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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake was one of those hard-luck gals that had no business getting mixed up in the showbiz jungle. Talk about chewed up and spit out! Difference is Veronica knew how to chew back, leaving lots of beaten but unbowed enemies behind when she finally quit the battlefield upon her premature death (at 51) in 1973. So the thing people talk about, if they talk about her at all, is the Peekaboo hairstyle, and how she cut it off for the war effort (war working femmes were getting theirs caught in machinery). This may be more myth than truth, but one thing’s sure --- cutting that hair was cutting a lifeline between Veronica and her paying public --- and the decline from there was precipitous. Till then, she was quite the 5’ 1’’ package, weighing in at less than 100 lbs., and the object of what she candidly, and publicly, referred to as the masturbatory fantasies of every male in the country. Well, you'd not sustain a career long on just that, especially if you were as haughty and off-putting as Veronica could sometimes be. Later inquiries revealed she was actually a paranoid schizophrenic, which goes a long way toward explaining some of the wildly irrational behavior that ultimately put her career against the shoals. At the lower ebbs, she used to lie in her room all day listening to the Miklos Rozsa soundtrack album for Spellbound (some creepy theremin numbers). No, I’m not making this stuff up, and yes, it does get worse.

I suspect a lot of the treatment Veronica needed was unavailable in those days when she was spiraling down the Frances Farmer highway toward oblivion. Paramount underpaid and exploited her, as was their custom, but she gave as good as she got, and didn’t even wait for stardom’s opening bell to stage her rebellions against studio authority. She’d walked off her breakthrough pic, I Wanted Wings, then drove over a snowbank in an effort to get to the husband she’d secretly married --- studio detectives found her laid up and unrepentant in a hospital. VL was one star who could go to the fish market without concern over fan intrusions --- as long as she braided or otherwise concealed the hair. Studio employees agreed to a man that Veronica was very much a plain Jane without the full beauty treatment, but once she came out of make-up --- look out! --- the star was born. They also dubbed her the most obstreperous b-i-t-c-h on the lot --- not since Joe Von Sternberg had anyone at Paramount
been so despised. A clash with would-be seducer Fredric March made a permanent enemy of him, though she did cement fast friendships with tyro directors Preston Sturges and Rene Clair. Her mother claimed Veronica "tossed me out like an old shoe" and sued. Veronica herself took a flyer on motherhood and hated it. The accounts of her child rearing are pretty horrific. "Veronica Lake’s hair blamed in fisticuffs" were the sort of headlines Paramount dreaded, but you'd need a twenty-four hour guard to keep Veronica away from low dives she frequented and the unsavory types often brought home from same. These dark alley sojourns walked hand-in-hand with visits to the White House (Eleanor Roosevelt privately informed Veronica of FDR’s final illness months before its public disclosure). The studio was getting fed up and all of a sudden pulled the rug out on the good parts. When Eddie Bracken’s your romantic vis-à-vis, what’s a girl to do? Her drinking was chronic, husbands went from bad to worse (one was House Of Wax director Andre De Toth), and the skids got slicker.

Post-war Paramount was like a Gong Show of failed starlets, each venturing forth with the studio band sounding in their wake, only to be met with resounding patron indifference. Remember Mary Hatcher, Mona Freeman, Joan Caulfield? Well, some of us do, but these were marginal names even then, and yet one and all, they were threats to Veronica Lake, particularly Caulfield, who schemed, successfully, to purloin Veronica’s star dressing room (seems Joan was a very good friend of Bing Crosby, using his studio clout to trump her rival). De Toth set up a few independent projects for the wife in response to Paramount’s inattention, and Ramrod, with Joel McCrea (well sick of Lake’s behavior by this time), is actually a very good western. From there, the work was catch-and-catch-can. Early television was the port of last resort --- appearances on Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre, then a Sid Caesar show --- pawning her jewelry in the afternoon, then live TV at night. She trod the boards as Peter Pan (!) with The Rogue Song’s Lawrence Tibbett as Captain Hook (hey, I bet he was pretty good in that!). Meanwhile, the drinking was altogether out of control, and her now-adolescent son aroused the local constabulary when he went after Veronica’s then-current husband with a butcher knife. She was running Barbara Payton a close second for degrading public spectacledom. Was it any surprise for press hounds when they found Lake at a hotel bar --- cocktail waitressing? The confessional memoirs weren’t long in coming --- nor was a low-grade horror film (Flesh Feast), the bane of so many fading actresses during the sixties. She stunned genial daytime host Mike Douglas by referring to herself as a "sex zombie", but she was game for stage work all the way to the finish --- imagine Veronica as Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, with Bronco’s Ty Hardin as Stanley! Twern’t Lunt and Fontaine, but boy, would I love to have been there! Hepatitis took VL out within a few years after. There was a comeback of sorts when her name cropped up as a plot device in the recent L.A. Confidential, but no one went running for Veronica’s old films, and even today, there’s only a couple of them on DVD.

These portraits of Veronica speak for themselves. She probably spent twice the time sitting for such as was clocked in front of a movie camera. Here's one actress that really looks best in stills. "Hold your hats, folks, and await a surprise", says the breathless caption on this Sullivan’s Travels portrait ---reams of publicity accompanied the offbeat casting of VL in her "hobo boy" get-up. This is hands-down Veronica's greatest legacy --- the only bonifide classic she ever got in. The moody shot with Fredric March (in I Married A Witch) reflects the distance maintained by the two after Veronica rebuffed horndog Fred’s unwelcome advances. According to studio wags, all he got for his efforts was a foot in the groin (yipes!). The powerhouse trio of So Proudly We Hail includes Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard
. Veronica’s glacier-like moods put the kibosh on close relations with co-stars, but she had the distinct advantage here over distinctly mature war nurses Claudette and Paulette, both by years her senior. Frequent partner (but not off-screen) Alan Ladd liked ‘em real short, so Veronica was a little bit of leading lady heaven for the diminutive star. Here they are in The Blue Dahlia, and again doing a radio gig, which was sheer hell for mike fright beset Veronica, whose discomfort with the broadcast format is all too apparent here (Ladd, on the other hand, was a seasoned vet of the airwaves).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I pulled back the Veronica Lake tresses from my eyes, I noticed you mentioned Joan Caulfield. Had you ever heard the theory about her influence on J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"? Supposedly at the time Mr. Salinger was writing his classic coming-of-age tale, Ms. Caulfield starred in a picture with William Holden, called "Dear Wife". You might remember that the hero of Salinger's story had a brother who went to Hollywood to be a writer. The boy decries the "phony" stories that Hollywood was putting out at the time. Well one of the contemporary movies was "Dear Wife" which starred:

William Holden
Joan Caulfield

And that was the billing as printed on the posters. "William" and "Joan" in somewhat smaller letters; HOLDEN CAULFIELD standing out. "Holden Caulfield", of course, is the name of the Salinger's protaganist; and some ventured that he got the name from this movie poster. I believe he denied it, but it's certainly an interesting coincidence; and if nothing else, is an argument for the power of the subliminal.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've only ever seen the one movie with Veronica Lake in it and I can't remember the name of it. Some sort of collection of all the stars doing song and dance numbers and she was in a scene with singing in an tropical island getup and I remember thinking a couple of things one that she was tiny, and the second that she looked uncomfortable doing that number.

12:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Marco! I never knew about that Salinger connection --- what a fascinating theory --- sounds plausible to me.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also remember reading somewhere that Salinger has always been a sort of unwilling fan of romantic old b&w movies...

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, John -- I"m just scanning-this for the first time, two-years later. It's ironic that I just left a comment on your "L&H Blog", in which I mentioned Dad's friend, agent Mitchell Gertz, who apparently was not-only handling Laurel & Hardy at the tail-end, but also around that same-time, Lake. I only just remember Stu mentioning her name as one of his(Gertz') clients. But what prompted me to leave a kind-of P.S. here ,is your mention of Joan Caulfield. I got to know rather well, during the time I was going to college(!) Wait, I'm not THAT old! I was working these various jobs (as we all did) around Beverly Hills, in dept. stores, what-have-you, and Joan, Ms. Caulfield, was one of my "regulars". (Even as I'm writing this, I'm smiling because it seems so funny now). She was a very nice lady, but maybe was a little "too nice", if you understand me. I think I understood why she was being quite-so- friendly, but I was like 21, or so, and she then seemed , shall we say, a tad on the old side for me. But, don't get me wrong, she was still glamorous, oh yes, very glamorous, just a tad on the old side. We did talk about her days at Paramount -- I told her how much I enjoyed her in "Dear Ruth",& she told me, I recall, how much she enjoyed working with Edward Arnold, and what a distinctive-laugh he had. I have nothing but pleasant-memories of her. But, I always felt that that name, "Holden Caulfield", was a little-too coincidental! R.J.

11:17 PM  

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