My 1940’s imaginary screen-writing persona knows that Hollywood studio executives worked without a Human Resources Department. There was no talk of employee well-being, anti-discrimination legislation, or duty of care. There were films. And there was money.
Some uppity types might talk about art, but in the end the only way to measure success was to look at box-office returns. It’s a tough game and if you can’t cut it, don’t come to Hollywood.
“Veronica Lake is a Hollywood creation. Hollywood is good at doing that sort of thing.”
So starts Veronica Lake’s autobiography, but as the story goes onto reveal, Hollywood might good be good at the creating, it is not so hot at the maintenance.
What Hollywood created was a blonde bombshell. Publicity stills from her first movie “I Wanted Wings” highlighted her curves in a shot taken as the aircraft wafted her skirts. And then there was the hair.
In November, 1941 Life magazine dedicated paragraphs to her hair, letting readers know that, Lake's hairs number around 150,000, with each hair measuring .0024 inches in cross section. Length: 17 inches in front, 24 in back, falling 8 inches below her shoulders.
“Every morning she washes her hair twice in "Nulava" shampoo and once again in "Maro" oil, then rinses it in vinegar. This process takes, along with setting and styling, one hour and 45 minutes.”
Veronica Lake was short, curvy and had fine hair that slumped in front of her eyes, peek-a-boo style, so that she is always looking at you through a haze of seductive tresses.
And Lake knew what she got.
“I jutted out in front pretty good and was aware enough at that age to be able to walk certain ways to give me some jiggle and jounce. I knew the boys enjoyed that sort of thing, and I enjoyed their enjoyment.”
And yet, in one of her first starring roles playing The Girl in Preston Sturgess Sullivan’s Travels (1941), she spends most of the movie, hair up in a cap and in shapeless male garb as she accompanies Sullivan on his misadventures.
Sullivan’s Travels asks the big questions about cinema. In a time of depression, what is the role of the movies? To reflect the austere times, or to offer distraction from them? And it craftily does both, reflecting desperation whilst imploring for relief from the drudge. And Veronica Lake shines in the role as an aspiring actress. She delivers Sturge’s clever script with panache.
The Girl: You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don't have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I'd be staring into your bridgework saying 'Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that's my knee!' Give Mr. Smearcase another cup of coffee. Make it two. Want a piece of pie?
The film is about a tortured artist trying to find the inspiration for a heart-wrenching reflection of a broken society by cos-playing at poverty. He is joined on his foolish mission by a sassy, aspiring actress, known simply as The Girl.
The film is a comic take on how some artists can be troubled. Whilst the production was about to label its new star, Ms Lake, as trouble.
Lake was six months pregnant when she started shooting the film. A fact she tried to hide from the Director and which was barely concealed by the costuming of Edith Head. In her autobiography she says that “Sullivan’s Travels was a joy to make". However, Joel McCrea disliked working with her and is on record as saying:
“Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake”
Joel McCrea refused to appear as her co-star in I Married a Witch.
Well, more fool him, because it is a silly, delightful movie. But the co-star of I Married a Witch was also not a fan of Lake. Friedrich March made a pre-production comment that she was:
“a brainless, little, blonde, sex-pot, void of any acting ability”
Note the way these words seem to flow from each other- brainless, little, blonde and sex pot. A short, good-looking, curvy woman with Nordic features must also be brainless. But on screen, Lake is charming and delicate. The witch she portrays is not the hag of folklore, but symbolic of a latent power in women, feared by state, church, and the patriarchy. In other words, she is trouble.
Alongside the light comedy, Veronica Lake excelled as a femme fatale in several film noir, with her regular co-star Alan Ladd. A femme fatale is a purveyor of a dangerous sexuality, glimpsed through blinded windows, or in Veronica’s case through her ‘peek-a-boo’ hair. A femme fatale, well, she is trouble.
Veronica Lake’s hair was her most distinctive feature and the most enduring image of her. It also offered her a unique show of patriotism. The Lake sweep, covering one eye, gained popularity as women were required to work in munition factories during World War 2, leading them to higher risk of injury as their hair could get caught in heavy machinery. Veronica Lake responded to the government call to change her hairstyle, by adopting the Victory Rolls of the 1940s.
Her hair was also a key feature in the patriotic war efforts of Hollywood. In So Proudly We Hail (1943) as army nurse Olivia D’Arcy she finds herself with her colleagues cut off and under threat of Japanese war crimes, she responds to the mounting tension. She fetches a grenade, steps outside and takes off her helmet, allowing her hair to cascade around her shoulders. She puts the live grenade in her bra, holds her hands up in the air and walks to meet the Japanese soldiers, with the words, “It’s one of us or all of us”. The audience hears, but does not see the explosion, while her fellow nurses watch in horror.
But after her hair cut and post-war, Veronica Lake’s popularity and opportunities dwindle. Some suggest it might be the haircut. But those in the know, think it was more likely her drinking, her temper, her insults to co-stars. Her Hollywood star fell quickly and completely by the end of the 1940s. She was trouble. And she was in trouble.
And that could be that. No one to blame but herself.
But who was looking out for Veronica? A teenager freshly arrived in Hollywood? She had lost her father at age 10 and when arriving in Hollywood was close to losing her beloved stepfather too. According to her mother’s account, she had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at 15. That same mother was very keen to get Veronica noticed as a star and sued her for maintenance payments once Veronica was earning.
Stardom comes calling, and she is roomed with another young actress keen to party.
“But here I was, seventeen, working in my first film and wanting desperately to do a good job. I wanted to look and feel bright on set every day. And long, loud parties at night don’t contribute to that end. I even went to the company doctor for sleeping pills…”
On set of her first major motion picture, her director becomes infuriated with her:
“I could see Mitch starting to boil, but the harder I tried, the worse I became. Finally he yelled, “CUT!” and turned on me with all the ferociousness of an animal, “You dumb, little bitch”.
This led her to leave the shoot and during the filming of I Wanted Wings, she runs away to marry her first husband, John Detlie, who was sixteen years her senior. (The domestic abuse researcher in me recognises this large age gap as a potential red flag).
Veronica’s autobiography highlights the casting couch, the sleeping pills, the drinking, the affairs with married men. There was also the loss of her second child, which occurred whilst filming The Hour Before Dawn (1944) after she tripped over a lighting cable, resulting in a premature labour and a son that died.
And this is her account of her second marriage:
“I became Mrs DeToth on December 16, 1944, but only after a courtship that included such scenes as his belting me in the mouth and then offering me a carving knife with which I was to cut out his unworthy Hungarian heart.”
In 1949, DeToth cast his wife as a heroin addict in Slattery’s Hurricane, suggesting it might act as ‘shock therapy’ for her.
Her Hollywood career was over. And she disappeared. Estranged from her children.
She reappeared every now and then in the newspapers, usually for court appearances for drunkenness and there was an article about her working in a bar, depicted as penniless.
In 1969 she published her autobiography, first in the UK and the following year in the US. It was a great success.
And having read it, I can see why. It has a distinctive, careful voice. It is a real attempt to be honest and refuses well-worn tropes about Hollywood in favour of reflection and wavering self-awareness. It is easy to see why she was so good as the femme fatale. Film Noir is a meditation on failure and is flavoured with ambiguity and ambivalence, which also echoes in her writing.
By 1973, the drinking had finally caught up with her and at just 50 years old, she died from cirrhosis of the liver.
So, I imagine a life where I am a 1940s screen-writer. I would trust Veronica Lake to say my words with a sassy dispassion.
But as a 21st century welfare worker, I would just want her to get the hell out of Hollywood.
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About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
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