Monday, October 7, 2013

Heavy: The Life and Films of Laird Cregar


            Laird Cregar is by no means a household name today, but in the early 1940s the up-and-coming 20th Century Fox star stood perched on the edge of a long and productive career. The studio clearly imagined Cregar as another Vincent Price type, destined to play heavies because of his large size and cultured but sinister manner. Cregar, however, had other plans, and his obsession with proving himself as leading man material ultimately cost him not only his promising film career but his very life. The story of Laird Cregar fascinates movie buffs and film scholars today because it underscores the tragically high price actors sometimes paid in pursuing their dreams of stardom and prestige, but Cregar also merits attention as a gifted performer whose too-brief career reveals a tremendous talent that would have given the illustrious Price a run for his money had Cregar lived just a few more years.
Samuel Laird Cregar was born in Philadelphia on July 28, 1913. The youngest of six sons  sired by a professional cricket player, Cregar was sent to England at an early age to be educated at Winchester College, and it was there that he became involved with the theater, although he harbored a strong desire to act from early childhood. On his arrival in Hollywood, Cregar made the most of his theatrical experience by playing Oscar Wilde at the El Capitan Theatre, and he was so successful in the role that Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck took note of the young performer. After two small roles in forgettable films for other studios, Cregar made his debut for 20th Century Fox in the 1941 historical adventure, Hudson’s Bay, which also featured rising Fox star Vincent Price.
From there on Cregar enjoyed increasingly memorable roles, including several in high profile Fox productions like Blood and Sand (1941), The Black Swan (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). At 300 pounds and six feet three inches tall, however, Cregar found himself typecast as a stock villain in most of his films, and he usually played characters decades older than the young actor, who was only in his late twenties in 1941. Cregar’s menacing size and more mature appearance were not the only reasons that Fox viewed him as a natural villain; his homosexuality, although not openly acknowledged, gave him a slightly fey quality that translated on screen as a debauched, even perverse, sensuality. Filmmakers capitalized on that aspect of Cregar’s persona in the noir films, I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and This Gun for Hire (1942), and in Cregar’s final two pictures, the atmospheric horrors The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945).
Cregar, determined to remake himself as a traditional leading man, could not change his height or sexual orientation but could dramatically alter his girth, and he embarked on a radical weight loss program between the filming of The Lodger and Hangover Square, dropping more than one hundred pounds in a very short period of time. The alteration put a terrible strain on Cregar’s mind and body, but the actor still was not satisfied with his transformation. In November of 1944, he underwent gastric bypass surgery. His heart, already weakened, gave out, and Cregar suffered a massive coronary. On December 9, 1944, at 31 years old and on the verge of real stardom, Cregar died, and Hangover Square, the only film for which he would receive top billing, was released some two months after his demise. Vincent Price delivered the eulogy at Cregar’s funeral, and he was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where his simple headstone bears the epitaph, “I am with you always.”
Thus ended the brief, tragic life of Laird Cregar the man, but his epitaph would prove prophetic in regards to Laird Cregar the screen persona. He left behind sixteen film performances, some nine of them destined to ensure that Cregar’s name would never be completely forgotten. Although Cregar had resented the studio’s typecasting and given his life to escape it, his work in his most memorable pictures reveals that he had a tremendous talent for heavy roles, and his larger-than-life personality demands the viewer’s attention even in small supporting parts. A closer look at a handful of his best-known films - particularly Blood and Sand, I Wake Up Screaming, This Gun for Hire, The Lodger, and Hangover Square - shows how adept Cregar was at creating memorable villains whose obsessive yet charismatic personalities help them steal the screen from the movies’ ostensible leads.


I should mention before moving on to Cregar’s full-blown bad guys that he did, in fact, play other types of characters with great success. He appears as the comical sidekick, Gooseberry, in his breakout role in Hudson’s Bay, and in The Black Swan he makes a wonderfully funny Captain Henry Morgan, especially in the scenes of Morgan uncomfortably rising to respectability as the governor of Jamaica. In the 1941 Jack Benny comedy, Charley’s Aunt, Cregar plays the father of a college student - ironic because Cregar was actually three years younger than the actor who plays his son. His best scenes in Charley’s Aunt have Cregar pitching middle-aged woo to a cross-dressed Benny, who spends much of the movie disguised as the picture’s title character. Fox even flirted with Cregar’s reputation as a villain by casting him as the Devil in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 romantic comedy, Heaven Can Wait, in which a recently deceased Don Ameche tells the story of his misspent life to Cregar’s smiling Satan. Smartly dressed and infernally sophisticated with his black goatee, Cregar is actually a very sympathetic listener to Ameche’s long confession, although he does relish dropping Florence Bates through a trapdoor to Hell. Despite these memorable forays beyond straightforward villainy, Fox primarily viewed Cregar as a character actor and career heavy, and Cregar’s ability to shine in comedic roles did not substantially alter the studio’s opinion. Cregar was brilliant at playing villains, no question, but these other performances remind us that his desire for a more diverse career was not unrealistic or beyond his considerable talents.
Cregar got his first big antagonistic part in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 Technicolor bullfighting spectacle, Blood and Sand, a lavish Spanish epic adapted from the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibàñez. Here Cregar establishes several of the qualities that recur in his later heavies. His character is the bullfighting critic, Curro, an egotistical, bombastic dictator of the public taste. Curro at first antagonizes the hero, an aspiring matador played by Tyrone Power, but when Power’s fighter becomes a success Curro fawns on him and praises him as lavishly as he had once denounced him. Curro, however, can turn as viciously and suddenly as an asp, and he celebrates the matador’s eventual fall with cruelly barbed quips. Throughout the film Curro demonstrates a talent for thrusting his knife into his victims’ most vulnerable spots. He is the most dangerous and unpredictable sort of villain because he is simultaneously sadistic, clever, and weak, a limp snake in the grass that bites where the flesh is most exposed.
Cregar also invests Curro with a subtle jealousy of the masculine Juan, which might be interpreted either as Curro’s desire to be more like Juan or to be with him, a position that makes Curro a theoretical rival to both Linda Darnell’s angelic wife and Rita Hayworth’s destructive siren. As one critic in the documentary short, “The Tragic Mask: The Laird Cregar Story,” points out, Cregar “plays the character quite gay,” a risky choice in the closeted world of 1940s Hollywood. The gamble, however, pays off handsomely. In a film that boasts iconic stars like Power, Darnell, Hayworth, John Carradine, and Anthony Quinn, Cregar makes his villain stand out, no small achievement for an actor making his fourth film with only one year of Hollywood roles behind him.
In I Wake Up Screaming, released the same year as Blood and Sand, Cregar plays corrupt cop Ed Cornell, the villain who persecutes stars Betty Grable and Victor Mature after the murder of an aspiring model played by Carole Landis. Film critic David N. Meyer pans this minor film noir as “unconvincing” and even “unwatchable,” but he praises Cregar’s performance as “creepy and terrific” despite his complaints about the rest of the picture (142-143). In his book, Film Noir, Andrew Spicer identifies Cregar’s character as an example of the homme fatal, which Spicer describes as having “connotations of sexual perversity as well as sadism” (90). Cregar’s Ed Cornell thus belongs to the same camp as Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), and Claude Rains’ Victor Grandison in The Unsuspected (1947), with strong parallels to Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958), as well. The similarity between Waldo Lydecker and Ed Cornell is more than coincidental trivia; Cregar was actually considered for the role in Laura until director Otto Preminger rejected him as too obvious a villain. The typecasting that Cregar so desperately wanted to avoid cut him out of the running for one of the greatest character roles in film noir history, which only made him more determined to pursue his fatal makeover scheme.
Fox loaned Cregar out to Paramount for the more successful 1942 noir picture, This Gun for Hire, in which Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake take the leads as a professional killer and the beautiful girl who might or might not be trying to help him. Cregar plays the treacherous crook, Willard Gates, who betrays Ladd’s Raven by paying him off for a job with stolen, marked bills. In A Girl and a Gun, David N. Meyer describes Cregar’s character as an “early-noir archetype - the oversized, soft-spoken villain with the palette of an urban sophisticate and the implied sexual preferences of a degenerate” (254). Willard is both a pervert and a coward, but once again Cregar uses his character to steal the movie from its stars. Cregar himself described his character type as “a grotesque,” a term that perfectly suits his most villainous roles but highlights Cregar’s sense of his size and sexuality as limitations that prevented him from winning the coveted leading man roles.
Cregar’s final two films at Fox reveal his genius at playing the grotesque and also his obsession with breaking out of the villainous typecasting. The 1944 Gothic thriller, The Lodger, provides a truly iconic villain for the actor to play - that depraved Victorian vivisectionist, Jack the Ripper. The source material for the film was the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which had already provided the inspiration for a silent 1927 treatment from Alfred Hitchcock and would later be made again with Jack Palance in 1953 as Man in the Attic.
Ironically, Cregar is the title character in The Lodger but not the top-billed actor; both Merle Oberon and George Sanders are credited above him. Despite third billing, Cregar is clearly the protagonist of the story, and his truly macabre performance dominates the film. He plays the mysterious Mr. Slade, a stranger who rents a set of rooms from an older couple in the midst of the Jack the Ripper murders. His landlady, played by Sara Allgood, becomes suspicious of the new tenant, but nobody takes her seriously until it is almost too late, after Slade has already settled on lovely Merle Oberon as his next victim. George Sanders stars as the police detective determined to uncover the killer’s true identity and save Oberon’s character, Kitty, from a horrific fate.
The audience knows from the beginning that Cregar’s protagonist is the killer, which eliminates any concern about the actor being too obviously the villain. There’s no twist to spoil, and the plot moves forward with the tension relying on how long it will take for everyone else to figure out what the viewers already know. Cregar gives an incredibly creepy, intense performance, but like the best monster players he mingles his monstrosity with pity, especially in the scenes where he laments the death of his beloved brother, for whom he harbors a decidedly homoerotic passion. Cregar murmurs many of his most chilling lines, and his soft-spoken, almost dreamy manner leads Merle Oberon’s Kitty to pity him as a lost, lonely soul, little suspecting the brutal violence that lurks beneath the surface.
The Lodger revels in full-on Gothic atmosphere, with a Victorian setting replete with foggy streets, gaslight, and an aesthetic attitude toward horror very similar to that of Val Lewton in the RKO pictures Cat People, Bedlam, and I Walked with a Zombie. Cregar’s Slade perfectly embodies the Gothic themes of sexual repression and obsession; he both adores and hates Merle Oberon’s youthful beauty because he sees it as a snare that traps and destroys men. Like a more bloodthirsty version of the speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover,” he kills women and cuts them up in order to remove their evil natures and make them perfectly good and still. Slade also evinces a fascination with water, in this case the River Thames, which he ironically sees as a cleansing force that washes evil away. The finale lets Cregar cut loose with a wild-eyed, bravura performance that prefigures Orson Welles’ trapped rat run at the climax of The Third Man (1949) but also reveals shades of Peter Lorre in M (1931).
The Lodger proved successful enough that Fox reunited its major players for Cregar’s final picture, Hangover Square. George Sanders was cast as the detective, John Brahm was again tapped as director, and Barré Lyndon adapted the screenplay from the novel by Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton was already known for his Gothic work thanks to the successful screen versions of his play, Gaslight, and in 1948 another of his plays, Rope, would be made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. It was Cregar himself who suggested the novel for his next project, although he did not react well to the drastic alterations Fox made to the story. The final picture actually bears little resemblance to Hamilton’s black comedy, since the studio changed the period and the plot to more closely resemble The Lodger, but the idea of the protagonist as a man with a split personality disorder remains central to the film, as does his destructive relationship with a greedy, self-serving woman.
Cregar, achieving top billing at last, stars as classical composer George Harvey Bone, a gentle, soft-spoken soul who transforms into a homicidal maniac any time he hears a discordant sound. He has a sweetly bland girlfriend, Barbara, played by the unremarkable Faye Marlowe, who supports his musical career and promotes his work with her father, a successful conductor. Despite the girlfriend’s devoted concern about his periodic blackouts George becomes entangled with the seductive Netta, a self-interested singer played to deliciously repugnant effect by Linda Darnell. Netta milks George for music to advance her own career but only pretends affection for him while keeping a variety of other useful lovers on the side. Little does she realize that the gullible, pathetic George is also a violent murderer whose impulse to kill becomes fixed on her when her deception is finally revealed.
As far as Fox was concerned, Hangover Square was simply meant to duplicate the basic elements of The Lodger, but Cregar saw the love scenes with Linda Darnell as his opportunity to prove himself as a leading man. His intense diet and exercise regimen resulted in rapid weight loss and put a tremendous strain on him both physically and emotionally. According to “The Tragic Mask: The Laird Cregar Story,” the stress made for a difficult production, with Cregar eventually getting into an ugly and very public spat with John Brahm and the film crew through the Hollywood media. His death before the picture’s release in early 1945 meant that Cregar would never see how his obsessive makeover played out on screen.
The ultimate tragedy is that Cregar’s performance is simply brilliant, a showcase of the actor’s potential to play both romantic and maniacal types. Cregar had always been good at villainy, but in this role he adds even greater nuance and meaning to his monster by changing the way the audience sees him as a physical presence. Only in Hangover Square do we see Cregar looking close to his actual age, without the makeup, facial hair, and costumes that so often made him seem to be decades older. Like Cregar himself, George Harvey Bone is a young man on the verge of a promising career, laid low by darkness both within and without. With his slimmer figure and thinner face, Cregar sells himself as a worthy romantic hero, even though evil ultimately gets the upper hand.
Cregar manages to make George sympathetic, even tragic, despite a set up that once again tells the audience that he is a killer in the very first scene. We are introduced to George in homicidal mode, stabbing an antiques dealer and then setting fire to the shop. As water had been the murderer’s obsession in The Lodger, so fire becomes a central motif for George in Hangover Square. Both elements function as violent cleansing agents, with Cregar’s character as the final stain that must be removed from the world. When George is sane, Cregar plays him as a gentle artist, naïve perhaps but not so much a sap that he doesn’t resent Netta’s treatment of him. His sensitive nature makes Barbara want to protect him even as it invites Netta to take advantage of him, but Cregar gives George enough spirit that we see the bridge between his two sides. Besides, his artistic sensitivity is the quality that also causes him to go mad at the clang of pipes falling or the screeching thump of instruments being knocked over. He presses a hand to the back of his head, blinks hard, and then becomes a dangerous sleepwalker, barely aware of anything beyond his compulsion to kill. When the fog finally clears, George remembers nothing of his violent escapades, and we pity him deeply as he struggles to come to terms with a monstrosity that he suspects lives within him without his knowledge or consent.
Cregar again makes the most of a deliriously Gothic finale, with George finally recognizing his own evil and choosing death by fire rather than execution or life in the insane asylum. “I’ll never be held nor hanged!” George shouts at the Scotland Yard detectives. He sets the house on fire and plays his final concerto as everyone else rushes out. Fittingly, Laird Cregar sits at the piano, an artist to the last, performing with his whole soul until the billowing smoke rises up. In the final shot, he vanishes from our view.
Cregar’s death prevented him from playing the next role that Fox meant for him, that of Nicholas Van Ryn in the 1946 Gothic thriller, Dragonwyck. The part went to Vincent Price instead, and it would help to advance Price’s career as one of Hollywood’s most memorable heavies. Price died in 1993 with nearly 200 film and television credits to his name, leaving us to speculate what Cregar might have done had he lived past the age of 31. Instead, Cregar became an obscure footnote in the history of Hollywood tragedies, another casualty of the dream machine’s darker side. Some of his costars also met terrible fates: Carole Landis committed suicide at age 29, Tyrone Power suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 44, and Linda Darnell burned to death in a house fire when she was 41. George Sanders killed himself in 1972, at the comparatively old age of 67. All of them left questions, roles that might have been, and films that proved the worth of that which had been lost, but Cregar, so talented and so ambitious, is as tragic a figure as any of those better known stars. As the mourning Slade lamented of his departed brother in The Lodger, “He need not have died.” Had Cregar been able to accept his fate as a heavy, or had Hollywood been more broad-minded in its image of the leading man, he might have lived a long life, and cinema would have been far richer for his presence.


This paper was originally presented at the 2013 conference of Popular Culture in the South (PCAS) in Savannah, GA. Works Cited information is omitted to discourage plagiarism.