Alan Ladd

September 3 (1913) is the birthday of well-known actor Alan Ladd. He played many different kinds of roles, but to me he will always be Shane. 

He was born Alan Walbridge Ladd in Hot Springs, Arkansas, an only child. His father died when he was four, and his mother moved them to Oklahoma City. She remarried and they all moved to the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles. 

He graduated from North Hollywood High School, where he had become a swimming and diving champion and had acted in high school plays. After high school he held a variety of jobs and worked as a part-time studio carpenter. He attended Universal Picture’s school for actors, but Universal dropped him because he was too blonde and too short – he was probably only about 5’6”, but reports vary. Still, he was definitely short by Hollywood standards. 

He performed in small theaters, got a few minor parts at MGM and RKO, and found work in radio. He was picked up by an agent, Sue Carol, and she got him a role in the 1939 film “Rulers of the Sea”. After that he continued to get more small roles in films. 

His big break came in the 1942 movie “This Gun for Hire”, in which he played a hit man with a conscience. He developed a persona as a smooth, cool, calm, unsmiling man of hardness. And many important roles followed. He became a star. 

When you watch him in movies, you might wonder how directors compensated for his height. He was often paired with Veronica Lake, who was only 5’1”. And Jean Arthur was just 5’3”. But Sophia Loren was 5’9”. Van Heflin was 6’0”, Hugh O’Brien 6’1”, Ben Johnson 6’2”, and Jack Palance 6’4”. Outdoors, directors could dig little holes for costars to stand in or pile up some dirt for Ladd to stand on or build a little stool. Camera angles could also compensate. 

Ladd made many pictures.  “Saskatchewan” (1954) is a colorful favorite of mine. But look at the variety of the many well-known films of his: “The Glass Key” (1943), “Two Years before the Mast” (1946), “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), “O.S.S.” (1946), “Whispering Smith” (1948), “The Great Gatsby” (1949), “The Iron Mistress” (1952), “Botany Bay” (1953), “The Black Knight” (1954), “The McConnell Story” (1955), “Boy on a Dolphin” (1957), “All the Young Men” (1960) and many more. 

But THE film I remember him for is “Shane” (1953). It was based on the 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer. Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon deWilde, Jack Palance, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Ben Johnson. Ladd plays a soft-spoken, but skilled, mysterious gunfighter who wanders into a lonely valley in Wyoming and tries to start a new life with a family he meets. There is some sort of attraction between Shane and the wife, even given their obvious difference over the presence of guns in the valley. But there is a war going on between the big rancher in the valley and the homesteaders. Violence ensues, and Shane is the agent who resolves it. But he realizes he cannot stay. “There’s no living with a killing.” The final scene is an absolute tearjerker. It was reported that even the cast and crew were moved by it.  

The film was very successful. It’s a classic. Woody Allen said the movie “…is a great movie and can hold its own with any film, whether it’s a Western or not.” 

In 1993, Shane was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". 

Ladd married Marjorie Harrold in 1936, but they divorced in 1941. They had a son, Alan Ladd, Jr. in 1937. In 1942 he married his agent, Sue Carol. They had two children: Alana Ladd, 1943 and David Ladd, 1947.   

Do you notice Ladd is wearing a ring on his left hand in the photo of Shane? After he married Sue Carol he refused to ever remove his wedding ring - even when making movies. So prop men made up a variety of over-size rings to clamp over his much smaller wedding ring. Ladd had promised Sue he would never take his wedding ring off – and he never did. 

Alan Ladd died on January 29, 1964 of an overdose of a combination of a high level of alcohol and three depressant drugs. There was a debate about whether it was suicide or not. The official verdict was accidental. Yet he had tried to shoot himself to death two years earlier. And he was well known to be depressed regularly, getting worse as his insecurities weighed on him. He was only 50 years old when he died.