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Starring Ross Alexander
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Starring Ross Alexander - 6/25

The story of Ross Alexander is an authentic, if little-remembered, Hollywood tragedy. A rising Warner Bros. star of the mid-1930s, the boyishly handsome actor was a close friend of Henry Fonda, a stalker of Bette Davis and an apparent bisexual who flirted with scandals that could have destroyed his career. He endured the suicide of a young wife and, at the age of 29, ended his own life by putting a gun to his temple and pulling the trigger, just as his wife had a year earlier. Alexander's death directly paved the way for the stardom of another personable young leading man, Ronald Reagan.

He was born Alexander Ross Smith on July 27, 1907, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Rochester, N.Y., returning to New York City at age 17 to study acting. He made his Broadway debut as a juvenile in the popular comedy Enter Madame, starring Blanche Yurka. The first mystery of his young life surfaced around this time when, according to some sources, he was married at age 18 to a sophisticated older woman who bore him a daughter. Beyond the first name of "Helen," the identity of his wife (and their alleged child) never surfaced.

After a handful of Broadway appearances and roles in stock that marked him as a promising young leading man, Alexander made his film debut in Paramount's The Wiser Sex (1932). He later gratefully acknowledged the film's star, Claudette Colbert, for her coaching in toning down his theatrical style and underplaying for the camera. Despite Colbert's help, his performance was not received favorably, and he returned to the stage.

Alexander again found himself in demand on Broadway, playing leads in minor productions and supporting roles in more important ones. He also continued in stock and, at the Winchester Playhouse in Mount Kisco, N.Y., became very friendly with Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan (Fonda's first wife) and a young actress named Aleta Friele. In February 1934, around the same time that he signed a movie contract with Warner Bros., Alexander married Friele with Fonda serving as best man.

The young couple moved to Hollywood, settling in a home in Laurel Canyon. Alexander's stage successes, along with his good looks, pleasing voice and a certain devil-may-care attitude, convinced executives at Warner Bros. that he was movie-star material, and his buildup in films began.

Colbert's advice about film acting seemed to have at last sunk in; good reviews for featured parts in Alexander's first two Warner Bros. films, Gentlemen Are Born (1934) and Flirtation Walk (1934), led to his first starring role in the B-movie comedy-drama Maybe It's Love (1935), opposite Gloria Stuart. He returned to featured status, however, in the golddigger comedy We're in the Money (1935), starring Joan Blondell and an actress who would become a good friend to Alexander, Glenda Farrell.

Alexander joined James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell in the all-star cast of Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), playing Demetrius. Also in the film was the beautiful blonde actress Anita Louise, with whom Alexander was rumored to have had an affair. Eyebrows were raised in Hollywood society, not only because Alexander was married but because it was widely believed that he was, in fact, homosexual.

Sometimes regarded at Warners as a second-tier version of Dick Powell, Alexander appeared onscreen with Powell for a third time in Shipmates Forever (1935), a musical about Navy cadets filmed in part at the Annapolis Naval Academy. Although Powell was teamed with frequent costar Ruby Keeler, it was Alexander who stole the notices with his comic portrayal of a plebe from Arkansas.

On December 6, 1935, it was announced that Alexander would be loaned out to Twentieth Century-Fox for a plum role in Everybody's Old Man, starring Irving S. Cobb. But on that same evening his 28-year-old wife, Aleta, depressed about the state of her career (and, some would say, her marriage), shot and killed herself with a .22 caliber rifle. Alexander went into seclusion at a home in Brentwood, Calif., shared by Henry Fonda, James Stewart and actor/photographer John Swope.

While Alexander was still grieving, the swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), starring Errol Flynn with Alexander in the role of Jeremy Pitt, the hero's friend and navigator, opened to good box office.

In early 1936, the newly widowed Alexander began to display an unhealthy obsession with Bette Davis, recently established as the "Queen" of Warner Bros., and launched a campaign to be cast in a film as her love interest. He reportedly predicted that, if only he could play a love scene with her, she would respond "like a wildcat" and they would become real-life lovers as well as costars.

According to Jerry Asher, a writer friend of Davis, "It was really pathetic... I knew Bette well enough to know that Ross wasn't her type. He was a handsome enough kid, with a good body and a wry, offhand, cynical charm that made him great in certain roles, but she could always spot a bisexual component in a man, and that she needed like a hole in her head at that stage."

Alexander began following Davis around the lot and leaving mash notes on her dressing room door. Very annoyed, she alternately shunned and taunted him. Her husband at the time, Harmon "Ham" Nelson, eventually confronted Alexander and punched him in the face, causing a black eye that kept the actor off-camera for several days.

During the height of his Davis fixation, Alexander's first solo starring effort, Boulder Dam (1936), was released. It was the last film he had completed before Aleta's death. In it he plays a Detroit mechanic who accidentally kills his foreman and flees to Nevada to work on the Colorado River dam project. Next came another star part in Brides Are Like That (1936), a domestic farce costarring Alexander's former romantic interest, Anita Louise; and a featured role in I Married a Doctor (1936), a version of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street starring Pat O'Brien.

With a rash of good reviews and receding interest in the tragedy of his wife's death, Alexander again was awarded star billing in Hot Money (1936), a business farce that offers him a defining role as a sleek, witty, well-dressed sophisticate -- a promotions expert who sells overvalued stock to a gullible public. Hot Money was also significant in Alexander's career because of the presence of a new Warner Bros. contractee, a pretty, brunette actress named Anne Nagel.

Nagel also appeared in Alexander's next film, China Clipper (1936), an aviation epic starring Pat O'Brien as an airline owner trying to create a trans-Pacific operation. Alexander, playing a pilot, led a supporting cast that also included Humphrey Bogart, Marie Wilson and Wayne Morris. Around the time of this film's release, to everyone's surprise, Alexander and Nagel were married. They settled into a ranch house in Encino, Calif.

Alexander received some of the best reviews of his career for the comedy Here Comes Carter (1936), in which he stars as a Hollywood press agent turned fast-talking radio commentator. One reviewer compared his timing and delivery to Jack Benny. Nagel is also prominent in this one, playing a radio singer.

At this point Alexander was considered an up-and-coming leading man at Warners, ranking fifth among all the studio's stars in fan-mail volume. He was announced for one of the studio's biggest productions of the coming year: Ready, Willing and Able (1937), a musical with songs by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting. He was to star opposite Ruby Keeler, just as Dick Powell had so often done.

But things were not going at all well in Alexander's private life. He continued to show his misguided passion for an increasingly irate Bette Davis, and his new wife was disturbed to find in his desk unfinished love letters addressed to his idol. He reportedly drank to excess and frequently fell into moods of deep despair.

A homosexual encounter with a stranger led to demands for blackmail money, and Alexander, already in debt, had to turn to his publicity agent and studio attorneys to extricate himself from the situation. Executives at Warner Bros. were finding Alexander to be very high-maintenance, and his projected stardom began to seem doubtful.

Filming on Ready, Willing and Able was almost complete when the company took a break for the holidays. On January 3, 1937, on the pretext of shooting a duck for dinner, Alexander went into a barn on his Encino property and shot and killed himself with a .22 caliber target pistol.

An article in The Los Angeles Times on January 6 read, in part, "Hollywood showed its true colors in extending sympathy to little Anne Nagel, widow of Ross Alexander. To a man and woman they joined in condolences and did everything possible for this young woman left stranded, through no fault of her own, on the shores of tragedy."

When Ready, Willing and Able opened in March 1937, Warner Bros. minimized Alexander's participation. Even though he was Keeler's leading man and love interest, his billing was moved to fifth place, making it seem that dancer Lee Dixon was the costar. Still, Alexander holds the film's focus and provides one of its most charming moments as he "dictates" the movie's most famous song, "Too Marvelous for Words," to "secretary" Keeler, who then dances to it with Dixon on the keys of a giant typewriter. When Alexander actually begins to sing the song, he is dubbed by James Newill.

Nagel continued in films for some years after Alexander's death, most notably as a "scream queen" in horror B-movies at Universal. She died in 1966. Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon would write that Reagan, working as a radio broadcaster in Iowa at the time of Alexander's suicide, was hired in part by Warner Bros. to replace its tragic would-be star.

by Roger Fristoe

Source: "Ross Alexander, Fleeting Star," by John R. Allen Jr., ClassicImages.com

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