The Tragic Unlikely

Among the most fascinating backstories of Old Hollywood is the life of one Ross Alexander

A man with a film career spanning five years, twice bearded, obsessed with Bette Davis, and allied with some of the queerest stars on the WB lot (I’m thinking mainly of Dick Powell, who, though not gay, had an incredibly pansy onscreen persona, and Errol Flynn, whose case was much the opposite). That he was a suicide victim, at the ripe old age of 29, is stranger still in taking into account his career as the consummate joy boy/best buddy, a kind of precursor to the preadolescent pluck that an actor like Donald O’Connor would use as his signature. He seems a figure not quite important enough to have been tragic, and not quite around long enough to be sufficiently interesting—-and yet he is an endlessly fascinating presence, in the tantalizing way that someone like Robert Williams (star of three films before his untimely death) was. One wants to see more and more of him if only in the hopes of cracking through the exterior, that dauntless enthusiasm, a kind of manic happiness not unlike the style of Al Jolson. The brow-beating method of entertainment. There is nothing specifically to say about, or do with, him, intellectually, other than notice how every aspect of a life marked by sudden tragedy, even the seeming lightest moments of that life, take on an ethereal sort of cast. It’s the sort of thing one feels watching Olive Thomas or Wallace Reid, or, to a lesser extent, Ramon Novarro. 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~ by levantor on August 12, 2009.

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