The Gifted and Talented Mr. Cregar

Today is the 100th birthday of Laird Cregar, a great actor that left this world far too early, at the age of only 31, in 1944, just two months before the release of his greatest acting triumph, Hangover Square.  I came to Cregar late in my lifelong film education when I finally saw him in This Gun for Hire one day, years after I should have seen it, and was immediately intrigued.  Cregar played major roles in only fourteen films in four years, from 1941 through 1944, with two bit parts in 1940, but left behind a formidable legacy nonetheless.

Cregar 01

I suppose I could give you a list of his performances with a small blurb about each one but that’s what IMDB is for.  I’d rather talk about what Cregar means to me as an actor and highlight the work he did that placed him in a position not occupied by many other actors in the cinema. And it all starts with This Gun for Hire.

Cregar became famous early on for playing the heavy and since his physical frame was imposing, it seemed an obvious and easy signpost for audiences to identify him as the bad guy.  Indeed, he had become an instant hit as the ruthless detective in I Wake Up Screaming shortly before being cast as the villain in This Gun for Hire.

The movie is famous for making Alan Ladd a star and rightfully so. He does a great job as the cold blooded assassin (the gun for hire referred to in the title), Philip Raven, and Veronica Lake is charming, in her second big part after her breakout role in Sullivan’s Travels the year before.  But for me, Cregar stands out and here’s why.  Cregar, in his short career, had a way, evidenced here, of taking a despicable character and making him sympathetic that had nothing to do with the script or the character as written and everything to do with Cregar.  His character, Willard Gates, a high level executive at a chemical plant and a night club owner, double-crosses the assassin, Raven, who was hired to kill an employee of Gates’ who stole a top-secret formula.  When Raven kills the thief and delivers the formula, Gates pays him in marked bills and tips off the cops because, well, because he’s a cold, ruthless son of a you know what.  And he seems unworried about any of it coming back to him.  In fact, he reports the money missing so that he can collect it back from insurance and Raven can go to jail.  Presumably, he’s prepared to say that Raven’s story is a bunch of malarkey but that seems an awful lot of trouble and unnecessary risk when he could just pay Raven properly and let it go.  But that’s the point.  He’s so greedy he’ll double-cross an assassin, putting himself at risk, just to get his money back.

Later, he auditions acts for his night club and meets up with Ellen Graham (Lake), auditioning with a delightful magic act/song number that immediately captivates Gates.  He’s smitten and decides she’s going to go by train with him to Los Angeles to begin rehearsing.  It’s here that the plot complications set in with Raven following Gates to get his revenge, Ellen being recruited to spy on Gates and her cop boyfriend hot on the trail of Raven.  What follows is the slow downfall of Gates as he’s forced to give orders to a henchman to kill Ellen because he thinks she’s in cahoots with Raven.  And that’s where Cregar comes through.  In the audition scene, he seems so delighted with Ellen and her routine that there’s almost a boyish junior high crush element to it.  When he knows she has to be killed you can tell the decision kills him.  And that’s where Cregar makes the difference.  He had a quality in his eyes that gave him a sympathetic tone many actors lack.  It’s who he was and it shone through.  For contrast, put someone else in the role.  Someone like Rex Harrison (even though I realize Harrison didn’t play the heavy too often).  I just wrote him up recently for TCM’s website for the movie The Rake’s Progress and noted how well Harrison played self-absorbed and cruel (and he did).  Put him in the Gates role and without changing a line of dialogue or a single camera angle, he would be, in my mind, completely unsympathetic.  His decisions would seem ruthless where Cregar’s seem pained, his reaction to unanticipated outcomes would seem cold where Cregar’s seem desperate and panicky.  It’s not because of the script, it’s because of Cregar.

Cregar 02

When I watched Cregar in movie after movie, once I discovered him, I saw the same thing again and again.  In The Lodger he once again performs the hat trick of making the creepy, sullen Jack the Ripper character, Mr. Slade, seem sympathetic.  At the climax, when cornered, his face betrays such desperation that, despite the fact that he is a brutal murderer, and that just minutes before he tried to kill the leading lady,  he seems a pitiable figure.  The audience feels sorry for him to the degree anyone can feel sorry for a brutal killer, which is to say, mainly, the audience can see him as a mentally unbalanced man, lonely and afraid, without actually liking him.  Just understanding him.  And maybe that’s the other difference.  With Cregar, his eyes and face let the audience understand the character far better than any words of dialogue ever could.

Hangover Square was his last film and the greatest performance of his career.  It contains exactly the qualities described in the previous paragraphs with the added qualifier that when he kills, he is not in his right mind and unaware of his actions.  It makes it even easier to have sympathy for him but the fact that it’s Cregar means that would have happened anyway.

Despite these obvious and rare gifts as an actor, Cregar was discouraged by his weight and towering size, feeling it kept him from the big, romantic leading man roles. In an effort to correct this, he went on a crash diet that included prescribed amphetamines, lost over 100 pounds quickly and died of a heart attack two months before the release of Hangover Square.  He didn’t want to always be the bad guy and felt a different look might make the difference.  Sadly, what Cregar never realized is that he wasn’t the bad guy and never would be.  He was a great actor that made every character he played human, real and identifiable.  It’s a great shame that he left us so early for we never got to see how much more he could do.  And do well.

10 Responses The Gifted and Talented Mr. Cregar
Posted By Emgee : July 28, 2013 4:07 pm

A beautiful and fitting tribute to an unforgettable actor, at least to me. It seems amazing that despite his imposing physical appearance he was totally convincing playing Oscar Wilde in a play about that author.A truly tragic loss.

Posted By Scott Dwight : July 28, 2013 4:31 pm

He was also great in a comedic role as “His Excellency” in “Heaven Can Wait.” His scene with the exasperating socialite is classic.

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : July 28, 2013 7:05 pm

I agree with the depiction of his performance in This Gun For Hire. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were very good as well but Laird Cregar delivered a standout performance. I prefer the film to some of the more popular Ladd-Lake future offerings.

Posted By tdraicer : July 28, 2013 7:24 pm

In Hudson’s Bay Cregar was equally effective in a very different sort of role: sort of a 17th Century French-Canadian version of Little John in Robin Hood.

Posted By CitizenKing : July 29, 2013 9:29 am

My favorite Cregar character was quite different, as the pirate Sir Henry Morgan in The Black Swan. This is pure scenery chewing, and Cregar has a ball. It gave him an opportunity to display the outsize personality that accompanied his outsize frame. As in many of the movies noted above, Cregar had a way of being the most interesting person on screen, even when playing a minor role.

Posted By swac44 : July 29, 2013 12:48 pm

I first came across Cregar in the aforementioned The Black Swan, loved his performance, and wondered why I hadn’t seen much of him before, only to learn of his too-short career in an issue of Video Watchdog that focused heavily on The Lodger and Hangover Square, neither of which were available on home video at the time.

Through the magic of tape trading, I was able to get some 2nd gen VHS copies of those two films, recorded off of AMC back when its name stood for American Movie Classics (ah, those were the days), and loved every minute of them. Eventually I Wake Up Screaming showed up on DVD from Fox, and he runs away with the picture. I haven’t seen Hudson’s Bay yet (and I immediately went searching online for a copy of Charley’s Aunt with Jack Benny after reading this article) but I’m not looking forward to the day when I’ll have tracked down all of his performances, and there won’t be any more left to savour.

Posted By robbushblog : July 31, 2013 1:20 pm

He totally stole I Wake Up Screaming. That had betty Grable in it and he stole it! Carole Landis was a pretty little thing too, but the thing I remember most is Laird Cregar. What a wonderful tribute. He was only 31?

Posted By Tom Herling : July 31, 2013 9:36 pm

Laird Cregar is one of those many great character actors who helped make the “Golden Age of Film” golden. Alas, he died too soon to build up his list of credits. I’d have to say that in a way he’s a little like John Cazale, an actor whom we only have a few performances by which to remember him, and wish he’d been able to do many more.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 1:08 pm

A little late to reply here but, yes (to Rob), only 31. So tragic for him to go so young because of a foolish idea that a thin frame would make him better.

Seeing the discussion here about I Wake Up Screaming puts me in the mood to watch it again. It’s been a few years and Cregar is all I remember. And why not?

Posted By – To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation : October 15, 2013 1:00 pm

[…] at the age 0f 31, one month after shooting on Hangover Square had wrapped. Our own Greg Ferrara wrote more about Cregar’s tragically short career back in […]

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