Laird Cregar has been on the periphery for me for a good while, but for some reason, I just never actively sought out his films. This was despite my admiration for his portrayal of the sleazy, cowardly, mint popping secondary villain in This Gun For Hire, which was his second film with my absolute favourite actor, Alan Ladd. Sadly, Laird and Alan would both die young and under tragic circumstances, and while Laird’s filmography is a quarter of the length of Alan’s, every film he was in seems to have been impressive or at the very least, contain a stellar performance from Laird.
Before I talk about the films starring Laird that I managed to watch, I’d like to talk about the man first. Laird was born in Philadelphia on the 28th of July, 1913, to Edward Matthews Cregar and Elizabeth Smith. He was the youngest of six children, and the family would immigrate to England when he was eight years old. He was educated in England at Winchester College, a public school established in 1382, where he developed his skill for emulating a refined British accent. When he was fourteen, his father died, whereupon Laird graduated from Episcopal College in Pennsylvania. Through some fast talking, he was able to tour with a travelling theatre company until he was in his early twenties.
When he was twenty three, he won a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse, and studied there until he was twenty five. According to Laird, the character actor Thomas Browne Henry, gave him some ill advised advice, and said to”not to lose a pound of weight, but instead to develop a thin man’s personality.”
After performing in Federal Theatre Projects, and then returning to the Pasadena Playhouse to make his professional debut in The Great American Family, Laird was unemployed for six months and had to sleep in his friends car. But this term of unemployment was to be the only one he would suffer, as he would actively pursue the main role in Oscar Wilde by Leslie and Sewell Stokes, which had launched Robert Morley’s international acting career. In 1940, the part would do the same for Laird, who was lauded by Los Angelas Times and John Barrymore, who said he was one of the best young stage actors of the past decade.
From this point on, Laird’s star soared, making his screen debut opposite Oscar winner and six time nominee, Paul Muni (who is another actor I greatly admire), and going on to star opposite Tyrone Power, Victor Mature, George Sanders, Betty Grable, Carole Landis, Gene Tierney, Henry Fonda and Veronica Lake. He would make a major impression in all of these films, becoming one of the most successful actors in 1942.
Despite his enormous success, Laird considered himself undesirable due to his inclination to be heavy set. He weighed 136kg for most of his adult life, and felt that this hindered him from being considered for romantic leading roles. He would embark on a dangerous crash diet in 1943 during the making of perhaps his most famous films, The Lodger. This crash diet meant the use of amphetamines, and resulted in serious abdominal complications, which necessitated surgery in December 1944. However, Laird suffered a massive heart attack and died in hospital on the 9th of December, 1944, at the age of 31, with his mother by his side. His last film, Hangover Square, was released two months after his death.
His early death denied us the opportunity to see him as the obsessed Javert in Les Misérables, and Henry VIII in Billy Rose’s Broadway production. It also ended the career of one of the most talented screen actors of the early 1940s, and although Laird felt he had been typecast as the “hulking villain”, he was an incredibly versatile, gifted actor.
His funeral was held four days after his death, and Vincent Price, who had been one of his costars in his debut film, Hudson Bay, delivered his eulogy. He finally received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for his contribution for the motion picture industry.
Only Looking At Laird
Blood and Sand
In the 1941 technicolour drama about the highs and lows of the Spanish bullring, Laird plays a fickle and destructive critic, Natalio Curro. He disrespects Juan Gallardo’s father, calling the now dead bull fighter a coward because he was gored in the ring. He also calls Juan a peasant when he starts to climb the ladder of bull fighting, until he reaches the top, and Natalio is all extravagant praise. But a gorgeous femme fatale, Dõna Sol des Muire comes along and Juan starts to slip off the ladder, and Natalio’s praise switches to Juan’s ex-friend, as does Dõna’s seduction.
Laird is not given many scenes in the film, but those he does appear in benefit greatly from his presence. He perfectly realises the verbose and pompous presence of Natalio, who is so filled with his own sense of prophetic power, that he doesn’t seem to realise, or care about, the destructive capacity his criticism has on the lives of the bull fighters. Although, Natalio is not the only one to blame for this, as Dõna and the blood hungry crowd are as destructive as Natalio’s words.
The end of the film, which I will not spoil, is heightened by Linda Darnell, Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth and Anthony Quinn’s performances. But it is Laird who captures the hysteria of the crowd when he says that the bull fighter standing in the ring is the first and greatest man of the world. Although it is only for a moment.
I Wake Up Screaming
I first heard about this fascinating film noir thanks to my friend Erica, from Poppity Talks Classic Films, with her wonderful post for the Carole Landis blogathon, hosted by Christine from Overture Books and Film. From that moment on, I was resolved to see the film. But at that point it was more for Victor Mature, Betty Grable and Carole Landis. Victor, Betty and Carole are all brilliant, and I think it’s the best performance I’ve seen Betty give, as it is a real departure from her fun, colourful musical roles.
However, it is Laird who gives the performance that stayed with me the longest. His portrayal of a detective so consumed by obsession that he is intent on seemingly arresting the wrong man for murder, is haunting from start to finish. He is first introduced in shadow, only his voice is known, but when he comes into the light, it is as if the viewer experiences a physical shock. He manages to make his eyes dead, his mouth a hard, unmoving line. He looks like a man possessed, and that is what Laird makes you understand about his character, he is possessed. Possessed by the most powerful of things: love for the unobtainable.
I will not spoil the ending of this film either, but the closing scenes featuring Laird are absolutely heartbreaking. You know that his character isn’t a good guy, but Laird injects such a sense of melancholy into his performance that you can’t help but feel some sympathy for him, no matter how slight. For me, I felt genuine anguish for him, even though he had done some pretty inexcusable things and had convinced himself of complex fantasies.
The Black Swan
Despite this film also being more Tyrone Power’s than Laird’s, Laird makes the most of his role as Captain Morgan (yes, that Captain Morgan of rum fame). While Tyrone plays the brattish romantic hero, Laird gets to tote a curly wig, curled moustaches and very witty lines, especially in the film’s closing scene, which made me laugh out loud.
This is by far the lightest film that I’ve seen Laird in so far. It is a splendid technicolour musical that sports Maureen O’ Hara giving Tyrone Power the stink eye a lot before deciding he ain’t so bad after all (like duh, he’s a cutie). She’s rather drowned out by Tyrone, Laird and Thomas Mitchell, but it’s nice to see her in some lovely costumes and not giving in until the very end when Tyrone has proved his worth.
It was nice to see Laird in a more lighthearted role, and it proved that he had real comedic timing. His humorous delivery was subtle, and I would have loved to have seen him in more comedies. I also remember him having good comedic timing in Heaven Can Wait. Both of these films prove that he would’ve been very good in the sex comedies of the 1950’s with his dry wit.
This is perhaps the role that Laird is best known for, and with good reason, as his performance, in my humble opinion, is Oscar worthy. His eyes are so haunting. He does not have to speak a word for you to know every terrible, compulsive emotion his character is feeling. As with I Wake Up Screaming, he is a character who is possessed by a terrible drive, but this definitely doesn’t mean that Laird was a one note actor. His performance in I Wake Up Screaming and The Lodger are entirely different.
In this film, it is clear from the start that he there is something incredibly dangerous about him. His scenes with the gorgeous Merle Oberon highlight this all too well, with both actors playing off each other to perfection, especially in a scene towards the end of the film which you will know if you’ve seen the film. What Laird shows is that no character beset by darkness and madness is uncomplicated. And while that may seem like an obvious statement, it is very easy for an actor to become hammy in such a role. But Laird is a tortured figure, clearly the villain of the piece, but in a way that once again draws terrible sympathy. A wish that it could all have been avoided if things had only gone differently, if different choices had been made.
If you only see one film starring Laird (I really hope you try to see far more) then I really recommend this one. This is the film that shows how incredibly gifted he was. How nuanced his performances were, and how he embodied a character so completely. And how he also dominated every scene, but in a way that heightened other actor’s performances, as if they became better because of his performance.
Laird’s last two films were both directed by John Brahm, and therefore have a similar moody, gothic atmosphere. The streets of London are dark, misty places, stalked by madness. Despite these similarities, however, Laird once again does not rehash his previous role. Hangover Square explores the idea of madness being something that the conscious mind cannot recognise, and so all memories and acts associated with insanity are strictly retained by the subconscious.
Once again, Laird’s character could have devolved into the unbearably hammy, especially when he is beset by spells of swirling, consuming murderous compulsion. But the manner in which these attacks are triggered, and the way that Laird conveys the terrible, inescapable urge that his character is compelled to act out, is anything but. Throughout the film Laird is given excellent support by Linda Darnell, who plays against her usual angelic type, and realises the role of a selfish, money grubbing singer of little consequential talent. Laird’s character is obsessed by her, and she plays into this with gusto. Their scenes together while almost a torment to watch, are the highlight of the film, and both actors showcase their compelling screen presence.
The end of the film is absolutely spellbinding. Laird really comes into his own as he desperately tries to grapple with his subconscious and conscious mind finally recognising each other. His facial expressions and mannerisms are so precise and perfectly realised that you cannot, and do not want to, look away from him. As with his performance in The Lodger, Laird deserves the highest praise for his realisation of a role that could not have been easy to immerse himself in.
Having watched these movies, I am even more sad that Laird did not have the long, successful career that he deserved. I have no doubt that he would have continued to prove what a versatile and brilliant actor he was. I would have been very interested to see how his screen persona matured and changed as he went into the 1950’s and 60’s. I think he would have been fabulous when he was older in television, especially miniseries. But I am also very grateful that we are able to watch the films that he was in, and even though there are not many of them, all are worth seeking out because of Laird and how wonderful he was.
This is my contribution for the Second Marathon Stars Blogathon being hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema, Musings of A Classic Film Addict and In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please visit their blogs for more info and to read everyone else’s contributions!