Alan Ladd, Bette Davis, Fredric March, Golden Age Hollywood, Hollywood sex symbols, Joan Crawford, Marlon Brando, Noir, Paramount Pictures, Preston Sturges, Sullivan's Travels, The Blue Dahlia, This Gun for Hire, Veronica Lake
Veronica Lake was in my living room yesterday morning, poised and bored, with the lissome form of a young dancer and the dead eyes of. . .well, the eyes of someone who’s seen her future.
Which, if you’re Veronica Lake, wouldn’t be a cheery vision.
Later the sultriest sex symbol of early 40s Hollywood, Constance Ockelman was kicked out of a Catholic Girl’s School for rebellious behavior (which seems to me indicative of both intelligence and possession of a spine). She moved to a high school in Miami, and then was diagnosed with mental disorders. Her mother chose not to treat the mental illness, and instead took the interesting decision of moving her beautiful, unstable daughter to Hollywood. Ockelman was enrolled in acting school, began doing rounds of auditions, and landed a few extra parts.
Things moved fast. Paramount signed her in 1941, and producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. renamed her. Veronica Lake was 18. Like most starlets put through the studio mill, she was taught how to talk, walk, smoke, simmer. She never took to the screen style known as “schmacting” (increasingly popular with Davis and Crawford as they moved through the decade, also enjoyably showcased in any Warner Bros. madhouse scene), but she didn’t seem to bother much with the actual acting, either. Did anyone ask her to? Did anyone want her to? She seems almost to have been born to enact the life of a Hollywood casualty—which she did impeccably. She had the requisite pushy mother, the dead father, the grave emotional issues.
And, in addition to her beauty, she had a natural cool magnetism. In a supporting role in 1941’s I Wanted Wings, Lake stole the picture. Then she landed her first leading role. This plum of a part was a gift from her vagarious gods, for the film was Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ second film in his own annus mirablis of ’41. Like most people nowadays, the first time I saw Lake was in this Sturges film. At the time, I didn’t know Lake was supposed to be a minor star; I didn’t know people laughed at her acting. What I saw was a cool, straight shooter with a low voice and those somber, wised-up eyes. I also saw someone who was indisputably, sui generis. In her niche, Lake’s a cool drink of water.
And her star kept rising. Lake was matched with Alan Ladd, another petite blonde with disconcerting eyes. This Gun For Hire was a smash, and they starred together in a series of 40’s noirs that matched her feline detachment with his angry isolation. Lake and Ladd were a magic, tragic pair; tiny blond beauties, box-office bonzos, and both secretly battling the bottle.
As World War II took off, Lake changed her famous “peek-a-boo” hairstyle for the war effort (apparently American women were working on tank-treads and airplane engines whilst dangling their hair in the gears; if true, a clear example of natural selection), and her box office wavered. Her marriages kept going bust, and then Lake was sued by her charming mother for financial support. Also, the studio system seemed sometimes to be challenging its stars to fail: Paramount cast Lake as a Nazi in The Hour Before Dawn, and left the Brooklynite alone to pull off a (crap) German accent. She also had a on-set accident which resulted in the death of her newborn son and the subsequent acceleration of her drinking problem. Word got around.
We know how it went; Downhill, fast. Maybe Lake couldn’t act but she was flawlessly enacting a script written by her colleagues, sex symbols of former eras. Frances Farmer, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow. Monroe did the color re-make.
Veronica Lake was a star by the age of 19 and all washed up by 27.
It probably didn’t help that, apparently, Veronica Lake was a bit of a bitch. Well! Booze and bitchery. . .who’d have expected that from a half-educated Hollywood starlet with an untreated mental illness? Even easygoing gent Joel McCrea said “life’s too short to make 2 films with Veronica Lake”—though he ended up doing so. Raymond Chandler took to calling her “Moronica” on the set of The Blue Dahlia, and Fredric March wouldn’t even mention her name to the press. March’s disdain really hurt her; she’d admired him since she was a kid. She responded by threatening to kick him in the samosas during their bed scene in I Married a Witch (a title March might’ve changed). The odd thing about Lake, people noticed, was that she seemed to half enjoy her fall from grace. To feel she deserved it somehow. Her discomfort with fame, with Hollywood, was an extension of her discomfort with the world.
But she had real cool, too. Lake taught herself to fly in 1946, and often flew herself from L.A. back home to New York. She had a lubricious affair with Marlon Brando that apparently left him reeling (to which I say: Respect). About her career, she admitted, “You could put all the talent I had into your eye, and still not suffer from impaired vision,” and “I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie”, which still is about as good a comment as any on the dehumanizing nature of star-making, and star-fucking.
By the early 50’s Lake was on T.V., and then not getting hired at all. Late in the decade, after a few more divorces, she was back in NYC and moving from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, working as a barmaid. Arrested for public drunkenness. The gutter press of the time got a hold of that and ran the story, which must’ve been pretty shameful. But Lake still had her pride: When Brando heard how hard up she was, he sent her $1000. She didn’t cash the check. Instead, she framed it.
As her mental and physical health deteriorated, she stole another idea from Louise Brooks, and pulled together a rather candid biography in 1972, Veronica. Book release parties were held for her in Hollywood. Her former colleagues were shocked at what showed up: A tiny bloated drunk, with puffy eyes and loose, blackened teeth. She was paranoid that the FBI and IRS were out to get her. And she was alone, so alone. Veronica Lake was dead the next year at 50, of hepatitis and renal failure. The booze she’d used to treat her mental illness had taken her down, ounce by ounce.
So yesterday morning I saw her, in a very early role. The Glass Key. Lissome, with that gleaming golden sheath of hair and the extraordinarily graceful, sparrow-like hands that only tiny women seem to possess–dressed in true 40s style in suit and hat and fascinator, with clips on her ears and a pin at her throat. And those eyes. Those shocking, wise eyes.
The eyes of a woman who’s being turned into a zombie and doesn’t really care.
(I meant to write about structure in plotting today, but somehow Veronica Lake took over. The connection to me was in thinking about someone being immersed in a craft without learning the nuts and bolts of it, perhaps even being told they don’t have to, and the damage that can do. Anyway, Veronica had her way with me—I am like Brando in that—and structure/plotting can wait another day.)