(CN dieting, death)
Art that foreshadows the death of its creator– especially the death of a younger artist– contains an emotional gravity that’s hard to put into words. This is certainly true for artists who intentionally create art to communicate their pain and self-destructive tendencies, like Elliott Smith or Amy Winehouse, but for a film actor, a particularly significant last work can retrospectively take on an element of particularly poignant, even eerie, tragedy. I have never seen this phenomenon unfold quite like Laird Cregar’s performance in Hangover Square, which I saw last night at the Noir City Film Festival.
Hangover Square is a haunting Victorian tale of George Bone (Cregar), a composer who suffers from stress-induced, murderous fugue states. Despite his formidable, brooding physical presence, George is gentle and sensitive, vulnerable to the opinion of others by the very nature of his vocation. His friendship with his pretty blonde neighbor Barbara (Faye Marlowe) would be romantic in any other film, but is chaste in this one. George lives a life of solitude, obsessed with his art. Although his life’s work is classical music and he is hard at work on a concerto commissioned by Barbara’s father Sir Henry (Alan Napier), he is distracted by femme fatale Netta (Linda Darnell), who manipulates him into composing popular songs for her to perform. Netta leads him on for the sake of her own rising star, but has her eye on svelte theater producer Eddie (Glenn Langan) as a mate.
Hangover Square was Laird Cregar’s only starring role. He had a successful career as a character actor, his 6’3″, 300 lb body contributing to effective portrayals of villains, his characters often significantly older than the twentysomething actor. He performed with and has been compared to Vincent Price. However, Cregar grew tired of being typecast. He wanted to be a leading man, but saw his weight as a barrier, describing his character type as “a grotesque.” Starting in 1942, he crash dieted and used amphetamines to lose over 100 lbs. In 1944, he starred in The Lodger, a horror film about a man who may be Jack the Ripper, followed by his leading role in Hangover Square. Not satisfied with the results of his diet, Cregar opted for weight loss surgery in late 1944. The stress that the operation caused his body led to a fatal coronary a month later, two months before the release of Hangover Square. He was 31.
As one might expect from a film whose protagonist kills people, Hangover Square doesn’t end well for George. Trying to arrest him for Netta’s murder, Scotland Yard follows him to the debut of his concerto. He starts a fire in an attempt to evade them, which rages out of control. Everyone must evacuate the building before the performance is complete, despite his attempts to force the musicians to continue. In desperation, he sits at the piano and continues from where the fleeing orchestra has left off. The last image of the film is of George playing his masterwork as he is consumed by smoke and flames.
Cregar’s performance of George Bone serves as a grimly appropriate memorial, struggling with his mind that both created and destroyed, just as Cregar himself struggled with a career that allowed him to pursue his art but confined him in stock character roles due to his appearance. The role he was slated for after Hangover Square went to Vincent Price. We’ll never know if Cregar’s career could likely have been as fruitful and celebrated as his colleague’s.