By  | 

And now the 93rd Annual Oscars are finished. Another one for the records books, it is now history. But how to quench your thirst for a bit more Hollywood history? Here’s the perfect refresher. It’s a warm, interview and clip-filled look back at one of the motion picture industry’s greatest producers. As a matter of fact (and it’s hammered home here) he was the head (or close to) of four of the major studio (really, you’d know the logos). Oh, and he’s still with us, offering his sage advice and counsel to filmmakers and stars. So we’re not talking about the cigar-chomping Golden Age studio moguls who are usually vilified in the non-fiction books and films (The biggest villain of MANK may be the ruthless and controlling Louis Mayer). No, this is about a man whose influence may have ushered in, maybe not a silver, but a bronze age, from the 1970s to just about a decade or so ago. And unlike Mayer and his contemporaries Zanuck, Zucker, Laemmie, and Cohn he truly has movies in his blood (real silver screen DNA). This documentary feature subject is Alan Ladd, Jr., often referred to as LADDIE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIES.

Our genial guide through this remarkable man’s life and career truly knows her subject. It’s his daughter Amanda Ladd-Jones, who tells us that this film began as a birthday present, one that we now all get to share. Unfortunately, the subject has a legendary tendency to be … well tight-lipped. But luckily his former collaborators and friends (and so many are in both groups, surprisingly) are quick to sing his praises. But before those triumphs, there was a difficult childhood. That blood and DNA, well it comes from the 1940s through the 50s matinee idol Alan Ladd, who himself was tight-lipped in noir thrillers (THIS GUN FOR HIRE) and Westerns (the iconic SHANE). But being the son of a movie star is close to hitting the genetic lottery, right? You’d think so, but Laddie was the only son Senior had with his first wife Marjorie. Nearing his teens when papa remarried, Laddie was largely ignored as the star remarried and began a new family with Sue Carol. We hear heart-wrenching stories from stepbrother David (an actor who ended up marrying the fourth TV Charlie’s Angel). Perhaps this helped to motivate Laddie at the boarding and military schools and college. By the time he’s finished his education, his father passes at age of 50 from years of alcohol and prescription pill abuse. Now Laddie was free of his shadow and ready to make a name for himself behind the scenes in show “biz”. In the wild 1960’s he was an agent representing several actors, including Peter Sellars (“Completely mad.” Laddie quickly offers) which lead to film production, then soon taking the reins of Twentieth Century Fox’s European division. Around the time he began his own family with school sweetheart Patricia, the call came in for his return to the states and tasked with saving the flailing Fox (still reeling from the one-two bombs of DOCTOR DOOLITTLE and HELLO DOLLY). He quickly established himself as an exec who valued up-and-coming filmmakers, having an open mind and keen box office instincts. When Columbia balked at Mel Brooks’ insistence to shoot YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN in black and white, Laddie saw the method in his madness and said yes. When Richard Donner brought the script for the horror opus THE OMEN, Laddie defied the studio’s heads and insisted Donner (then known for TV work) direct. And when the hot young director of AMERICAN GRAFFITI needed a home for his weird Flash Gordon-homage, Laddie again irked the board of directors by giving a “green light” for STAR WARS. Soon after the megahit ALIEN (again helmed by a relatively unknown Ridley Scott). Alan left Fox to form his own division, The Ladd Company, which merged with Warner Brothers (studio two). From there it was a leap to United Artists in the late 1980s, before finishing up at Paramount in the 1990s and early 2000s (and grabbing an Oscar for BRAVEHEART in 1995).

Okay, so the director is a tad prejudiced, though Ms. Ladd-Jones hasn’t pieced together a fawning Father’s Day card of a flick about the family patriarch. Its opening (Laddie’s early years) is chocked-full of old school glitz and glamour (Alan Ladd pretty much carried Paramount through the 1940s), the staged studio publicity stills can’t erase the abandonment of Laddie’s teen years (David becomes quite emotional as he recalls the neglect of his poppa to his firstborn). And despite being saddled with that name (teachers couldn’t believe his actor lineage), the story really comes alive as Laddie spreads his creative wings and soars. Happily, most of the folks that aided that meteoric rise pay their respects. George Lucas sings his praises while Mel Brooks slays with some great stories (“Peru just got color” kills every time). One of the more pleasant revelations concerns Laddie’s desire to keep all of his major movie talents on the same floor of the Fox building, as a free-wheeling film school, leading to Brooks helping to tweak the late Paul Mazursky’s script (he’s sadly been gone for nearly seven years, so this footage reminds us of his endearing charm). The doc also benefits from Richard Donner’s laid-back sardonic wit (“Ladd, Jr.? He made that ‘Very Brady sequel’, right?”). As the decades (and great clips) zip by we get Mel Gibson’s BRAVEHEART tales and Ben Affleck (sporting an odd “boy band” hairstyle with a full beard) on Laddie’s help with his directorial debut GONE BABY GONE (“lose the ‘chamber of commerce’ shots”). But there seems to be one artist who continues to pop up in this saga, Ridley Scott. We see a few seconds from his debut THE DUELISTS before the big explosion (poor John Hurt’s chest) of AlIEN. When Laddie heads to the WB lot, Scott follows with BLADE RUNNER, thought of as a box office dud in 82, the film’s influence extends into the current slate of SF epics. Then in a complete turnabout, Scott is convinced to helm the dusty dirty box office smash THELMA & LOUIS (with Laddie influencing its off-beat ending). Aside from STAR WARS, Laddie also throws his support behind award-winning films that his former studios dumped (Fox stepped away, so Warners grabbed the Best Picture Oscar for CHARIOTS OF FIRE). But so that we don’t think of him as too “high brow” we’re reminded that he also started the POLICE ACADEMY franchise (also inspiring the end scene of the first one). Ms. Ladd-Jones also delves into the misfires, particularly THE RIGHT STUFF which rankles Laddie so much that he has never watched it (“lost control, too long and too over budget”). Hey Mr. L, I think it’s still pretty great. And we hear of his sadness at the ending of his first marriage, although his marriage to Cindra has given him great joy and another family (including a talented biographer). And though his office days are behind him, he’s still in great demand for his storytelling instincts and vast knowledge (though many in the film will admit that he can be a soft or “low talker” ala “Seinfeld”). If you’re in the mood for a terrific crash course in the big studio films of the past fifty or so years, then you’ll be informed and greatly entertained by spending a fast-paced 83 minutes with LADDIE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIES.

3.5 Out of 4

LADDIE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIES is available to rent and buy on digital download beginning on April 26, 2021

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.