Of all the actors that time forgot, Laird Cregar may be the most tragic. Cregar appeared in less than twenty movies before mortality came to a blinding and exceedingly early end, but among those handful of movies can be found some of the most exciting performances of the 1940s. Had Cregar not died at the extraordinarily tragic age of 31, he may well not only haven never become an actor that time forgot, he may have leaped into the sphere of legend.
I first came across Laird Cregar in the semi-film-noirish “I Wake Up Screaming.” To say much about his character would give away the plot, but boiled down to essentials it comes to this: Cregar plays a typically crooked cop who is helbent on securing a conviction for a man he knows did not commit murder. The movie as a whole is extremely well-made and gives lie to the conventional wisdom that Victor Mature could not act. Mature is good, but anyone would pale in comparison to the subtly nuanced performance delivered by the massive Laird Cregar.
When I discovered that the guy who played the sinister detective was not even 30 years old, I was stunned. Cregar was a huge guy who weighed in excess of 300 pounds. The extra flesh in his face made Cregar look older than he was and so he very often played characters already staring middle-age in the face. Hollywood’s obsession with weight also meant that Cregar’s destiny seemed headed toward becoming for 20th Century Fox what Sydney Greenstreet had been for the brothers Warner. Cregar was a heavy in the sense of bad guy in many roles. And he did excel. But he was far from a one-trick pony.
Cregar’s most memorable performances may have included his cop from the dark side in “I Wake Up Screaming” and Jack the Ripper in “The Lodger” but he exhibited a talent for comedy that makes many of today’s comic actors look downright sober by comparison.
Just recently I watched “The Black Swan” which is a rollicking swashbuckling epic in which Cregar’s Capt. Henry Morgan is the highlight of the movie. Just try to imagine any actor today delivering a line like “Your fulminations, my hosts and gentlemen, are full of bilge and blather” without cringing in embarrassment. Cregar, on the other hand, plays Capt. Morgan as a larger than life personality who would take about five seconds to kick the rear end of all those idiots prancing around in commercials for the rum named after him. Cregar’s momentous talent makes Capt. Morgan both a comic figure and a figure of perverse nobility.
Cregar also plays the devil. Quite literally. But not as a heavy figure of pure evil. In a film that does not star Warren Beatty titled “Heaven Can Wait,” Cregar plays a character officially listed as His Excellency. This comedy about a rogue who think he deserves a place in Hell stars Gene Tierney and Don Ameche, but you won’t remember much about them. “Heaven Can Wait” is a bit of fluff that lingers sweetly on the tongue about as long as a Hershey kiss you halved with your significant other except for the figure of Satan presented in the guise of Laird Cregar. Cregar dominates the film despite being a secondary character. His disposal of a lady one-percenter into the pits of Hades through a trapdoor is one of the greatest comic moments in classic film history that has never gotten its due.
Laird Cregar is an actor that time forgot for a reason significantly different from others in this series. Cregar possessed the intellectual acuity to sense that though he may have gotten his big break by staging a production about Oscar Wilde, he was well on his way to the land of villainous typcasting. Seeking to shrug off his image of the heavy in both senses of the word, he went on a crash diet and appears 100 pounds lighter in his last film, “Hangover Square.” Here he once again plays a guy with a dark side, but with a patina of the romantic about him. Cregar was capable of endowing the most starkly drawn characters with levels of complexity that many more well-known actors would have killed to replicate. He also is actually playing those complicated piano pieces even though it is not him you are hearing thanks to stereotypically dumb decisions by studio heads. Cregar was quite the accomplished pianist.
We might have gotten to hear as well as actually see Cregar the pianist if he had not been so dedicated to becoming the leading man he ached to be. In preparation for “Hangover Square” he went on a crash diet that included heavy amphetamine use to suppress his appetite. Unfortunately, the effects of losing 100 pounds so quickly and in such an unhealthy manner resulted in a heart attack that took him away right as he appeared to be on the verge of breaking out into stardom.