The tragically brief life of fresh-faced, boyishly handsome Ross Alexander, who seemed to have everything going for him, plays these days like a bad Hollywood movie. Alexander was a charming, highly engaging young actor whose pleasant voice and breezy personality aided greatly in his transition from Broadway teen player to young adult Warner Bros. film actor. His peers would include such Warner stalwarts as Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Errol Flynn. Off-camera, however, Ross, a closeted homosexual, became an acutely self-destructive young man whose career instability and domestic tragedy would take its toll. The tormented Ross ended his own life at age 29.
Ross Alexander was born Alexander Ross Smith in Brooklyn, New York, to Maud Adelle (Cohen) and Alexander Ross Smith, a leather merchant. Raised in Rochester, New York, he pursued both drama and athletics in high school (soccer, swimming) and sidelined in little theater productions in town. In between he took his first Broadway bow as a young teen in Blanche Yurka’s long-running comedy success “Enter Madame.” He eventually moved back to New York City following schooling and began to build up his stage resume in stock companies. On Broadway he showed a modicum of promise in such plays as “The Ladder” (1926) and “Let Us Be Gay” (1929). The latter play introduced Ross to producer John Golden and marked an immoderate two-year association which would include the plays “After Tomorrow” (1930) and “That’s Gratitude” (1930). Paramount apparently saw Ross’ potential and started him off in pictures with The Wiser Sex (1932), but nothing happened. Continuing on Broadway with “The Stork Is Dead” (1932), “Honeymoon” (1932), “The Party’s Over” (1933) and “No Questions Asked” (1934), he was re-noticed for films, this time by Warner Bros.
Warners signed him to appear in its popular backstage Depression-era musicals and collegiate capers. Alexander’s fresh look and carefree, slightly cynical demeanor made him an instant favorite and he soon began humming with popular second leads in such musicals as Flirtation Walk (1934). On the dramatic side he was chosen to play Demetrius in the all-star A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and in Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood (1935) he played Jeremy Pitt, Blood’s friend and navigator. Trouble started brewing, however, behind the scenes. Ross was being perceived by Warners as a second-ranked Dick Powell. As the studio began featuring him in Powell’s castoffs and other uninspiring B-grade movies, they decided it was too taxing to both groom him for matinée idol status and conceal his homosexuality at the same time.
A probable marriage of convenience to budding starlet Aleta Friele, who appeared on Broadway using the name Aleta Freel, ended disastrously with the 28-year-old actress taking her own life with a rifle in their Hollywood Hills home. The actor was deeply shaken by this tragic event. He tried to cover his tracks yet again, however, by marrying beautiful actress Anne Nagel, whom he met while on the set of China Clipper (1936) and Here Comes Carter (1936). It didn’t help quash his spiraling depression.
Finally Warners lost all patience and interest after having to cover up a potentially career-threatening gay-sex scandal, and Ross’ promising career went down the tubes. To add insult to injury, he incurred major debt. On January 2, 1937, less than five months after his marriage to Nagel and shortly after the first anniversary of his first wife’s death, Aleta Friele who also committed suicide, Alexander shot himself with a pistol in a barn behind his Encino ranch home. His last movie, the moderately received Ready, Willing and Able (1937) with Ruby Keeler, was released posthumously. Despite the fact he was the co-lead in the film, he was billed fifth, thus emphasizing the point that he had already lost most of his clout.
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