A Book Review by Tony Williams.
“It was not only his desire to play heroic roles that made him diet, but the hope that he would attract a young lover through his own beauty. He never did and he was too innately shy to be aggressive.” (DeWitt Bodeen) (1)
For devotees of classical Hollywood cinema, Laird Cregar (1913-1944) made a brief, if memorable, impression on the studio landscape in starring roles in John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1944). Already known for supporting roles in films such as I Wake Up Screaming (1942), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Black Swan (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (1943), this corpulent and tormented actor seemed poised to gain stardom had he successfully dieted to fulfill the role of the industry’s version of a leading man. Mank’s bio-filmography Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy (McFarland, 2018) traces the life and career of this interesting actor who, while never failing to impress audiences, was also a victim of overwhelming contradictions that led eventually to his demise. Was he homosexual? Was he bi-sexual seeking a heterosexual relationship? Or was he tormented by his actual weight that could have limited him into being a competitor for screen roles with Sydney Greenstreet (1897-1954)? Likewise, the theatrical experience and personal charm that he shared with Vincent Price could have resulted in him becoming another alternative choice player in Hollywood’s competitive landscape. Had he lived and succeeded in losing weight, would he have become another version of John Carradine (1906-1988) trapped in Hollywood’s competitive generic ghetto, playing horror roles far beneath his immense abilities, despite the Shakespearean background both actors shared? Although several answers are available, it is to Mank’s credit that he raises them only to deny a definitive “Rosebud” closure to his readers. He does supply one possibility: “The true torment was his weight, and the sad fact that he felt unattractive to anybody, male or female” (140; see also 199). All are possible and no individual key supplies the clue. All that remains is a Hollywood Tragedy involving the tragic demise of an acting talent offering diverse potential that was often denied to him to display, due to industry typecasting.
Mank’s work as a freelance film historian and DVD audio-commentator is well-known to those in the field, so his scrupulous archive research, contacts with those still around when he began his work, various photographs of the actor, and the different places he lived throughout his brief life, are what is to be expected. Divided into Six Parts with thirty-two chapters, including filmography, theater credits, unrealized film projects, chapter notes, bibliography, and index, the book fits professionally into the publisher’s direct-to-library distribution network as a work of research and general reader information purposes. Mank has left no stone unturned while searching for personal reminiscences both with sources no longer with us, such as Cregar’s niece, Elizabeth (who died in 2015); DeWitt Bodeen (1908-1988); and those thankfully still with us, such as David Frankham. The last was fascinated by the screen presence of an actor he never met and made every effort to find out as much as he could about him when he began his own Hollywood career a decade or so following Cregar’s death. He not only mentions his knowledge about the actor and what caused his abrupt demise in his 2015 autobiography, Which One was David?, but also aided Mank when he was researching this book.
Mank scrupulously documents Cregar’s various stage appearances, such as the Pasadena Playhouse production of Thomas Dekker’s 1599 drama The Shoemaker’s Holiday that opened on January 18, 1939, as well as his 1937 appearance in Miracle of the Swallows. The first play had also been part of the Mercury Theatre Broadway repertoire a few years before. On October 10, 1938, he received critical acclaim for playing Oscar Wilde on Broadway. These theatrical references are important, since they reveal another talent capable of diverse roles, but he could have ended up stereotyped like his idol, John Barrymore, who drunkenly insulted him at a party, though Cregar held him in honor. Despite his Shakespearean background, John Carradine often appeared in demeaning roles that betrayed early promise, and there is no guarantee that Cregar could have avoided a similar fate. The tragic enigma of Laird Cregar may lie less in his sexuality but more in a combination of different factors in which corpulence and the danger of stereotyping also played significant roles. One fact that probably contributed to his early demise was losing the opportunity to play in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII on Broadway, due to contractual problems with his studio. He also tested for various roles and lost as with the opportunity of playing with Bette Davis in The Letter (1940). She had seen him as Oscar Wilde on stage and insisted on his taking a test with her. Cregar later remarked, “The role was unsuited to me and the test was horrible. But no matter. Bette’s gesture was that beautiful, inordinate thing that one actor sometimes does for another” (55). Mank points out that Cregar’s appearance owed much to the efforts of co-producer Charles 0’Neal (1904-1996), father of Ryan (1941- ) to put on a play about this still controversial figure on stage (46-51). Patrick McGilligan also mentions Charles O’Neal in Young Orson as being prominent in thirties theater, so he is definitely a subject for future research. (2)
Hudson’s Bay (1941) became the only film in which Cregar and Price appeared together, and Mank notes that “They stand out in the picture with a flair and presence no one else in the cast matches” (76) and had Price gained the role Paul Muni eventually played, it would be easy to imagine “the rousing chemistry these two giants would have generated with their towering bodies and talent” (77). Despite their different physiques, both actors were capable of displaying a particular screen charisma both unique to them but common in its divergence from the conventions of typical Hollywood male stardom of the time. Indeed, Mank notes that after Cregar’s death, Price “assumed Laird’s place at Fox” (237) playing in Dragonwyck (1946) and the late actor’s most well-known screen roles in radio adaptions of Hangover Square, The Lodger, and I Wake Up Screaming, all produced in 1946. Originally, Fox wanted Cregar to play Price’s role in Dragonwyck.
In 1942, Cregar appeared as Detective Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming, a figure the author of the original novel modeled on Cornell Woolrich, but despite the physical difference, the actor delivered a memorable and menacing performance that matched the requirements of a very different original character. He could also excel in comedy, as his role in Charley’s Aunt (1941) revealed, although he did not play the title role. Jack Benny (1894-1974) did. According to Phyllis Diller, David Merrick suggested that Benny play the title role in Hello Dolly! in drag during the 1960s with George Burns (1896-1996) as Horace Vandergelder (255). Nothing came of the idea. However, Charley’s Aunt was not the last time Benny appeared in drag, since I remember him performing the role of Gracie Allen (1895-1964) with Burns on the ITV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the early 60s, at a time when The Burns and Allen Show (1950-58) had been extremely popular on BBC TV.
Cregar and his work deserve to be both remembered and discovered by a new generation of viewers. Hopefully, this book should lead to greater recognition of a very talented actor who should be celebrated for his brief and premature time on screen.
- A Hollywood Tragedy: 199.
- McGilligan, Patrick (2016), Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, New York: Harper-Collins: 277-78, 284, 285, 286, 289.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.