Some of the takes on things that emerge from Eddie Muller's off-the-cuff orations and his introductions to books are downright baffling. This has always been latent in his behavior, with some of it making for good copy. But our current situation, when he has more time to do these types of things, might well be taking its toll on him.
The original cover for the 1971 first release of Veronica Lake's autobiography
His intro to the recently reprinted Veronica Lake autobiography reflects an aspect of that, with its affectionate, politically correct tone and content. Lamenting the gender double standard about "rebels" makes for an easy 900+ words with little to nothing on the line--where it's also possible to insert a carefully-placed plug for TCM in just the right location so that it will remain as demure as Veronica Lake was not.
How much more interesting it all could have been had he started off by quoting Ms. Lake, who may have written (or at least spoken) the line that gives us the fault line between Hollywood illusion and the reality we can see on the screen:
"You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision."
This is a great jumping-off point to discuss the self-assessment that oscillates throughout Lake's autobio. Everyone who's seen THIS GUN FOR HIRE knows she's sassy--and it's well-known that the studios during WWII were looking for sassy dames under every rock and bush to help take people's minds off the deprivations of the home front. (When Eddie suggests that Lake was "doing Bacall" before Bacall, it would be more accurate to say that Howard Hawks pushed Bacall into doing his variation on Veronica Lake.)
But could she act? Is she telling the truth in this quote, or is this self-deprecation provided to deflect from a more searching analysis of her life and career?
We won't put words in Eddie's mouth, of course, but let's do what he didn't--let's take on Lake's comment and see what we get. Examining a reasonably large sample of the thousands of pictures snapped of Ms. Lake (particularly in her first four years at Paramount, before her drinking started to chip away at her looks), we can discern a pattern. In the dramas, we see someone who can create complex emotions via facial expressions; in the comedies (save for those written/directed by top-flight talent such as Preston Sturges or René Clair), her smile is lifelessly coy, her interest in the material is clearly non-existent: you can see immediately that she is going through the motions.
Lake actually had quite a bit of talent, but she rarely was given an opportunity to use it. You can see it in flashes within several of the noirs and dramas she made--and she rises to the occasion in I MARRIED A WITCH, a part she wanted badly in order to show just what she could do (and did, after finally convincing René Clair to cast her in the part).
Lake was a much better pilot than, say, Dick Powell...and here she & De Toth are still in the clouds together (around the time of RAMROD).
The dissonance she felt in Hollywood was due to the town being unable to get past her looks and acknowledge that she could be more than the "peek-a-boo girl." Even marrying a relatively sympathetic guy (André de Toth, whose talents were underappreciated, necessitating his survival by charm--which would evaporate once he'd made a film that pushed the envelope--think NONE SHALL ESCAPE--and he would have a stormy break-up at his studio...a pattern repeated more than once in his career) didn't change that equation for her.
But De Toth did manage to provide her with two final chances to recalibrate her career away from Paramount's empty stardom and toward something more akin to "serious actress." The first was RAMROD, a success d'estime that didn't get the box office it deserved because of its pushing the genre boundaries between noir and western as far as they could go without breaking entirely. Lake is terrific in this film--in fact, it might be her greatest performance. (And how coincidental is it that the character she plays is named Connie--her actual birth name?)
Eddie mentions SLATTERY'S HURRICANE and intimates a lot of autobiographical connection in the role Lake plays and her real life--but ultimately it's a sloppy comparison, because Lake's addiction was alcohol (which she never conquered), not drugs (as was the very veiled case in the film). The problems for Lake at this point were two-fold: her role was cut down due to Production Code battles, giving her much less of a chance to register, and her level of career disillusionment (as she reveals in the book) had maxed out by this point in time. Her marriage and her career would crumble and obliterate themselves shortly thereafter.
Even "at her worst," Veronica Lake possessed a level of charisma sufficient to safeguard her from total abjection: her later-in-life destitution occurred after her fourth marriage fell apart (at the end of the 50s) in tandem with many more bouts with the bottle. She's honest enough to own up to this in the book, and while calling the book "courageous and beautiful," as Eddie does, is a bit of a reach (he's more than typecast by now as being overly sympathetic to "sensitive boozehounds"...), we can cut him some slack for that.
The larger problem left unmentioned (perhaps because it's considered to be so well-known as to be unnecessary) is the terrible "career management" in Hollywood. Some studios were worse than others in this respect, but it seems that Paramount was among the very worst. The catastrophic cases of folks like Alan Ladd, Gail Russell, and Helen Walker are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the talent that was fatally damaged as a result of their time on the Paramount lot. It's a point that shouldn't be omitted in order that Eddie can plug his previous gig as Tab Hunter's collaborator.
But then again, Eddie's penchant for self-promotion and strangely garbled facts (many of which could be easily checked, if he just had an editor) is not really such a recent phenomenon. In the midst of a perfectly sound review of SLATTERY'S HURRICANE back in 2010 (still available at Steve Eifert's old NOIR OF THE WEEK site, BTW) Eddie dishes out a goodly amount of that patented "insider info" that oftentimes passes for analysis, but that overcomes its deficiencies by being "fun to read"... --but, writing hastily for a web site that was not panning out as a gathering place for noir fans and FNF donors, he tossed out a bizarre howler about Lake and her role in the film in the form of a careless and ultimately ludicrous analogy:
"De Toth was married to Veronica Lake at the time and her casting has deep implications. For one, Lake was eager to break out of her established femme fatale persona. De Toth obliged by shearing off her patented peekaboo hairstyle and casting her against type in a role typically played by Barbara Bel Geddes: the mousy, left-behind girlfriend."
So what's wrong with that, you ask? We'll leave aside the fact that Lake really wasn't eager to play in SLATTERY's HURRICANE at all, but her marriage was in a place where she felt obliged to humor her Hollywood director husband (a man who, given his compulsively maverick personality, was strongly inclined to press every advantage that presented itself to him). No, the real howler here is the misrepresentation of Barbara Bel Geddes' career based on one role (VERTIGO) where she plays "the mousy, left-behind girlfriend."
Bel Geddes was actually what you could call an "upscale," more demure version of Lake when she first turned up in Hollywood--the two of them were not too far off in terms of size (and born just two weeks apart in 1922) and the young Barbara, while significantly more "wholesome," looked just as good in a pair of jeans opposite Robert Mitchum in BLOOD ON THE MOON as Lake does in RAMROD. (Mitchum does NOT leave her behind at the end of the film, BTW.)
I would not be unhappy for even a second to have the 25-year old Barbara Bel Geddes bandage my hand...
Now, OF COURSE Bel Geddes does not project the sass and sexuality of Lake: that's clearly not her. But the idea that she was not a credible romantic lead during her early years in Hollywood--ten years before she played Midge in VERTIGO--is, at best, evidence of a faulty memory. In the mid-50s, Bel Geddes won a Tony playing Maggie the Cat on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, surprising even Williams with how much fervor and sexual longing she could supply in the character--not needing to be a sexual icon like Liz Taylor, who got the film role because Hollywood needed to "sex up" the film.
Bel Geddes was also a far more committed and experienced actress who'd had success before going to Hollywood, so she was a good bit more grounded in terms of her career than Lake. The prevailing memory of her is shaped precipitously by her more matronly roles (the "cook-the-evidence" wife in Roald Dahl's memorable contribution to ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and, of course, Midge in VERTIGO.)
The sticking point in Eddie's text is the word "typically." Midge is the ONLY "left-behind girlfriend" that Bel Geddes EVER played.
But back to SLATTERY'S HURRICANE. There are script problems: the young Herman Wouk, still honing his craft, isn't quite up to the scale of this story, but it wasn't all his fault--as Eddie and others have noted, several of the more pointed plot elements were tossed out by the Hays Office, which was of particular damage to Lake's role (with a character arc that originally went well beyond "mousy") which resulted in an extremely rushed and perfunctory romantic subplot. (Eddie's suggestion in his NOTW piece that SLATTERY'S HURRICANE reaches into the territory covered by IN A LONELY PLACE is curious at best--there's not a trace of nuance in Widmark's character, no buildup, only a series of tedious self-lacerations in the cutaways to his reckless mission to track the hurricane. All of the other characters--including Lake's--are all cardboard.)
Lake's presence on the promotional materials for SLATTERY'S HURRICANE is at best tertiary;
in the foreign markets (above), she's completely non-existent.
Andre De Toth is one of the favored directors in the FNF orbit (and with good reason: his track record is actually better than several of their other talismanic "anti-auteurs" such as Joe Lewis--high peak, but steep falloff; Felix Feist--force-fit into prominence, and doubled down upon with a retrospective in Bologna) so it is not surprising that a certain amount of "spin" would get applied to SLATTERY'S HURRICANE. That's of no retroactive assistance to Veronica Lake, of course, who was buried in third-billed second lead with the guts chopped out of her character, resulting in net negative career value from her so-called "shock therapy." She clearly stopped taking her husband's career advice at this point, eventually moving to New York after a muddled final film (STRONGHOLD, one of the last films to be made in two different languages at the the same time: Sarita Montiel played Lake's role in the Mexican version). Her name value permitted her to land roles on prestigious TV adaptations, but the change in her looks due to a short haircut, multiple pregnancies, and alcohol issues was catastrophic to her career.
You can see the difference in this 1952 talk show segment from ELOISE SALUTES THE STARS, which also features her director (Alex Segal) from the best-received of her TV efforts, "Brief Moment" (from the highly-regarded but all-too-brief Celanese Theatre).
In short, she looks like a prematurely weather-beaten Barbara Bel Geddes (whose most famous roles were still ahead of her). Lake is all of 29 at this point in time.
Of course, it got worse for Lake, though truth be told she doesn't really look all that much worse in her 1971 interview with Dick Cavett (on the occasion of the initial publication of her autobiography). She's still sassy, and clearly too much to handle for the inept (and more than occasionally insipid) Cavett; one of the saving graces of this footage is the juxtaposition of Lake's interview with an appearance by William Saroyan, whose wild mustache is strangely mesmerizing and whose exchanges with Lake are more interesting than the ones he has with Cavett...
Watching Lake here, one wishes that she might have found a way to have landed a good TV sitcom, where her talent could have clearly allowed her to cement a new direction for her career (think about her in a show about wisecracking waitresses, where she's surrounded by similar Brooklyn-esque folk like Selma Diamond and Nancy Walker)--but her alcohol issues and her reputation for difficulty had nixed any possibility of that, causing her to sit out the entire decade of the 60s in total obscurity.
Unfortunately, Lake had little time left, and her continued tippling finally reached the tipping point; the result was an escalating health crisis, and she passed away just two years after her appearance on Cavett's show.
So--my word count here has exceeded Eddie's, and I haven't even gotten to his really bizarre analogies! ...which will be left for you to discover on your own (if you are so inclined). Lake deserves an essay in her own right, not just an off-the-cuff introduction...and, wouldn't you know it, but it turns out that just such an essay was written by another Eddie--transplanted Florida cinephile and life coach Eddie Selover, sadly dormant as a writer in recent years but 100% on his game when it comes to Veronica Lake. If you're still interested in more about her--or even if you aren't--read his essay from 2014: it is absolutely what should've been the intro to her autobiography...