Salty O’Rourke (1945) was a fun tangle of affections set among race-track low-lifes, featuring a horse that’s just as impossible as its cocky jockey. Mobster Bruce Cabot gives crooked Ladd one month to pay off a debt, so he and buddy William Demarest get a horse that is sure to win if it has the right jockey, who happens to be the troubled and blacklisted Stanley Clements. Clements has to pretend to be his teen brother to get the license, but that also means he has to finish school, which is taught by beautiful Gail Russell. Clements’ rebellious antics get him kicked out fast, but Ladd, whose life depends on those race winnings, works hard to make peace between teacher and student. Ladd works so hard to convince her of the kid’s hidden goodness, that a love triangle develops as Russell falls for Ladd and vice versa while Clements obsesses over her and she inadvertently leads him on.
This mess is all kinds of awkward and gets humour out of the apparent inappropriate situations, and I enjoyed it. Clements is a streetwise adult and bold ladies’ man, but since he’s a smallish jockey posing as a 17-year old, his naughty come-ons and suggestive advances to Russell are amusingly shocking, and of course totally horrify her. Ladd repeatedly pleads with her to give the kid yet another chance, so she tries overlook things like his cheap gifts (that “lady leg” brooch is something else, and Russell’s reaction even better) and he misreads her “caring” and proposes. His jealousy and heartbreak at her rejection prompt him to sell Ladd out to Cabot, and that leads to a gritty ending with a chase and shooting in the track’s packed parking lot. Clements and Ladd are great together, so just when you think you’re watching one argument or peptalk too many, they give the exchange some new spin. Ladd is just perfect as the lovably unlikable crook who shows his gentle side when he turns on the fake charm, and though he claims not to care two bits about the sweet schoolteacher, he talks her into loving him, and talks himself into reforming. Directed by Raoul Walsh.
The Black Knight (1954), directed by Tay Garnett, finds Ladd in medieval adventure and King Arthur’s Court. He plays a blacksmith far outclassed by his sweetheart Patricia Medina, and when her family’s castle is attacked and destroyed by Saracen Knight Peter Cushing, Ladd vows revenge. Medina thinks he’s a coward because she sees him riding away from the castle in pursuit of Cushing, so Ladd has to prove his worth to her, and to Arthur, who’s given him 3 months to prove his accusation. The problem is, he has no right to wear a knight’s armour, so he stays in disguise until all these things are cleared up. We watch him train and become skilled in jousting, swordplay and sneaking up on his enemies with nary a clatter or squeak of his metal suit. Ladd is laughed out of Arthur’s banquet hall when he claims he can identify Cushing’s henchman by his evil guffaw, because the man is believed to be mute. Naturally, we get more than one scene where that goon yuks it up when nobody’s around to hear, but he gets his once Ladd finds and corners him. It’s this combination of hamminess and comic book action that made The Black Knight a fun adventure for me. One problem with this film is the disjointed editing. As actors have a conversation, the scenes cut back and forth and they’re standing in totally different positions and looking in different directions. Similarly, there are cuts to Ladd’s spry stunt double, often to and from the actor standing still, and those aren’t great, so at those points I gave up expecting any reality, and could still enjoy this as fantasy action with comic book colour and outlandish exploits. There’s a wild bit during a ceremony at Stonehenge, during which Medina is about to be sacrificed. The pagans put a blonde wig on her to fulfill the requirements of the ritual, they start chanting and dancing around the flames, and Ladd, in his fabulous medieval Batman black-winged helmet thunders in alone, busts up the ritual and cuts down the wicker baskets in which the priests are imprisoned. Ladd doesn’t seem much into the part, but Peter Cushing is wonderfully haughty and cold as the villain, and the nice cast includes Anthony Bushell and André Morell (last seen at this blog in Plague of the Zombies).
The McConnell Story (1955): Yes it’s saccharine and ultra-patriotic, and I have no problems with that. This biopic of Captain Joseph “Mac” McConnell, the real US air ace who dreamed since childhood of being a pilot, was a navigator in WW2, then, when everyone thought he was too old, became a highly-decorated fighter pilot in the Korean War. I found this heartwarming, mainly thanks to Ladd’s chemistry with June Allyson (their relationship reportedly carried into real life). They’re best friends first and foremost, which to me is the basis for the best kind of movie romance, and their mutual understanding and willingness to sacrifice for each other’s happiness created a real picture of how the couple made it through many obstacles and years of service. Allyson is so much more than just the cute “good wife.” She tries not to show how stressful it is when he’s away, but you can see it eat at her. She finally snaps at his desire to keep flying long after she thought her years of waiting and worrying were over. She smashes his model planes, ones with just as much sentimental value to her, but when she cools down she tells him to follow his heart anyway.
From what little I’ve read on McConnell, the movie is close to fact, the biggest difference being that Ladd was 10 years older than the man he was playing. He may have been “old” for the part but then the real pilot was considered old for his role too. Ladd puts across the innocent spirit of the daydreaming youth who can’t keep his mind on medical studies or anything other than being in the cockpit, where he positively bursts with excitement. On the flipside, he’s believably explosive and frustrated when he’s held back in Cadet school, lets his temper get in the way, or is stuck behind a desk and can’t satisfy his life’s passion.
McConnell died in a test flight crash while the movie was shooting, so the film’s ending was re-written to end the story there, and it’s a tearjerker that calls back to an earlier scene where Ladd explains the missing man formation to his wife. When Ladd’s longtime buddy turned sympathetic superior, so well played by James Whitmore, arrives to inform Allyson of Ladd’s death, you can’t hear their words for the roar of the jets. She’s later shown how valuable her husband’s accomplishments were to the country and the pilots following in his path. The training and flying scenes are plentiful and well-done (to my eyes anyway, I can’t speak to accuracy of jet or gear details), but what made this work and stay with me was the heart of these people and the happiness they shared.
Previously, in my Alan Ladd festival: The Badlanders, The Deep Six, The Red Beret, The Great Gatsby, The Big Land, Santiago, Chicago Deadline, Drum Beat, Hell Below Zero, Red Mountain, Thunder in the East, The Iron Mistress, The Man in the Net, Whispering Smith, Calcutta, O.S.S., Two Years Before the Mast, Branded, Appointment with Danger.