A star who rose faster than his billing, Alan
Ladd is here in a secondfeatured part, The Glass Key inarguably his show even
as Brian Donlevy and VeronicaLake took precedence on
marquees (or did they? I'd wager most theatres put Ladd first). He had been
around awhile, but Ladd's rise sure seemed overnight. Upper-placed Donlevy, and
Robert Preston from This Gun For Hire, were transparent beside him, Preston avenging the slight in much later interviews
where he spoke of Laddie propped up, or lead ladies stood in holes, to
accommodate his slight stature. It sure had sound of Preston still smarting
over the long-ago show Ladd stole from him. Being it's such an issue, and a
first point raised whenever his name comes up, I'd note Ladd's actual height at
just over 5'6", though some allege 5'5", and army records (he served)
say 5'7". As-big male stars hovered around this (James Cagney, Edward G.
Robinson). Audie Murphy was evidently shorter than Ladd, and I'd doubt anyone
(who wanted to live) challenged Audie about it.
Audiences rooted more anyhow for smaller guys who
could take punishment plus deal it out. Ladd does both in The Glass Key,
ritually beaten by William Bendix in probably best-recalled aspect of the film,
and scoring quick defeat of six-foot Richard Denning by kicking him in the
shins. Ladd could fight dirty and make same OK when the opponent was way bigger.
To do so on even terms couldn't be believed. Cagney laid same sort of sucker
punch on Dennis Morgan in Captains Of The Clouds, adding a line (ad-libbed?)
that here's a guy too big to mess with, so better polish him off fast, if not
sportsmanlike. Ladd got round hulkier menace with speed, a natural athleticism
making his fights at times look like martial arts. Saddest thing about 50's
decline was loss of that quick response and cat-like grace. Still, they liked
Ladd in action even past the end. I foundnumerous NC drive-in ads right
through the 60's, well after his death, that offered Guns Of The Timberland,
Drum Beat, The Deep Six, Hell On Frisco Bay, others as second features if not
at top of outdoor bills.
Donlevy's signature had been, would remain,
McGinty, that being comedy, but potent enough so that the actor, close as he'd
get in the early 40's to being a character star, played his Glass Key politico
at boisterous pitch to ease Ladd's theft of our interest. The film's setting is
very indefinite, no major city indicated or even nearby. Ladd's "Ed
Beaumont" threatens to leave for New
York, but we never know how far his trip would be. Donlevy's
nakedly corrupt rule of municipal life might score higher on cynicism's meter
were it played more credibly, but all of what happens here is so outlandish
as to invite the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup mode for a capper. We almost forget
The Glass Key will be a murder mystery until Richard Denning's corpse turns up.
Despitehaving seen the thing at least three times, I always forget who
the killer turns out to be. Dashiell Hammett wrote the source novel, which Paramount owned from the
30's and had made into a movie once before (with George Raft in 1935).
"Little Miss Dynamite" Veronica Lake,
so billed by advertising, is here to partner Ladd, encore teaming understood as
a sure thing even before This Gun For Hire was released. Lake
was tiny (4'11") when stood beside any leading man, thus ideal to Ladd.
Could she have sustained even without anchors of mental and emotional distress?
The hair seemedto have been crucial to continued stardom. Pulling it back, or
put up in braids took a toll on her fascination. Still, there's magic
between Lake and Ladd, as if each understood
vulnerability in the other. If not for war's intervention, I could see Paramount shuffling a
quick half dozen with them and perhaps killing off the brand for overexposure, a
Para-tendency gone back to Arbuckle, Clara Bow, whoever was good for fast
profit and faster discard. The break while in uniform may have been salvation
for Ladd, as look how badly Lake was used in
films without him. The Glass Key is on current radar thanks to a Region Two Blu-Ray
just out, a beauty and rebirth forthis already pleasing show.