Hangover Square (1945, dir. John Brahm) and the Tragedy of Laird Cregar

(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.

Laid Cregar, in a publicity still for Rings on Her Fingers (1942)

Laird Cregar, in a 1942 publicity still.

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.


Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

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.

See Also:

Virtual Virago: Heavy: the Life and Films of Laird Cregar

Happy 100th birthday, Orson Welles

He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?

–Tana (Marlene Dietrich), Touch of Evil 

A few months ago, I saw a theater production called Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play.  Mr. Burns is three snapshots in three acts of life in the United States after a catastrophe that causes the nation’s electric grid to shut down.  We see society rebuilding itself from the detritus of our contemporary world through the lens of performance art, specifically the survival and evolution of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.”  As the timeline progresses two, ten, then eighty years out from the disaster, “Cape Feare” evolves from a Simpsons episode being recounted by two fans to fellow survivors around a campfire, to a highly stylized opera in which characters and stories have synthesized various aspects of culture, such as Mr. Burns in Joker makeup giving a version of Robert Mitchum’s speech about the battle between love and hate from Night of the Hunter.

I bring this up not to brag about the best play I’ve ever seen (okay, maybe a little bragging), but because it’s such a vibrant illustration of how pieces of history and culture survive through being contained within newer works.  For instance, I will be watching Cape Fear for the first time this week in preparation for a Director’s Club bonus episode, but I have a basic understanding of the plot and characters thanks to “Cape Feare,” which was probably in turn the most exposure some of my Simpsons-watching peers who didn’t have classical music as a presence in their lives had of Gilbert & Sullivan.

I bring all this up as a precursor to my experience of Orson Welles, who was born May 6, 1915.  I was 1 when Welles died, so I have no memories of him as a living person.  My first exposure to Welles was caricatures of him in later life, as in 1994-1995’s the Critic:

I knew him as an glowering old man who embodied fat stereotypes.  I’m sure a lot of my memories of this images of Welles are mixed up with similar jokes about Marlon Brando. I found out somewhere along the way that he had created the War of the Worlds radio play, but it was difficult enough to wrap my brain around a play that was limited to sound and had the power to drive people to hysteria, let alone the man behind it.  (This was before Welcome to Nightvale, kids.)

My image of Orson Welles was changed as a teenager when I saw Cradle Will Rock, featuring Angus MacFayden’s portrayal of Welles as a leonine artistic genius on the vanguard of modern theater, and again as an inspirational vision in Ed Wood (played by Vincent D’Onofrio and voice by Maurice LaMarche, who also provided the voice acting for Welles in The Critic):

Two seemingly disparate images of a dynamo and a has-been, both large but the latter cartoonishly fat, and neither quite adding up to a full, real artist and human being.  Welles is, of course, best known for his association with Citizen Kane, usually found at the top of best-of lists.  But this often feels perfunctory, especially being so chronologically removed from Citizen Kane that its reputation far proceeded my viewing of it.  Welles feels like the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare in this respect.

I started watching other films that Welles directed about a week ago, hoping to find something to write about for CPBS and not realizing it was almost the 100 year anniversary of his birth.  (I like to think this is a sign that I am part of a brilliant fat person hive mind that transcends the limits of death.)  I’m not usually automatically enraptured by well-regarded classic films, so hopefully this comes across as more than a cliche reaction:  I was completely blown away by Welles’ mastery of the camera in The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil.


WOW.  (This clip is violent, be forewarned.)

At the end of Touch of Evil, Welles’ character Captain Quinlan is proven to be right in his hunch about the perpetrator of a crime, although the other characters have been disregarding him because of his reputation as a corrupt drunk.  It’s nearly impossible to eclipse one’s reputation.  It may be foolishly idealistic, but given the sheer brilliance of his work, I hope that Welles’ legacy as a great director and writer will live on at least as much as the fat jokes about him.

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