Alan Ladd on His Leading Ladies (1947) 🇺🇸

November 18, 2021

Laddie and the Ladies

Recently, when Susie and I were having luncheon with friends, the subject of mail received by actors came under discussion. Susie, who is almost as interested in my fan letters as I am, said that one question remained continuous, month after month. Literally thousands of girls seem to want to know what feminine characteristics most appeal to men.

So here goes Ladd, sticking his neck ‘way out! I can’t, of course, speak for any other man on earth except myself, because men are as different as women are, but at least I can describe the specific attractions that I have admired in the girls with whom I have worked in pictures.

In some respects, successful actresses share the same qualities. Each of the girls I am going to mention is lovely to look at; each has histrionic talent; each is a hard worker. I might mention here that actresses work harder than actors do. They have to be up around 5 or 5:30 in the morning because of their hairdressing and wardrobe problems, and they seldom get away from the studio until 7 or 8 in the evening. An actor jumps up thirty minutes before he has to be on the set, dresses, shaves, sometimes slaps on a pancake makeup (although I, personally, don’t wear any) — and he’s ready to go to work. When the last take of the day is in the cans, he washes and he’s ready for dinner. Lucky break for the boys.

I have just finished my part in Paramount’s “Two Years Before The Mast,” in which I worked with Esther Fernandez. Esther is one of the most intelligent and loyal girls I have met: I think a girl could benefit by trying to be like her.

I know that intelligence in a woman is supposed to be a detriment, but that is surely a canard thought up by a stupid man who was undoubtedly afraid of being shown up. I certainly admire intelligence in either man or girl, particularly if it is a courteous type of intelligence that doesn’t seek to put me back into seventh grade.

Esther reads, and remembers what she reads; she doesn’t confine her reading to any one type of book — she loves anything that’s printed. This makes her an interesting conversationalist. I love to listen to her talk.

As you know, Esther is Mexican. There is nothing that irks her more than to have someone introduce her as Spanish; she is quick to correct such a statement. I admire her loyalty to her people, to her language, to the cavalcade of her race. I think any girl who adopts an Oxford accent when she was born in Iolanthe, Kansas, just isn’t bright. One of the greatest evidences of Esther’s intelligence is her eagerness to be exactly what she is, but to be it in the greatest and most admirable degree.

Once a girl is relaxed enough to be intellectual without giving a lecture about it, I think she can ask herself, “Why don’t I be just a little naive and reserved, as Michèle Morgan is?”

I worked with Michèle in “Joan Of Paris,” the first picture she made after coming to this country. One of the initial things one observes about Michèle is that she has nice eyes — they are turquoise. But her great charm lies, not in her physical appearance, but in her quaint personality. Michèle is really a sophisticate; she knows rare food, good wines, the exotic life of continental cities before the lights went out all over the world. She has the true Frenchwoman’s flare for perfume, clothing, and unspoken coquetry; BUT, she actually blushes when startled or shocked. A blush is something you can’t feign; it either happens or it doesn’t. But when a man sees a woman blush, he has an inclination to protect her. She seems young (no matter how old she may be) and defenseless. A blush is an outward symbol of an inner state: a definite reserve. I may be wrong, but I suspect that most persons are intrigued by a woman who is charming, but just a bit aloof. One likes to think, “She’s interesting, she’d grow even more interesting as one grew to know her, but that would take time.”

Once a girl is intelligent, but also naive and a little reserved, I think she should develop a sense of humor. A sense of laughter is like a life raft: it will save you when the going gets rough and it will make you very popular with anyone who happens to be around.

Helen Walker is my idea of a girl with a gift of giggles. It’s difficult to describe a sense of humor because it’s like a million dollars: you never see the fact itself, you just notice the pleasant things it produces. I began to observe that, when she and I were working in “Lucky Jordan,” we always got excellent cooperation from the technicians. She kids everyone— not rrtaliciously, as some wits do — but kindly, and with respect for the limits to which fun must be confined. She always manages to say the right thing at the right time, with a Lou Costello twist.

She’s a great gal with a gag. She and Gail Russell started their careers at Paramount at approximately the same time, but Gail just happened to get her breaks faster. One day, Gail learned that she was to be given a dressing-room on the main floor; she no longer had to climb a flight of stairs. That sort of thing is trivial, of course, but the attainment of a superior dressing-room is one of the signs of attention from the head office and makes an actor or an actress feel good.

When Gail was established in her new quarters, Helen sent her a massive bouquet of flowers; set daintily in the very center of the bouquet was a pair of battered, step-weary, worn old shoes to which was attached a card. “Congratulations to the Star, from the mere Actress,” it read.

I’ve worked with Loretta Young in two pictures: “China” and “And Now Tomorrow,” and the thing about her that I admire and think many girls would do well to copy is the fact that she’s a great woman’s woman. She has dozens of sincere women friends; on the set she’s thoughtful of the hairdresser, the wardrobe girl, the maid.

Despite the funny feminine notion that it is smart to describe oneself as a “man’s girl who doesn’t get along very well with women,” I don’t think this statement impresses men nearly as much as it is supposed to. It leaves me, personally, stone cold. An intelligent man knows that there are likely to be times in his life when his wife’s ability to make friends of both sexes, genuine, helpful, interested friends, may influence his entire future. What guy would like to bring his boss and his boss’ wife home for dinner some evening, only to discover that The Little Woman couldn’t get on well with members of her own fraternity!

Loretta’s unfailing sponsorship of her own kind makes her a perfect wife, particularly for a man in her husband’s responsible position. It also makes Loretta a nice human being in her own right.

Veronica Lake was my leading lady in This Gun For Hire; I’d like to say for her that she has at least one characteristic that every girl should try to develop: she’s an individualist.

A good many girls seem to worry about the fact that they are small; Veronica is pint-sized, but perfect of her type. A good many girls say that the theatrical market is overstocked with blondes, yet Veronica is sunny-headed. However, Veronica had what other small girls and other blondes sometimes lack: she had a trademark. A good many thousands of words have undoubtedly been written about her unique hairdo, so I’m not going to add to the collection: I’m only using it as an example of smart showmanship. She was aware of her outstanding feature of individuality, and capitalized on it.

The thing that I noticed about Bonita Granville and heartily admired during the months we were working in “The Glass Key” was that her manners were perfect. She looks like, and is, a great lady. She always does the right thing at the right time — she’s completely mastered the technique of the beau geste. Frankly, I think her name at this time should be one of the biggest in town; there were real touches of greatness in her work. But Bonita has the face and bearing of a Roman Empress, and it may be that not until she is somewhat older, will she come into her full heritage as a superb dramatic actress. In the meantime, I think she has the greatest gift of concentration, and poise, of any young girl I know. One of the problems that most women have to overcome is a tendency to rush things, to want the future too fast, to live in next week instead of today. Such a girl should take a lesson from Bonita.

“Why don’t you develop your latent talents.’’ The best example of a girl who had every advantage, but who has continued to study in order to add another string to her bow of abilities, is Edith Fellowes. She and I worked together so many years ago that I’m not going to get out my adding machine to sum it up; we did a funny little picture called “First Romance” — which was amusing for us no matter how it was for the audience!

Edith was one of the prettiest adolescent girls I had ever seen; she was intelligent, quick on the come-back, and sensible. I don’t think I ever saw her do one silly, senseless thing all during the production of the picture. I told her that I thought she had a great future in pictures, just working along as she was. “I’m taking voice lessons, too,” she told me. “In show business, the more accomplishments you have, the more breaks you’ll get.”.

That statement is not only true of show business, but of life in general. The last time I saw Edith she was playing in the road show of “Junior Miss” and doing a wonderful job. You’ll be hearing more from her.

When I was in camp, the fellows used to ply me with questions about Hollywood. I expected them to be interested in Lamour, and Colbert, and Veronica, but I’ll admit that I was somewhat surprised to learn that they wanted to talk about Mabel Paige. She played my “pick-up” mother in “Lucky Jordan,” you remember. It goes without saying, of course, that she is a gifted actress. More than that, she is one of the most lovable human beings I have ever known. Obviously the boys sensed that warm, responsive, sympathetic quality of her nature — it translates to the screen with remarkable fidelity.

She has a great sense of humor, too. You may remember that one scene in the picture called for me to eat a meal of stew that she had prepared. Well, several days before we were set to make that scene, I happened to be discussing local restaurants with her. I mentioned that if there is anything in the world that I really can’t stand, it is lamb stew.

You guessed it: when my steaming meal was served before the camera, the bowl contained lamb stew. Mabel had explained to the assistant director who has charge of such things, that my favorite dish was lamb. Under her breath she said to me, “Now let’s see what kind of an actor you are. Let’s see you register delight over your dinner!”

Sometimes it seems to me that as women grow older they lose their light-heartedness, their joy in living. Mabel hasn’t. She probably has more fun now than she has ever had, and she adds to the pleasure of everyone around her — an excellent trait to copy.

Now that I’ve shooed Susie out of her room for a few moments and can write the following lines without having her ask me to leave them out, I can add the final characteristic that I think every girl should cultivate: the art of comradeship.

A girl can be beautiful, intelligent, humorous, sensible, individual, a credit to a man in a dozen ways, but if she lacks the knack of being a playmate and a helpmate, she won’t appeal to a man permanently. Susie is the best little pal a man ever had. If I wake up at three in the morning and say that I’m hungry, is there anything in the ice box? — Susie laughs and says she’s hungry, too, and she thinks there are some drumsticks left. If I want to go grunion hunting, Susie puts on a pair of clam diggers and gets drenched in the surf with me. She’s always around when I want her — which is the prime accomplishment of a wife.

I hope that I’ve been helpful. As I said in the beginning, a guy puts his neck out when he goes in for something like this article, but if my ideas can be put to use by some girl, and they help at all, I’ll be happy about the whole thing.

Collection: Screenland Magazine1947