Ross Alexander was poised for a major screen career when he suddenly killed himself at the age of 29 by shooting himself at his Encino farm, January 2, 1937, a tragedy that ultimately paved the way for newcomer Ronald Reagan. Or so the story goes. In reality, with his elfin looks and somewhat effete manners, Alexander would probably not have outlasted the 1930s as a leading man, never mind enjoying a career as lengthy as Reagan's. He had come to Hollywood in 1932 from Broadway with a reputation as a "kept man" by several well-connected homosexuals and found a surprising home at testosterone heavy Warner Bros. Alexander's whimsical style worked well as Demetrius in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1935) but much less so elsewhere and his final films were programmers. On December 5, 1935, the first Mrs. Alexander, Aleta Freel, despondent over her own lack of acting success, killed herself at their home on Woodrow Wilson Dr. in the Hollywood Hills. Ross married starlet Anne Nagel nine months later but their union seemed doomed from the outset. According to reports, Alexander was still deeply troubled by the death of Aleta and shot himself in his barn with the identical weapon Aleta had used, a .22 caliber rifle. Another, more likely, scenario had Alexander taking his own life after Bette Davis had announced to everyone at the studio that the young actor was "abnormal," Bette apparently wishing to calm her loutish husband, Harmon Nelson, who foolishly thought she was having an affair with the effete young actor. According to Hollywood lore, fellow Warner star Errol Flynn, who may or may not have been Alexander's lover at one time but was certainly a very lose friend, never forgave Davis for her behavior and did his best not to work with her and failing only twice. Nor did he ever find much good to say about Ronald Reagan, Alexander's supposed replacement.
Ross Alexander's final film (released posthumously)
READY, WILLING AND ABLE (Warner Bros., 1937) D: Ray Enright. CAST: Ruby Keeler, Lee Dixon, Allen Jenkins, Louise Fazenda, Ross Alexander (Barry Granville), Carol Hughes, Hugh O'Connell, Winifred Shaw. A couple of down-on-their-luck Broadway impresarios (Dixon and Alexander) secure backing for their newest show by promising to corral a famous British leading lady (Shaw). They instead are saddled with college kid Keeler, who is forced to imitate the posh star. READY, WILLING AND ABLE was released at the tail end of Warner Bros.'s musical cycle and marked Ruby Keeler's final film for the company. The musical-comedy is best remembered for a Bobby Connolly staged production number, "Too Marvelous for Words," in which scores of chorines bang out Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting's hit song on typewriters. The number earned Connolly an Oscar nomination for Best Choreography. Although he was the nominal male lead, Warner Bros. played down Alexander's ghostly presence by billing him below the comedy relief. For today's viewer READY, WILLING AND ABLE becomes a showcase not for Alexander or Miss Keeler (whose charms may leave a modern audience decidedly cold) but for Louise Fazenda, a now forgotten comedienne who had actually given Mabel Normand a run for her money in the silent era.