Friday, June 22, 2012

Erich Kuersten: The Veronica Lake Effect

The Veronica Lake Effect
by Erich Kuersten

What is it about Veronica Lake that makes her so completely unlike all the other leggy 1940s blondes of Hollywood? We know a few things: she was short, had an abusive childhood, was hell to work with, and spent her retirement years tending bar in a cheap women-only hotel. But none of that helps explain her unique, otherworldly effect, which is akin to a whisper silencing a crowded baseball stadium, or the voice you remember from dreams as you wake up late for work. Something in her gaze reflects a sweet tender concern for even the lowliest of creatures. Something in her voice always seems distant and far away as if it was dubbed by the ghost of an angel drowned years ago. Her eyes show a tenderness unbowed, a calmness around psychopathic behavior as if it reminded her of home. Hers is a warm shoulder to weep yourself to sleep into on flu-addled nights even as her aura, remoteness, impassive face, and beautiful blonde hair freeze you where you sit like a blast of Arctic air.

Women doing wartime factory work in WW2 caught their hair in the machines trying to emulate her, so with the cooperation of her studio, Lake's magnificent hair was kept locked up tight in buns and bizarre hats. One can only imagine who unbearably awesome films like The Glass Key would be if her hair could breath and fall and bounce. When Lake's hair was free it could wash all the sins of war away, as in the amazing bathrobe scene of Sullivan's Travels or any shot of her in This Gun for Hire.

She was a very heavy drinker who once noted that her co-star and fellow drunk Ladd seemed a bit of a zombie himself. Maybe that's why they were so perfect together, undead outsiders in a noir world never quite asleep enough to match them. The public sensed they had something special whenever paired, and since they were so short they matched each other the way few others could. Part of the appeal lies in Alan Ladd's stoic rejection of destiny: in Key he's meant to be with the much richer Veronica Lake (he's a political thug; she's an heiress) or in his This Gun for Hire acceptance of her affection for the cop trying to catch him, "You love that guy?" It's all okay with him, for immediately upon being accepted by her, warts and all, he's saved. Her renouncement of the 'peek-a-boo' hairstyle is a similar bit of stoicism. Like many film lovers, I've long been fascinated by the weird chemistry the pair exhibit, and how other similar pairs, such as Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews (Laura), lack that same chemistry, much as the ingredients are there. Ladd and Lake seem to be born in a different time, on a slower projection speed. They're blonde beauties used to having to look up and speak up to talk to people, who suddenly find one another and are thrilled to able to whisper and look straight into each others' eyes, like two kids in a room full of adults, but reversed: the only adults for miles. Together they were like a misfit Adam and Eve from an alien galaxy. Lake was an astonishing 4'11" which made her one of the few women who could play opposite the 5'5" Ladd but it's so much more, and bravely less, than that.

In Glass Key they have such a great sleepy chemistry it's like they're dreaming while awake and whenever they're together they're packing or leaving or otherwise hanging out in empty rooms. You just get used to seeing one or the other's leaving trunks dead center in the room whenever they're together. They both had tough childhoods and you can feel it in their shy delivery and wary glares, like two damaged souls recognizing each themselves in one another, and the aloof posturing, verbal attacks and avoidance strategies they use to keep the world at bay couldn't fool each other for a minute. In This Gun For Hire they're never even close to lovers but spend the night sleeping on each others' shoulders on a moving train, just pals who come to trust each other in a world full of duplicitous poisonous, peppermint-eating snakes which in a way makes it even sexier (and sadder). Normal sex and marriage is stale by comparison.

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