Raven's cautious friendship with a dancer played by long-tressed blonde newcomer Veronica Lake turned both unknown hopefuls into bankable stars virtually overnight.
Paramount rushed Ladd and Lake into a new project, The Glass Key, which arrived in movie theaters in October of 1942. Its script was drafted by noir novelist Raymond Chandler, working from a decade-old Dashiell Hammett novel. Ladd also earned positive reviews for another Chandler screenplay, Lucky Jordan, in which he was cast in the title role as another smoothly sinister underworld figure. By now, World War II was underway, and he was maneuvered in and out of military service, aided in part by studio executives who worked to keep one of the most exciting new box-office draws safe from death or dismemberment.
After starring in Calcutta and My Favorite Brunette, both released by Paramount in 1947, Ladd appeared in his first Western, 1948's Whispering Smith. That same year he made his final appearance opposite Lake in Saigon, and was cast in a much-anticipated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Released in 1949, The Great Gatsby was savaged by critics, causing Ladd to battle with Paramount executives over the terms of his contract extension.
Shane was one of Ladd's final films for the studio and it became an instant classic and box-office success in 1953, even meriting a nomination for Best Picture at the 1954 Academy Awards. Set in Wyoming Territory just after the U.S. Civil War, Shane featured Ladd in the title role as a gunslinger determined to help local settlers live peaceably on turf where only the most felonious cattle barons seemed to prosper. The film paired his character with Jean Arthur, playing a love interest with a young son named Joey, and a young Jack Palance as a sociopathic and ruthless new threat to the stability of a rural community already divided by lingering regional tensions. Child actor Brandon de-Wilde delivered the film's memorable final line, imprinting the name Shane on American popular culture for decades to come.
Heralded as one of the best Westerns ever produced by a Hollywood studio, Shane was one of director George Stevens's Technicolor masterpieces. Writing six decades later, in an essay on Hollywood's stylization of the American West, historian Wyn Wachhorst pointed out that Stevens does not let the Grand Tetons appear in any shot in which one of the film's multiple villains has screen time. He also signals the title character's yearning for a safe home and loving family via quiet details, including interactions with deWilde and Arthur. “Majestic and remote, isolated and lonely like Shane himself, the mountains are the haven from which he descends and to which he ultimately returns,” Wachhorst declared in the Southwest Review. Ladd's title character, Wachhorst continued, it “contains all the opposites inherent in the western myth: nature and culture, freedom and limits, independence and connection, past and future, West and East, material and spiritual, the anarchic world of male savagery and the civilized world of woman and home.”
Shane would have been a tidy end to Ladd's film career, but he formed his own production company and soldiered onward for another decade. His film credits from this point include Hell below Zero, a 1954 crime thriller set in icy Antarctic seas, and Boy on a Dolphin, a 1957 project that marked Italian star Sophia Loren's English-language debut in addition to being the first Hollywood studio film shot on location in Greece.
Unfortunately, the celebrity-obsessed tabloid press that Ladd's wife Carol had once used to their advantage now began to turn on Ladd, observing with some frequency how rapidly his photogenic presence seemed to be eroding. In fact, by his mid-40s he was beset by health issues that were exacerbated by his alcohol use. He became increasingly despondent and in November of 1962 was discovered on his Hidden Valley Lake ranch with a serious gunshot wound to his chest, which he barely survived. After initial reports that the wound was caused by a gun-cleaning accident, Ladd claimed that he had heard what he thought was a midnight prowler and removed the pistol he kept in a bedside table. He told reporters that the gun must have gone off when he tripped over his sleeping dog.
After enduring press reports that he had undergone plastic surgery prior to his appearance in the 1964 Paramount film The Carpetbaggers, based on a popular novel by Harold Robbins, Ladd retreated to his vacation home in Palm Springs, California. He died there, in his sleep, from a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol on January 29, 1964, aged 50. His younger son, David Ladd, had a career as a child actor during the 1950s and '60s, and his older son Alan Ladd, Jr.—still dubbed “Laddie” in the Hollywood press—enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a top studio executive.
Linet, Beverly, Ladd: A Hollywood Tragedy: The Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd, Arbor House, 1979.
New York Times June 7, 1942, John R. Franchey, “The Gent Is Alan Ladd, the Calculating Trigger-Man in ‘This Gun for Hire,’” p. X4; January 30, 1964, “Alan Ladd, Actor, Dies at 50.”
Southwest Review, winter 2013, Wyn Wachhorst, “Come Back, Shane! The National Nostalgia,” p. 12.