Tonight: Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, with Robert Preston and Laird Cregar in the crime drama This Gun for Hire.
Alan Ladd was an unlikely candidate for screen stardom.
A radio actor with a compelling voice, but slight in stature.
Ladd had been on the fringes of film since 1932 and was resigned to a career in radio.
“I’ve tried pictures,” Ladd said. “Producers tell me I’m too blonde, too short, too this, too that.” He was tired of so much rejection.
But actress turned agent Sue Carol thought otherwise. She believed in Ladd. She thought he had a future in film.
She got him small parts in Beasts of Berlin (1939), A Hal Roach programmer, Captain Caution (1940); and then nothing less than Citizen Kane (1941), as a pipe-smoking newsman, standing mostly in the shadows, with three lines, one of which was, “Or Rosebud?”
But that same year, he also appeared in Cadet Girl, Petticoat Politics and The Reluctant Dragon.
Alan Ladd’s big break came when Sue Carol learned that a director at Paramount was looking for an actor who could play a cold-blooded killer and still come off sympathetically.
In 1936, distinguished British novelist Graham Greene (whose credits included Ministry of Fear, The Fugitive and The Third Man) penned A Gun for Sale. In America, the title was changed to This Gun for Hire.
Paramount paid $12,000 to adapt the story for the screen.
The studio saw it as an Alfred Hitchcock-type thriller and announced, in mid-1936, that screenwriter, and future MGM production chief, Dore Schary, was writing a film to star Hungarian-born bug eyed Peter Lorre as “Raven,” the book’s lead character—a cold blooded, professional killer.
Initial attempts to adapt the book failed and the property was shelved until 1939 when director Frank Tuttle asked the studio if they owned anything which they had never made because of “some problem in the story that no one had been able to solve.”
The problem was Raven’s harelip, which played okay on the printed page, but not on the screen.
A facial scar was considered as an alternative, but Tuttle decided against it, because Joan Crawford had been similarly disfigured in A Woman's Face (1941).
Tuttle had to find some way to shock and repulse people who met Raven, as a way of explaining why he was so mean, and hated everyone—especially women.
The solution was a back-story. It was filmed as a dream sequence, later deleted following a preview audience’s negative reaction. Our Gang’s Dickie Jones (also the voice of Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio”) played Raven as an orphaned boy who was mistreated by a hateful aunt who beat him. One day she savagely crushed his wrist with a flatiron for stealing a piece of chocolate. In response, the youngster killed her. His wrist was left misshapen and marked him for life.
As of April 1940, actor Anthony Quinn was one of the writers working with Tuttle on the screenplay.
It was not until June, 1941, that the film’s credited writing team began their story outline: Heavyweights W.R. Burnett, whose credits included Little Caesar, Scarface and High Sierra, along with Alfred Maltz.
Like Tuttle, Maltz was a Yale grad. They also shared another affiliation—the Communist Party. But while Maltz would become one of the infamous, black listed Hollywood 10, Tuttle would testify as a star witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, concerning his Hollywood Communist affiliations—both ultimately damaging their careers.
By October 27, 1941, Paramount had finally approved the project, with the working title, The Redemption of Raven with a budget of $449,000. (The average cost of a production in Hollywood that year was $336,000.)
The real impetus for finally moving forward on the production had been the studio’s pressing need to find a suitable vehicle for their hot new property, Veronica Lake. She had just hit it big as the sex siren in Sullivan's Travels directed by Preston Sturges.
“She’s one of the little people,” Sturges enthused. “Like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Freddie Bartholomew (before he grew up), who take hold immediately with their audiences.
“She’s nothing much in real life—a quiet, rather timid little thing. But the screen transforms her, electrifies her, and brings her to life. She is, I think, the biggest bet in the business.”
High praise from one of the hottest directors in Hollywood.
Veronica Lake’s trademark was her shoulder-length, blonde, half-curtain hairstyle, falling over one eye. Many other actresses would later imitate Lake’s peek-a-boo locks, most notably Lauren Bacall, Ella Raines and Lizabeth Scott.
During World War II, the miniature blonde would become, in the words of film historian David Thomson, “a face in the dreams of American soldiers.”
On the home front, their girlfriends, working in defense plants, copied Lake’s long locks, at the cost of having their hair caught in machinery.
The government officially asked Paramount to have Lake shorten, or pull back her eye-obscuring coiffure, in order to help the war effort. It is all there in the Congressional Record.
As a teenager, the sensuous Lake was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Cited later as an explanation for her heavy drinking and promiscuity. But on the screen she was something to behold.
Her sultry, little-girl-lost style caused a sensation, although she was burdened, as one Paramount exec put it, “with more bosom than brains.”
Lake herself said, “You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision.”
It was her ambitious stage mother who made Lake enter movies, then later sued her own daughter for non-support.
Alan Ladd got the role of Raven because he was a perfect match for Veronica Lake. Together, they were a phenomenon. These two little people—she at 5’1”, and he under 5’6”. Her voice husky. His reassuring. She at 22. He, 28. Both blonde, unsmiling, inexpressive and insolent.
Both were raised fatherless, and Catholic. Perhaps they had too much in common. Off screen, there was nothing between them.
They made an unusual, but hugely popular team—this angelic anti-hero and delectable doll—starring in four films together between 1942 and 1948—plus cameos in two all-star vehicles—all for Paramount.
Right before the release of This Gun for Hire, Ladd asked his agent, Sue Carol, to marry him. Paramount discouraged this as a “disastrous” move.
“To hell with them,” he told her. “To hell with the career. We’re getting married.” He meant it too. Ladd regularly informed Carol that every film he was making would be his last.
Incidentally, they lived nearby in Holmby Hills at 323 North Mapleton Drive. Bogart was closer, at 232 South Mapleton.
The supposed leading man in tonight’s film—completely overshadowed by the smaller Ladd—was Robert Preston, star of a number of routine films, who gained fame later for his dynamic performance on Broadway in The Music Man made into a film in 1961.
For a short time, before Frank Tuttle decided on an unknown, Robert Preston was actually slated to portray Raven.
Veronica Lake was an actress of limited range so audiences didn’t believe for a moment that she had any real interest in Preston, whose undeserving character was seemingly outwitted in every scene he played.
Originally, his character had the last line in the picture, speaking of Raven, saying, “He did all right by all of us.” (Which the Production Code demanded be cut.) So the line was given to Raven, who asked Lake, “Did I do all right for you?”
For one scene, Lake was called upon to sing, dance, act and perform magic, all at the same time. She could hardly do any of those three things individually, much less at the same time.
Her singing was dubbed by Martha Spears.
The ponderous Laird Cregar nearly steals the film as the fussy, florid, double-dealing, jumbo-sized, 6’3” heavy.
Cregar was just 26. His hairline was shaved back and a mustache added to make him look older as the film’s squeamish saboteur and chief menace.
Tragically, Cregar died of a heart attack at the age of 28, after a crash diet in the hope of earning roles as a leading man.
Lake, Preston and Cregar are all laughably billed above Ladd in the closing credits.
At the start of the film, a card reads: “Introducing Alan Ladd,” even though he had already appeared in at least 30 films, including one with Laurel & Hardy, and a western made at Lone Pine.
But in a sense, this film did “introduce” Alan Ladd to audiences for the first time, because they had never before seen him portray the kind of cool character that would become his defining persona thereafter.
Also seen in bit parts in the film, stars Yvonne De Carlo and Richard Webb.
Shooting on the picture concluded on December 16—nine days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
This Gun for Hire opened at the Paramount Theater in New York on May 13, 1942.
Woody Herman and the Ink Spots were on hand for the stage show.
In its review of the film, for once Variety got it wrong, concluding, “It’s a vehicle of little importance and limited appeal. . . This Gun for Hire has difficulties ahead.”
How wrong they were. Audiences flocked to see the film—over and over again. Men loved Veronica and the ladies loved Ladd and vice versa.
Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, exclaimed: “Mr. Ladd is really an actor to watch... It is no exaggeration to say that he is the hottest new actor to hit pictures since Clark Gable.”
Paramount promptly raised Ladd’s salary from $300 a week to $750, and gave him a $5,000 bonus.
As a contract player, Veronica Lake was earning $350.
In its review, The Hollywood Reporter cited Ladd as an “important discovery...certain to be much talked about for his brilliant portrayal,” and declared moviegoers would have to search long and hard “to find more tense and gripping melodrama than This Gun for Hire.
The Harvard Lampoon had just voted Veronica Lake “The Worst new Actress of the Year.”
But Archer Winsten, writing in the N.Y. Post, was content to review, and fondly, Lake’s “truly splendid bosom.”
And The New York Daily News hailed Lake as “a woman of destiny. She combines a wink with rigor mortis. When she smiles, as she does twice in the film, hearts can be heard to break—smack—throughout the loges, and the tougher element upstairs have to shout their ecstasy.”
As time passed, film noir’s new hero and heroine lived out lives that paralleled the dark themes of their pictures. Ladd appeared in The Great Gatsby (1949), but did not make anything to surpass This Gun for Hire until George Stevens classic Shane (1953).
Ladd turned down the James Dean role in Stevens Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in 1956.
Like Lake, Ladd had a drinking problem that grew worse with time.
“Alan always held much of himself back,” Sue Carol reflected in 1975. “He felt rejected, insecure.” In 1963 Ladd shot himself. “While searching for a suspected prowler,” was the explanation offered.
Ladd’s mother had committed suicide in 1937. Hollywood insiders felt that Ladd did the same in 1964, using “a high level of alcohol combined with sleeping pills.”
Ladd was 50. Among his survivors, son Alan Ladd, Jr., who wound up a major producer and studio head.
After Veronica Lake cut her hair, she was dismissed as a novelty and Paramount dropped her.
In 1962, Chuck McCann dropped by the lounge in the Martha Washington Hotel on Manhattan’s East 29th Street and ordered a cup of coffee.
The voice of the waitress behind the counter sounded familiar, but when he looked up all he saw were unfamiliar wrinkles.
“You know,” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you look like Veronica Lake.”
The waitress leaned forward and said, “I am Veronica Lake.”
She returned to Hollywood in 1971 and told a reporter, “If I had stayed in Hollywood I would have ended up like Alan Ladd and Gail Russell—dead and buried by now.”
Veronica Lake died two years later of acute hepatitis, at the age of 53.
Seven years ago, her ashes were found in the inventory of a New York antique store.
So now--from 1942—
The film noir classic
This Gun for Hire.