The Sad Tale of Veronica Lake

A few weeks ago I indulged myself by watching, during the same evening, a couple of class examples of Film Noir, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia The first of these is based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and the second has an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Both feature the same leading actors, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, The Glass Key being the first film featuring this pairing.

There’s a pragmatic reason why Paramount Studios chose Veronica Lake to star with Alan Ladd, namely her size. Alan Ladd was quite a small man, standing  just a shade under 5′ 5″ tall, and the casting directors consequently found it difficult to locate a leading lady who didn’t tower over him. Veronica Lake, however, was only 4′ 11″ and fitted the bill nicely:

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd

It wasn’t just her diminutive stature that propelled Veronica Lake to stardom; she was also very beautiful and managed to project a screen image of cool detachment which made her a perfect choice as femme fatale, a quintessential ingredient of any Film Noir. She’s absolutely great in both the movies I watched, and in many more besides. Her looks and screen presence turned her into a true icon -a vera icon in fact- appropriately enough, because the name Veronica derives from that anagram. The cascade of blond hair, often covering one eye, became a trademark that later found its way into, for example, the character of Jessica Rabbit in the animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

However, her success as a movie star was short-lived and Veronica Lake disappeared from Hollywood entirely in the 1950s. She was rediscovered in the 1960s working as a waitress in a downmarket New York bar, and subsequently made a film called Footsteps in the Snow but it disappeared without trace and failed to revitalize her career. She died in 1973.

So why did an actress of such obvious talent experience such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Sadly, the answer is a familiar one: problems with drink and drugs, struggles with mental illness, a succession of disastrous marriages, and a reputation for being very difficult to work with. Her famous screen persona seems largely to have been a result of narcotics abuse. “I wasn’t a Sex Symbol, I was Sex Zombie”, as she wrote in her biography. She appeared to be detached, because she was stoned.

It’s a sad tale that would cast a shadow over even over the darkest Film Noir but though she paid a heavy price she still left a priceless legacy. Forty years after her death, all that remains of her is what you can see on the screen, and that includes some of the greatest movies of all time.


11 Responses to “The Sad Tale of Veronica Lake”

  1. Matthew Motyka Says:

    Also worth viewing are Preston Sturges’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941) and Rene Clair’s ‘I Married a Witch’ (1942) which show off her luminescence and witty delivery to perfection; however Lake wasn’t necessarily always the femme fatale in her noirs – if anything she’s the moral compass in ‘The Glass Key’ ’42, (only in ‘This Gun for Hire’ (’42) is her role revealed as duplicitous); whereas her wisecracking persona deserves as wide a recognition as her early peekaboo hairstyle. Sadly, Paramount altered her hairstyle in the postwar years, and her star descended.

    • telescoper Says:

      Female Noir characters are often inscrutable and mysterious rather than overtly duplicitous. I guess the point is that, wittingly or unwittingly, they tend to drive male characters rather off the rails. Actually, This Gun for Hire is next on my list to view!

  2. Here last film role…

  3. Matthew Motyka Says:

    Lake also co-produced ‘Flesh Feast’, as concentration camp survivor and scientist who feeds (the still alive) Adolf Hitler to flesh eating maggots, clearly belatedly jumping on the ‘Baby Jane’ bandwagon…

  4. Matthew Motyka Says:

    I hope you enjoy! Certainly both Brigid in ‘Maltese Falcon’, and Elsa in ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ are ‘economical with the truth’! The ‘inscrutable and mysterious’ qualities you point to are surely two defining qualities of the atmosphere of noir film itself (as they often involve investigations): heavy in paranoia and ambiguity, typically with a tortured protagonist (usually male, but occasionally female, as in ‘Mildred Pierce’ or The Reckless Moment’) spiralling down into a Dantean vision of the metropolitan underbelly, the films deliberately unsettle; also complimenting how the films occasionally depict homosexual characters (ie Gilda, Maltese Falcon, Strangers on a Train etc), which is why noirs fascinate me.

  5. Matthew Motyka Says:

    Thanks for the link, you make some fine observations: the expressionistic mise-en-scene characteristic of many noirs has been credited to the German ex-pats who entered Hollywood (Fritz Lang, Wilder etc). Did you catch last week’s radio 4 adaptation of James M Cain’s ‘Double Indemnity’ (not the same without the voices of Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson?

  6. This reminded me of a nice series of posts at Family Inequality about how hard people work to emphasize sexual dimorphism within couples, both in the movies (though not all movies) and in their own lives.

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