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The Cinema of Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake wasn’t among the top tier of 1940s film stars – not in terms of box office status, or publicity, or earning power. Yet she’s lingered in the public memory in a way few of her contemporaries managed. Part of this is due to her legendary peek-a-boo haircut, immortalized by Jessica Rabbit,  Kim Basinger in LA Confidential (1997), and a sight gag in The Major and the Minor (1942). Part of it is her personal narrative of immense tragedy – from extra to film star to bankrupt alcoholic has-been in little over a decade. Part of it is the fact that more than a third of the movies she starred in were masterpieces – no kidding, more than a third, which is a pretty amazing ratio.

Veronica Lake had some of the best luck of any movie star in history.

And some of the worst…

She was born in 1922 and given the name Constance Ockerman. Her father died in an accident when she was ten; mother remarried and Constance took her stepfather’s surname, Keane. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1938 where the teenage girl became interested in acting, appearing as an extra in a number of films, and doing some plays.

The surge to stardom was almost absurd in its rapidity. Paramount producer Arthur Hornblow Jr was searching for an unknown to play the part of a night club singer in a military drama, I Wanted Wings (1940). He was shown footage of Constance performing a scene in a play, and was intrigued; she was tested, cast and signed to a long-term contract with Paramount, who changed her name to “Veronica Lake”.

I Wanted Wings was a forerunner to Top Gun (1986), focusing on the lives and loves of air force cadets at flight school, and is just as homoerotic as anything in that Tom Cruise classic. The plot focuses on the friendship between aspiring pilots William Holden and Ray Milland; Holden loves Milland so much that he’s willing to marry Lake, the hussy set on nabbing Milland and wrecking both his air force career and relationship with a feisty photographer (Constance Moore); of course, it helps that Holden once loved Lake (until she destroyed him and sent him off to enlist).

The movie is an entirely decent piece of 1940 Hollywood hokum, mostly worth seeing today for Lake. She doesn’t appear until more than half-way through but it’s a spectacular entrance – singing in a nightclub under a spotlight – and she lifts the entire movie: pint-sized, seductive, mischievous, with a delectable voice and mien. She plays a temptress (Holden calls her “a cheap little jig”), but a sympathetic one – Lake genuinely thinks she falls pregnant to Milland and freaks out. And you feel sorry for her at the end –  when it looks as though Holden might get back in the air force, she turns up announcing she’s killed someone (!), asks Holden to help her, and winds up hiding in a plane just before it takes off on a bombing run; then when she’s onboard she freaks out and sets off a flare, almost crashing the plane; she later dies in a crash, a martyred, story-generating, empathetic minx. It’s a fantastic part and Lake is sensational in it.

Constance Moore, the other lead female lead, plays an unusually strong female character for the time: she’s glamorous, works as a photographer, tells Milland she doesn’t want to give up her enjoyable single life unless it’s worth it, scolds Milland for his bad treatment of Lake (who he’s slept with and then pays off with a check). But no one really remembers Moore today, or paid much attention then; while talented and beautiful, she lacks what the former Constance Keane had – X factor.

Lake had two other strokes of good fortune while making I Wanted Wings. First, during the shoot, her long blonde hair accidentally fell over her right eye during a take and created a “peek-a-boo” effect – a hairstyle which subsequently swept the nation and launched a copycat craze. Secondly, the movie was released just as audiences in then-neutral America were ravenous for stories about how prepared their armed services were for war (eg Dive Bomber, Buck Privates). I Wanted Wings was a huge hit, Lake stole the notices and was launched a movie star.

She hadn’t even turned twenty.

She then went and made every aspiring starlet in Hollywood have even less realistic career aspirations by starring in five classic movies in a row.

First was Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), about a wealthy director (Joel McCrea) who decides to pretend he is homeless in order to experience “real life”. Lake was the girl – billed as The Girl – he meets on his travels. She is captivating, magical, and extremely sexy, whether sitting on McCrea’s lap in a bathrobe and combing his hair or walking along the road in a hobo overcoat (Lake was six months pregnant during production). She wasn’t great with all her dialogue but Sturges made her spit it out at rapid-fire pace and protected her limitations. It’s a performance for the ages.

Paramount then put Lake in a thriller, This Gun for Hire (1942), where she once again plays a night club singer; this time she’s a goodie though, helping fight Nazis. She’s engaged to Robert Preston but most people forget that bit – what they remember, deservedly, are the scenes she shares with a gunman played by Alan Ladd, an actor who been paying dues for around a decade until This Gun for Hire catapulted him to stardom. He gives an electric debut star performance – cold, blonde, tough, mysterious, ruthless, cat-loving, redeemable – and stole the film, but a lot of this was due to Lake, who matches him beautifully (at five foot two, she was one of the few female actors shorter than him); poor old Robert Preston is completely overshadowed. Like Sullivan’s Travels, there’s a scene where Lake dons her male co-star’s overcoat and hat – she does look like a cutie but it’s interesting she was already repeating her iconic scenes. The movie was her third huge success.

The studio promptly reunited Ladd and Lake in The Glass Key (1942), based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett and directed by the un-renowned Stuart Heisler. It’s another superb film noir, achingly gorgeous to look at, and less weighed down by patriotism than This Gun for Hire. Lake is clearly inexperienced but is so beautiful and enigmatic you overlook her flaws, and she once again teams marvelously with Ladd – two blonde shorties, full of mutual smirking/contempt/admiration. The core of the film is a platonic love story between Ladd and Brian Donlevy – but these actors don’t have chemistry; Ladd and Lake do. She gets to go off with Ladd at the end in this one (although watching it you feel she would be better off hooking up with Donlevy who, after all, not only has money and ambition but hid the identity of a murderer to protect her – but then fans weren’t clamoring for Lake-Donlevy pairings).

Lake returned to comedy with I Married a Witch (1942), playing the title deity who ensnares Fredric March in matrimony. Directed by Rene Clair, this is wickedly funny, an absolute delight – due greatly to Lake who was never more alluring, strutting around in men’s pajamas, casting spells, chasing after Marsh and causing devilry. This was her only fantasy movie and it beggars belief that Paramount never tried her again in that genre – she had a vaguely “otherworld” appearance (that hair, that voice) perfect for it.

After making a cameo in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) Lake appeared in her fifth classic, So Proudly We Hail (1943), a melodrama about American nurses during the Battle of the Philippines. She was billed after Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard but still had a juicy part as a traumatized nurse who kills herself in a suicide bombing attack against the Japanese. Lake’s breakdown scene shows her limitations but overall it’s a splendidly effective performance, with a spectacular on-screen death – she should have played more death scenes in her career, she had a very good track record in that department.

By now, Lake had become one of Paramount’s biggest stars, effective in comedy, thrillers, and drama. It hadn’t been an entirely smooth ride  – there were rumors of a bad temperament and a drinking problem; Joel McCrea had been originally cast in I Married a Witch but refused to work with her again; March disliked her; the US government asked her to change her hairstyle because women who imitated it were getting their tresses caught in factory machines. But she had enjoyed a dream run.

Then things started to go wrong…very wrong.

Paramount cast her in The Hour Before Dawn (1944), as a Nazi spy who marries a conscientious objector (Franchot Tone). Despite being based on a story by Somerset Maugham and directed by Frank Tuttle, who did This Gun for Hire, the film was egregious, flopped at the box office, and Lake copped a lot of the blame.

It wasn’t really her fault.  Yes, she’s not very good, uncomfortable with an accent and not really capable of conveying too much depth, but lots of other people in the movie are even worse:  Tone is less convincing as an Englishman than Lake is as an Austrian refugee, David Leland is truly shocking, John Sutton is horrendous and the actors playing Lake’s fellow agents all ham it up. There is a novelty in Tone playing a conscientious objector but it also means he’s passive for most of the running time, unaware his wife is up to no good. There’s no chemistry between him and Lake – you never feel he loves her, or she feels anything for him other than contempt.  Tuttle’s direction lacks the atmosphere. And what’s with that ending where Tone murders Lake? Okay, yes, she’s tried to kill him but she’s run out of bullets so it is murder – then they cut to Tone happily flying in a bomber? Yuk. This film gets more irritating the longer it goes on. (Aside: I’m going to start spoiling the endings of the bad Lake movies from now on because I’m assuming no one’s seen them or is going to. End of aside.)

On the personal front, things got really rough. Lake’s second child was born prematurely and died after a few days. Her first marriage ended in divorce. She then began to drink heavily.

Paramount gave her a few months off then put her in a musical, Bring on the Girls (1945), about a millionaire (Eddie Bracken) who joins the navy anonymously; he is chaperoned by a friend (Sonny Tufts) and falls for a slinky dame (Lake). Sidney Lanfield directed.

After the debacle of The Hour Before Dawn and the traumas of her private life, Lake was carefully protected in this film – not given too much action, not having to carry the bulk of the plot, being cast in a role which is the variation of the one she played in I Wanted Wings – to wit, a gold-digging night club girl (though Lake doesn’t sing). Her character supposedly ripped off Tufts back in the day and to be honest, the movie would’ve been better had this been true – but then it turns out, gee, she only did it because she thought he was married and wanted to send money back to his kid. She’s a good girl after all! Lake winds up with Tufts and Bracken is palmed off to Marjorie Reynolds and none of it’s very interesting – an opinion shared even by the movie-mad public of 1945 who turned this into a flop, Lake’s second in a row

There were reports of bad behavior by Lake at a war bond drive in Boston, resulting in Paramount giving her the third lead in Out of This World (1945), supporting Diana Lynn and Bracken. This was a musical spoof of Frank Sinatra’s popularity among bobbysoxers, directed by Hal Walker. Lynn steps into a role meant for Betty Hutton and her casting throws off the whole movie – she’s only nineteen, too young to be romantically matched with Bracken in a non-icky way, too pretty to be matched in a believable way, and too fresh-faced and smart to be believably enmeshed in wacky schemes.

Lake is completely wasted in her part; they set her up as this unscrupulous PR person who hypes Bracken… but then she completely disappears from the movie for the middle section. The film cries out for Lake’s character to be used more – to be a rival to Lynn, to romance Bracken, to cause trouble, something… But she just kind of hangs around. As if aware of the script and casting problems, the filmmakers shove in a tonne of production value – singers, dancers, pianists; there’s even a cameo from Bing Crosby’s kids. But the picture is appalling. Flop number three.

In both Bring on the Girls and Out of this World Lake’s character should have been bad but wasn’t. I’m assuming this was due to Lake’s whingeing – “I don’t want to be unsympathetic, my fans will hate me“, etc, etc, – although it may have been studio incompetence. Whoever was to blame,  it meant she played these weird half-and-half roles – people who should have been bad, but weren’t, but weren’t that sympathetic, either.

Things turned around a little with Miss Susie Slagle’s (1945) an utterly delightful look at a boarding house for medical students in 1910. It was produced by John Houseman, who normally made films of quality, directed by first-timer John Barry, and features charming performances from Sonny Tufts and Joan Caulfield (not making that up, both are genuinely beguiling). Lake is top-billed, but it’s not a very big part, as a nurse who falls for a doctoral student who dies. She isn’t very good: she never seems comfortable and, painful as this is to admit, is one of the worst things about the movie. But at least it didn’t flop.

Paramount tried her with Bracken a third time in Hold That Blond (1945), a picture which was originally conceived as a Bob Hope vehicle and looks it. Directed by George Marshall, this is the sort of movie that should have been great fun but just isn’t; Bracken flails about, Lake is dull and lacking sexiness, and together they lack the chemistry of, say, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. You could always see what Hope and Goddard saw in each other – both had so much energy, she was super pert and pretty, he was smart despite his cowardice and looked good compared to the villains they would come up against. In this film Lake is cute but bland; Bracken is an anxious kleptomaniac who is a pain in the backside – they’re not good for each other, he has a mental health issue that isn’t dealt with by the end, neither are fun to hang out with. The film was not popular.

Lake’s acting seemed to be getting worse the more she did it. What was going wrong? The drinking, divorce, and trauma of losing her child could not have helped. I also think Lake had a natural quality that her first films caught like lightning in a bottle, but which she lost as time went on. Untrained, she had no technique to fall back on and really floundered without a strong script.

She could still be effective, though, if handled in the right way. After five bad performances in a row in four dud movies, her career was revived when reunited with Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia (1946), produced by Houseman and directed by Marshall, based on a script by Raymond Chandler. It’s a fantastic film noir, full of atmosphere, intrigue, crackling dialogue and sensational performances, which was recognized as a classic almost immediately and made a tonne of money. Lake’s part is relatively small, though effective, as a slinky dame who you first think might be bad but turns out to be good.

Lake then made her first film outside Paramount since she became a star: Ramrod (1947), a Western directed by Andrea de Toth, who was her second husband. Lake is a tough dame living on the range who is picked on by nasty tycoon Preston Foster, so she hires gunslinger Joel McCrea as her “ramrod”. But McCrea isn’t the only hero – that duty is split with Don De Fore as a ruthless drifter who also fights on Lake’s side, and, to be honest, overshadows McCrea.

This is a story full of shades and moral ambiguities – Lake is kind of a goodie but also a baddie. She’s keen to flirt with men to get them to do what she wants and encourages De Fore to create a stampede so McCrea will be more on her side; she genuinely falls for McCrea but he ends up dumping her because she’s a bad girl.. even though she’s not really bad, she just did what she had to do to defend her ranch (mind you, that was typical of Hollywood during the post-war years, when independent women had to be put in their place). As a result, the movie is a bit out of kilter – you have more sympathy for Lake, who has more at stake than McCrea, who is just a hired hand. It also might have more impact if McCrea had genuine feelings for Lake but he seems quite happy to go off at the finale with bland Arleen Whelan. Ramrod isn’t perfect but it is interesting, and it’s fun to see Lake in a Western, riding a horse, ordering cowboys off her land and the like; it’s one of her best later performances. The picture was a box office success.

Back at Paramount, she was reunited with Ladd and her old hairstyle in Saigon (1948).  Directed by Leslie Fenton, it’s the least effective of the four films they made together (not counting the all-star musicals where they both cameo-ed as themselves – Star Spangled Rhythm, Duffy’s Tavern, Variety Girl) which starts off excellently but tails away in its second half. The storyline feels cobbled together from elements of previous Paramount hits, particularly ones starring  Ladd: he’s a war veteran in the third world (as in Calcutta, China); he’s a pilot tight with members of his bomb crew (Calcutta, The Blue Dahlia); one of the flyers is terminally ill (You Came Along); there’s a dodgy criminal, his henchman and mysterious police chief (The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key); Ladd is kind of in love with his best male friend and they also both love the same girl (The Glass Key). There are some superb support performances and Lake’s acting is solid – she totally suits the world of backlot studio exotica, with its back projection, smoke-drenched nightclubs, and intrigue. Saigon is commonly referred to as a flop but it actually performed reasonably well at the box office and demonstrated Lake still had appeal with the public.

Her next film at Paramount, however, was abysmal. To understand why Isn’t It Romantic (1948) was even made in the first place you need to know that nostalgic family pieces in historical settings were all the rage in the 1940s – Meet Me in St Louis, Life with Father, I Remember Mama, etc. This load of old codswallop is set in Indiana during Reconstruction, and focuses on three sisters – Lake, Mona Freeman, and Mary Hatcher – whose idiotic father is obsessed with the Civil War (he runs around in a Confederate uniform) and won’t get a job; I think he’s meant to be lovable ol’ dad but he just comes across as a lazy, racist separatist, uncharmingly played by Roland Culver. We’re supposed to feel for him at the end when he realizes he got swindled; I wanted him to shoot himself, like that Confederate officer in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). These sorts of movies are hard to pull off for directors – Henry King and John Ford could do it, but it’s beyond Norman McLeod here. Lake seems awkward. Maybe with color and more elaborate musical numbers it might have gone over. But it doesn’t.

Lake followed this with The Sainted Sisters (1948), directed by William D. Russell, which sounds like it could be fun – the tale of two female con artists on the lam in the 1890s (more nostalgia!). Okay, the 1890s isn’t an inherently funny period, but female con artists are at least different, and Richard Maibaum wrote the script, and maybe this would’ve worked if Betty Hutton had been able to play the lead, as originally intended. Instead Paramount went with Lake who is disastrously miscast, lacking sparkle and verve in a part that needs, well, Hutton – or even Diana Lynn.  Joan Caulfield has some game as her sister but is mostly just pretty. Mind you, neither have much of a character to play – you never get the sense these two are con artists or how they came to be con artists.

Why do the filmmakers introduce the millionaire scammed by the girls (Harold Vermilyea) at the beginning and never see him again? Why don’t they have the local bitch (Beulah Bondi) do something really bad? Why don’t they have someone chasing after the girls – a detective, say? They set up a sheriff (George Reeves) but he never seems to suspect the girls – he just falls in love with both and struggles to make up his mind between them, which makes him an idiot and ensures the love story is unsatisfactory. They establish Lake as the more ruthless and greedy of the sisters, which is fine, but instead of making her a villain and Caulfield the goodie, as they should, Lake again is a-bit-bad-but-really-good in a way that undermines the story’s drama; she comes good, falls for Reeves (no chemistry, no build-up, he’s clearly better suited to Caulfield), and Caulfield has a conveniently invented alternate love interest. If you haven’t seen the movie, and I’m guessing you haven’t, none of this will make any sense but trust me – it’s not worth seeing, another misfire from Paramount who subsequently refused to renew Lake’s contract.

Lake had some incredible luck early in her career, but karma came around and got her back in spades. Yes, she wasn’t a very good actor. Yes, she had to be carefully used. Yes, she had a problematic private life and no doubt an erratic attitude. But most of the Paramount films she appeared in during the second half of her career were simply ineptly made – they helped killed the careers of Eddie Bracken, Joan Caulfield, and Diana Lynn as much as Lake.

It’s a shame she wasn’t teamed with Ladd more – she could’ve easily slipped into, say, OSS  (1946) (as she did on radio) or Wild Harvest (1947) or Calcutta (1947). She may have refused these parts, to be fair, I don’t know – it’s just a pity since Ladd was rarely as effective with another girl.

There was also a curious reluctance from Paramount to use her as an out-and-out vamp. Lake looked like a bad girl but rarely played one – there was always some excuse or redemption for her behavior. Sometimes this made the film more interesting (eg The Blue Dahlia) but often it weakened the drama – several of her pictures would’ve been better had she played a flat-out villain eg The Sainted Sisters, Bring on the Girls, Out of This World, Miss Susie Slagle’s. She was a natural femme fetale who they kept trying to soften.

Maybe it was simply bad luck. But it’s as hard to slog through Lake’s last films at Paramount as it is a pleasure to watch her first few. And that’s a shame because for all her many flaws she still had more individuality than the bulk of starlets under contract to the studio at the time like, say, Mona Freeman or Wanda Hendrix.

Lake didn’t immediately slide into obscurity once she left the studio. De Toth cast her as the second lead in Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) at Fox, playing a woman who is kind-a-sort-a meant to be a drug addict, but it’s hard to tell due to censorship. Lake, billed third after Richard Widmark (channeling Dana Andrews) and Linda Darnell (good value), gives a poor performance  – the sexy bombshell of Alan Ladd pictures looks like a bland wallflower doormat – she’s got no spunk or life, she’s a colorless nothing.

She appeared in Stronghold (1951), an independently financed Western shot in Mexico with Zachary Scott and Arturo de Cordova – a film that has a good story buried underneath confused execution. Lake is wooden but at least looks fine. That was her last Hollywood-ish movie.

American actress Veronica Lake (1919 – 1973), circa 1970.

Lake’s last few decades were sad. She and De Toth filed for bankruptcy (the IRS seized their home for unpaid taxes), and got divorced; she was sued by her mother for financial support; she left her children in the custody of their fathers and became estranged from them. She did a little TV and a lot of theater, was arrested for public drunkenness, worked as a waitress, and got married and divorced again. She wrote her memoirs and did the interview circuit, not always appearing sober; and made two last films, Footsteps in the Snow (1967) and Flesh Fiend (1970).  She had mental health issues that were not always properly dealt with, did a lot of traveling and too much drinking. There were some good times. She died in 1973 of kidney failure and hepatitis.

Her career as a star is fascinating because it began with such a bang and ended with such a whimper. Films such as Sullivan’s Travels, I Married a Witch, This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key, So Proudly We Hail and The Blue Dahlia retain their power to enchant and delight. Her appearance in I Wanted Wings remains captivating. She and Alan Ladd formed one of the all-time great screen teams.

She was never a good actor – she could be downright terrible – but was a star.

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About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

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