The Loss of Laird Cregar

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the name Laird Cregar (1913-1944). He was well on the way to becoming a star, but his early death at age 31 meant he left scarcely more than a dozen films to secure his legacy, and most of them are of sort of middling significance, not the sort of pictures that live on in the wider public’s consciousness, though some come close. And typically he plays second lead, or the villain, obscuring his presence further.

Yet, once having learned of him, and having seen him in a few pictures, I keenly feel the loss of what might have been. Cregar was an actor of my favorite type, the kind who brought a whiff of the stage with him. For points of reference, one might easily compare him to actors like Orson Welles, Vincent Price, Sydney Greenstreet, and Charles Laughton. You’ll note a couple of plus-sized men on this list. Though young, Cregar often hovered around 300 lbs. But, because of a striking, good-looking face, he had a prayer of being a leading man if he could manage to drop a third of that. He wasn’t just stout, he was big boned and boxy, kind of like Raymond Burr. As with Burr, the big shoulders and chest meant that he could actually carry a lot of weight and seem “big” rather than “fat”; in the right sort of clothes, shot from the right angles, his girth could conceivably be de-emphasized.

Born in Philadelphia, educated in England, Cregar was one of those precocious young people (like Welles) who pursued a professional career in the theatre starting in his teenage years. College was never on his agenda, and yet he acquired experience, education and polish by acting with regional companies in England and the U.S. When he was 23 he got a scholarship to Pasadena Playhouse, and he acted there and with Federal Theatre Project productions. His turning point came when he played Oscar Wilde in a self-produced version of the eponymous Stokes play in which Robert Morley had scored a hit on Broadway. Presented at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, the production was basically Cregar’s showcase for Hollywood talent scouts, and influential people like John Barrymore saw it and praised it. His screen career began in earnest in 1941.

If “Laird Cregar” sounds like a terrible name for a movie star, for context I might remind you of the existence of, oh, Holbrook Blinn or Creighton Hale or dozens of others we have enshrined in the Travalanche Hall of Hams. It was still the age of WASP hegemony in the dramatic field. These “Harold-and-Arthur” British and pseudo-British types with pencil thin moustaches were what was for dinner! In fact, several of them (Vincent Price, Nigel Bruce, Montagu Love, Frederick Worlock, Ian Wolfe, Morton Lowry) appeared alongside Cregar in his first major film Hudson’s Bay (1941), though the leads were Paul Muni and Gene Tierney, Jewish and Irish, a portent of the changing order. But Cregar represented the older stage and screen tradition, and Hollywood was very much still making the kinds of vehicles which called for it.

For example, he supported Tyrone Power in swashbucklers like the 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, and 1942’s The Black Swan, in which he played the pirate Henry Morgan. He appeared opposite Jack Benny in the umpteenth version of the old stage warhorse Charley’s Aunt (1942). He was in the ensemble of Lubitch’s magical Heaven Can Wait (1943) as the vaguely Satanic “His Excellency”. Cregar’s last two films suggest the direction he was probably heading in as an actor. He was the Jack the Ripper style villain in the 1944 remake of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, and another serial killer, a deranged composer in the jaw-dropping Hangover Square (1945). This last performance was how I became aware of Cregar. He was so unique and terrific and vulnerable and real yet theatrical I was like, “Who IS this guy?” And he was the lead in the film, yet I had never heard of him. So I had to find out.

But this was Cregar’s last film. And it will break your heart to know why. In Hangover Square he had been the star. Only 31, he wanted more of that. So he went on a crash diet. And so drastic was the attempt that the stress on his body gave him a fatal heart attack. He died, in short, of an eating disorder.

He needn’t have of course. He was shaping up for a great future as a character actor. Billy Rose wanted him to play Henry VIII on Broadway. There were plans for him to play Javert in Les Miserables, a role Laughton had played a decade earlier. He had played Sheridan Whiteside in a stage production in The Man Who Came to Dinner; that could have been a great screen role for him when he got older, as it turned out to be for Welles. It would have been exquisite to have had another four decades of Cregar performances, as we got to enjoy with Price and Welles. Instead, the truncated, nipped-in-the-bud nature of his life and career has more in common with those of an actor very much unlike him: James Dean. What might have been.

And now, something I don’t often do, but the nature of this actor cries out for it, to convey his chameleon like playfulness, and the kind of roles Laird Cregar played — a one-man Rogue’s Gallery, if you will. Make a point of checking out his work, if you can:

Mr. Gutman, eat your heart out
Oh, I ask for very little. Nothing special. Only…your SOUL!
A reminder to carry mace when you walk the streets at night, ladies!
I love rum so much, I think I’ll become one!
The nightmarish final scene of “Hangover Square”, Cregar’s last moments on film. Goodnight, Sweet Prince…of Darkness!