The Man Who Went on a Diet and Didn’t Come Back

Laird Cregar in Heaven Can’t Wait

Well, I did not bother to make any.  New Year’s resolutions, I mean. Once again I let slip by the chance of this calendrical construct—a moment in which our attempts to impose the order of the chronologic on the so-called fourth dimension whose measurable expanse is being commorated with renditions of “Auld Lang Syne”—to bring about changes in the race against time that is my life. Perhaps you made up your mind (or had it made up for you) to put an end to something and start something new, an exchange of habits or a switch in attitude intended to improve life or merely to prolong it. I did resolve nothing more than to account for my everyday, aside from continuing with this journal, by counting the movies I take in this year (so far, Night at the Museum, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Gay Falcon, Gentleman’s Agreement, Gilda and The Man in the White Suit), thereby to get a clearer picture of my actual rate of consumption and to ponder, at year’s end, how much these fictions have informed or impeded my journey.

Though far from being a life-as-artist like Walter Pater, I try to think of my existence in all its failures and shortcomings as an unfinished essay, a half-published and oft edited text of which broadcastellan is both a digest and an extension. A man’s success, comedian Fred Allen remarked, “depends on which wears out first—his pencil or his eraser.” That, like most epigrams, sounds smart enough; but the real trick is to avoid getting those two writerly tools confused. Believe me, it’s not that easy to tell them apart. Here’s a for instance and how I arrived at it.

As I was thinking about a subject for another one of my “On This Day” features, I came across “The Death Laugh,” an episode of the radio thriller anthology Inner Sanctum Mysteries broadcast on this day, 8 January, in 1944. Rummaging through my library, I failed to lay my ears on the play I assumed to be there; many of the Inner Sanctum episodes available online have been mislabeled, their dates and titles inaccurately recorded. Rather than putting an eraser to this futile search and moving on to another subject, my mind lingered instead on Hollywood heavy Laird Cregar, the star of said thriller. It was as if the man demanded to be called to mind today, not content to wait even until tomorrow (which marks Cregar’s anniversary in a 1943 broadcast of the Radio Hall of Fame) or the day after that (in which he played Montezuma in Orson Welles’s propaganda series Hello Americans).  

There was no need for him to get pushy. I have always thought Mr. Cregar a fascinating and devilishly handsome fellow—ever since he first made an impression on me in This Gun for Hire (1942); so much so that I quite forgot—or was only too ready to neglect the by no means negligible performances of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Playing Satan, Cregar brought wit to Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, an otherwise disappointingly well-mannered and overly sentimental portrait of a scoundrel. Why hadn’t I seen more of Cregar over the years, considering my love for classic Hollywood movies?

Now, I am not in the habit of turning to an artist’s biography to assess his or her performances. Instead, I focus on the works that show people and storytellers are in the business of sharing with us. For that reason, the fact that Cregar practically starved himself to death in order to become a leading man was news to me. It seems that neither heaven nor Hollywood could wait for Mr. Cregar.

According to some sources, Cregar was born in 1913; others claim he came into this world in 1914; others still state 1916 as his date of birth. Certain, however, is that he died in 1944 of an uncommonly early heart attack, apparently brought on by a crash diet, the resulting 100 pound weightloss of which was intended to convince Hollywood to give top billing to a man considered too fat to play the dashing lead. Even on the air, where he could have gone invisible, Cregar played the fat man when he filled in for Sidney Greenstreet in the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Mr. Cregar got his wish eventually, yet only posthumously, in Hangover Square (1945)—a belated nod to a man who conformed to an image and was reduced to one in the process.

After I thought about all this, I flicked through the current issue of the Radio Times and noticed that, just as I was fiddling with computer and camera to capture Cregar’s likeness from hell, the British cable channel Film Four had been screening The Black Swan, in which the actor impersonated Henry Morgan, a Welsh pirate born in the windswept parts I now call home.   Yes, Mr. Cregar seemed adamant to turn me into his medium today. Perhaps he was out to warn anyone with the New Year’s wish of shedding pounds this year to take it easy or, better still, to reconsider whether the eraser we take to our lives is chosen by ourselves or handed to us by those who dictate just how our being ought to be shaped.

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