Love That Laird!
I can drive up to Wal-Mart any hour of any day and see two dozen shoppers twice as big as Laird Cregar. That’s how much things have changed since his death in 1944. If Laird were around today, I’ll bet he’d be doing the romantic leads he so longed for during his all too brief career at Twentieth-Century-Fox. Back then, of course, he was typed as a big, fat, sinister, booming-voiced grotesque. He tried to get away from all that by going on crash diets and seeking plastic surgeons to make him "beautiful" like other leading men. In the end, it killed him --- a great actor only 31 years old when the curtain rang down. Poor Laird was so down on himself! Reading about his monumental insecurities makes me want to jump on Rod’s Time Machine again, just so I could go back to the Fox lot during the production of Heaven Can Wait and say, "Laird…dude…you look great!" Well, just check out this color shot of him as Satan in that great 1943 Ernst Lubitsch comedy --- is he the coolest or what? I think Laird looked better with the weight than without. Of course, he was never svelte, but that rigid diet that preceded his appearance in the last film, Hangover Square (released posthumously) did not flatter him. You can tell he’s not happy when you watch it, and by all accounts (especially Greg Mank’s in his excellent book, The Hollywood Hissables), Laird was miserable during the filming.
I think chicks would have gone for Laird in a big way were it not for the fact that he was gay (well, for that matter, I guess they did go for him, though it must have been a disappointment for some of them when he didn't return their romantic interest). Gene Tierney certainly looks impressed in this candid shot on the Fox lot. Oh yeah, she digs Laird. You can tell. He’s said to have been a real charmer off the set, and sometimes, when he was in a particularly good mood, the 328-pound actor would do cartwheels all the way from his dressing room to the soundstage. You gotta love a guy as un-self-conscious as that, but wait --- there’s the paradox, because another part of Laird was always trying to break free of that body he felt trapped in. He’d come from a king-sized family --- his mother was nearly Laird’s size, but the fortune they’d enjoyed during his father’s lifetime was wiped out in the ’29 crash, so Laird had to struggle years in poverty before hitting the jackpot with an L.A. stage turn as Oscar Wilde. The town went wild for his Wilde (as witness this hand-written congratulatory letter from Jack Barrymore), and Laird was on his way.
This neat-o still of in the chips Laird burning the note was taken in 1942 to celebrate the retirement of his debt to the Philadelphia, PA Rotary Club. Seems they had staked him to a course of dramatic studies at the Pasedena Playhouse several years previous, and now he’s paying them back. Doesn’t he look happy here? Well, being Toast Of The Town’ll do that for a guy. By this time, he’d installed Mom, an aunt, and a seven-year-old niece into his luxurious Beverly Hills abode, wherein he entertained on a grand scale (and taught the kid to do cartwheels). During those days of struggle, Laird often had to sleep in the back seat of a friend’s car. Here he is, just a couple of years later, sharing a back seat with Veronica Lake! The movie is This Gun For Hire, one of the few pics he did off the Fox lot. Overall, Laird had a much too short four years in pictures, but look at all the good ones he racked up in that brief time --- Blood and Sand, Charley’s Aunt, I Wake Up Screaming, This Gun For Hire, Ten Gentlemen From West Point, The Black Swan, Hello, Frisco, Hello, Heaven Can Wait, The Lodger, Hangover Square --- what a list! Imagine any actor today getting out that much quality work in so short a time, or even within an entire career.