Today is the birthday of Peter Lorre (Laszlo Lowenstein, 1904-1964). Categories are hard; Lorre doesn’t fit into most of my regular content streams, never having been in American vaudeville (or even European music hall or cabaret so far as I know), and my Hall of Hams is reserved for the most part for exemplars of the bombastic Anglo acting tradition. Yet we do write about about avant-garde theatre here from time to time, and also Gothic horror, and Lorre’s career certainly touches on both of those topics.
Lorre (a Hungarian Jew in the age when the country was still Austria-Hungary) began his career at age 17 with a Viennese artist and puppeteer named Richard Teschner. In the late 20s he worked in Berlin with Bertolt Brecht, acting in the original productions of Mann ist Mann and Happy End. Lorre’s persona was already established by this time: weird, shifty. shrill. Under movie klieg lights in close-up these qualities would be amplified, like the squirming of a bug under a magnifying glass. Always nervous, sweaty and twitching. In his cooler moments his fishy eyes would stare unfeelingly as though he were quite prepared to dissect you alive without anesthesia. In short, he seemed like the dope fiend he actually was in real life. Sometimes a casting agent’s job is easy.
In 1931 he burst onto the world stage as the hunted child molester in Fritz Lang’s M. From here it was off to London where he had memorable turns in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). In 1935, he played an insane doctor in one of the best Gothic horror movies ever Mad Love. Here is one of the best, most unsettling scenes:
That’s my idea of heaven!
Then of course he was part of the Warner Brothers stock company during the World War 2 era, alongside Sidney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart and others in movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and countless others. His personality was so much imitated that self-parody perhaps became inevitable. Early opportunities in that line were already popping up by 1944, in films like Arsenic and Old Lace and Hollywood Canteen. By the 1950s that was mostly what his career consisted of, although Roger Corman did put him to some good appropriate employment in films like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). His last (rather ignominious) role was in the Jerry Lewis film The Patsy (1964).
To find out about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc