Tag Archives: Alan Ladd

The Great Gatsby (1949, Elliot Nugent)

The Great Gatsby can get away with a lot thanks to lead Alan Ladd, much of it related to the adaptation. Gatsby, the film, does open with “narrator” Macdonald Carey—set in the present, with Carey reminiscing on the grand old Jazz Age. Of course, the Jazz Age looks a little different in Carey’s memories because the movie’s post-Code and it wasn’t allowed to actually recreate the Jazz Age styles. The lack of style accuracy doesn’t matter much; the parties aren’t important. Ladd’s Gatsby is a quiet, contemplative wallflower; see, the screenplay (by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) gives Ladd a sympathetic backstory. He only became a bootlegger because some rich widow (an oddly uncredited Carole Mathews) screws him out of his inheritance; her much-older husband (Henry Hull in a really fun performance) saw potential in Ladd and wanted to give him a leg up. Then, of course, there was the War. Ladd’s Gatsby is a war hero.

It’s before the War and after the old man mentorship Ladd meets Kansas City socialite Betty Field. Ladd’s just an enlisted man, bound for Europe and the trenches, but it’s Kansas City and he can get into the parties in his uniform. The flashback to their meeting doesn’t come until the film’s introduced both Ladd and Field in the present. Well, 1928 flashback present anyway. It adds something to both of them. Even though Ladd’s had a bunch of personality in the film so far, this tender side of him—he’s not violent in the present, but he’s got to be capable of violence—but this version of him with Field doesn’t have that capacity yet. And Field has zero personality in the present, so any helps.

At its best, The Great Gatsby is a lousy novel adaptation but a good “gangster goes straight” vehicle for Ladd. He does a vague tough guy routine with everyone until Field comes along and then he’s a sap. What’s so impressive about Ladd’s performance is he’s able to moon over Field even though they haven’t got any chemistry together. You think Field’s just incapable of it, but then she plays really well with estranged husband Barry Sullivan; odd because Field and Ladd are running away that point, when she and Sullivan finally click, performance-wise. Because the film’s not really set up to be the story of the characters from the novel, it’s far more interested in Ladd’s bootlegging days, with Ed Begley as his crotchety older partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as his sidekick (a kid who Ladd saved in the War and went with him from medals of valor to killing rival gangs). It’s more interested in the flashbacks to Ladd with Hull and Mathews. The screenplay feels looser in those scenes, like it’s not trying to hit a particular beat.

The two big problems with the film are the main supporting actors—Field, Carey, Sullivan, Ruth Hussey—and the direction. Nugent’s never quite good enough to do anything with the film. He does an adequate job, but he’s always zigging when he should zag. He’s got these one-shot close-ups he uses in the middle of conversations and they always kill the scene. Maybe some of it’s on Ellsworth Hoagland’s, but most of it’s on Nugent. He’s not interested in what the characters have to say and given how talky things get in the final third… it hurts the film.

Now the cast. So Ladd’s great. He showed up to work and he does. He gives Gatsby two hundred percent, which makes up for a lot, but still isn’t enough. Because the supporting cast is a stinker. Sullivan’s the best, but only because he occasionally is able to roll the thin characterization into a hybrid caricature—angry jock blue-blood unfaithful jilted husband—and find some true connection. But he’s not any good, not really. He’s able to overcome. Meanwhile Hussey tries her damndest and never makes it work but points for trying. Carey and Field are miscast and poorly directed. Field’s got no charisma. It might be some of the Code issues, it might be the script, it’s definitely partially on Nugent. But Field’s demure in the wrong way, especially given she’s got such a big part.

Carey’s pseudo-earnest, but he’s not ambitious in his performance. It needs some ambition. Some energy.

Again, Ladd can carry it through—the film’s only ninety minutes—but it’s a shame, even with all the constraints, the movie doesn’t have better direction, better casting; Ladd deserves more than a compromised production.

Oh, speaking of compromise, nice photography from John F. Seitz. He’s got to work with a lot of composites, some awkward framing, but he establishes a rather solid palette for the film. Just wish Nugent where a little better.

Gatsby’s a missed opportunity.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elliott Nugent; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on Owen Davis’s play of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by Robert Emmett Dolan; produced by Maibaum; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Gatsby), Betty Field (Daisy), Macdonald Carey (Nick), Ruth Hussey (Jordan Baker), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Elisha Cook Jr. (Klipspringer), Ed Begley (Lupus), Howard Da Silva (Wilson), Henry Hull (Dan Cody), Carole Mathews (Ella Cody), and Shelley Winters (Myrtle).



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China (1943, John Farrow)

China has a lot to do. While it’s a propaganda picture meant to rally American support for the Chinese, it’s also propaganda for the future of China. Loretta Young plays a school teacher and her charges, in almost every one of their scenes, extol the virtues of Western democracy.

There’s also the redemptive aspect for Alan Ladd’s apolitical war profiteer.

But dismissing or discrediting China as a propaganda picture is a mistake. It’s an amazing war film; it’s exceptionally rough action film. For every weak propaganda moment, there’s a fantastic subtle one. The performances from Ladd and Young are outstanding. William Bendix plays Ladd’s sidekick and carries China for a bit at the beginning. It takes the script a while to get comfortable with Ladd, since he’s so unlikable.

The film opens with an incredibly long tracking shot. Farrow does a great job directing China, with the opening tracking shot one of the many wow moments. It shows a village’s destruction (from Japanese bombs) while introducing Bendix and giving him a little story arc. It’s masterful.

The effects keep up the rest of the run time.

Farrow never brings attention to China‘s accelerated pace. It takes place over approxmiately forty-eight hours. The time crunch leads to some painfully obvious exposition to introduce characters. It’s a necessary evil, though no one fars too badly. The fast pace and frequent set pieces make the film a thrill ride, but there’s still a lot of content.

China ably transcends its propaganda.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Farrow; screenplay by Frank Butler, based on a play by Archibald Forbes; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by Eda Warren; music by Victor Young; produced by Richard Blumenthal; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Loretta Young (Carolyn Grant), Alan Ladd (David Jones), William Bendix (Johnny Sparrow), Philip Ahn (Lin Cho, First Brother), Iris Wong (Kwan Su), Victor Sen Yung (Lin Wei, Third Brother), Marianne Quon (Tan Ying), Jessie Tai Sing (Student), Richard Loo (Lin Yun), Irene Tso (‘Donald Duck’), Ching Wah Lee (Chang Teh), Soo Yong (Tai Shen), Beal Wong (Capt. Tao-Yuan-Kai), Bruce Wong (Aide to Captain Tao) and Barbara Jean Wong (Nan Ti).


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The Glass Key (1942, Stuart Heisler)

The Glass Key‘s a murder mystery, but its solution–and even its investigation–is incidental to the rest of the picture. From about seven minutes in, director Heisler defines Key as something quite different. Leading man Alan Ladd isn’t a detective, he isn’t even particularly interested in solving the murder.

Seven minutes in is when Ladd has his first scene with Veronica Lake. Lake plays the object of Ladd’s best friend’s affection–Brian Donlevy’s the best friend–and Ladd just stares at her. It’s a discomforting scene, Heisler and editor Archie Marshek do such an outstanding job. The film’s not exactly a love triangle, because it’s too busy being a friendship movie. But not exactly….

Key is very hard to describe. Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay has a lot of great dialogue and outstanding characters; Heisler does a fantastic job filming it. Latimer, Heisler and Ladd create a somewhat bad guy in the lead. Ladd does some rather despicable things in the picture, sometimes to people who deserve it, sometimes to people who probably don’t. And he smiles his way through all of them and still manages to be above reproach.

The film also has an amazing supporting cast, whether it’s heart-broken little Bonita Granville, sadistic closet case William Bendix, calm mobster Joseph Calleia, wormy politico Donald MacBride or just Frances Gifford’s bemused nurse. Every performance is perfect, especially the leads.

Its little moments are more profound than its entirety, but overall it’s just meant to entertain anyway.

Key is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Theodor Sparkuhl; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Ed Beaumont), Brian Donlevy (Paul Madvig), Veronica Lake (Janet Henry), Bonita Granville (Opal Madvig), Richard Denning (Taylor Henry), Joseph Calleia (Nick Varna), Moroni Olsen (Ralph Henry), William Bendix (Jeff), Eddie Marr (Rusty), Arthur Loft (Clyde Matthews), Margaret Hayes (Eloise Matthews), Donald MacBride (Farr) and Frances Gifford (Paul’s nurse).


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O.S.S. (1946, Irving Pichel)

Pichel does such a good job with the majority of O.S.S., it’s a surprise how ineptly he handles the jingoistic last scene. It’s a WWII patriotism picture (is there a proper term for this genre?), so that last scene is requisite, but Pichel could have at least made it work. Instead, he hangs the film out to dry.

O.S.S. runs long, but in a good way. It takes almost a full half hour before Alan Ladd and his fellow espionage agents are dropped into occupied France. The film opens with Ladd, but quickly shift gears to follow Patric Knowles as he puts together the team. When it does bring Ladd back in, it’s after leading lady Geraldine Fitzgerald is introduced.

While Ladd holds the film (and he’s the one most injured by Pichel’s wrong-headed finale, right after his best scene), Fitzgerald is sort of the secret weapon. She’s absolutely fantastic, making some of the creakier scenes work. Ladd–we learn twenty-five minutes in–is sexist. It’s contrived and writer Richard Maibaum never quite makes it work, but since the scenes are with Fitzgerald, she brings them through.

Pichel’s direction is great; he’s able to handle the thriller elements, the repetitious spy scenes but also the dramatic ones. His composition is strong and he makes great use of the sets. Lionel Lindon’s photography helps.

There are a couple great supporting performances–John Hoyt as an odious Nazi and Harold Vermilyea as an opportunistic one.

The film very nearly works.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Pichel; written and produced by Richard Maibaum; director of photography, Lionel Lindon; edited by William Shea; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof and Heinz Roemheld; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (John Martin), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Elaine Duprez), Patric Knowles (Cmdr. Brady), John Hoyt (Col. Paul Meister), Gloria Saunders (WAC Operator Sparky), Richard Webb (Partker), Richard Benedict (Bernay), Harold Vermilyea (Amadeus Brink) and Don Beddoe (Gates).


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