Friday, June 29, 2012

Peter Lorre

It was Peter Lorre's birthday Tuesday, so I had a Peter Lorre marathon at home and it just reminded me how he was probably one of the finest actors from the 1930s, and also one of the biggest wastes of talent in Hollywood history. There was too much tragedy to fit in one blog post, but I think I got the gist of it.

"I came to Berlin with ten borrowed marks in my pocket, and I went to the theater. The manager told me to come in, because he said I didn't look like an actor. He sent me over to see Brecht. We talked for about half an hour and it was as if we had known each other for twenty years. "You're not going to get that part," he told me. I felt terrible. It was very Brechtian, really, because he waited a moment and then said: "You're going to play the lead in another play I have." Deep down in my heart, you see, I'm a Cinderella." 
- Peter Lorre                                 
Lorre with mother, Elvira

Born Ladislav Loewenstein in 1904 Lorre was on the stage by his late teens, against the advice of his father who would've preferred a more lucrative career for his son, like banking.  Highly acclaimed theatrical performances in Berlin led to his casting in his first talking picture, and the movie that catapulted him into mainstream stardom, Fritz Lang's M.                                                                                                     
 Lorre in Man Equals Man
Upon seeing Lorre's performance in M, Hitchcock cast him in "The Man Who Knew too Much".  Lorre spoke almost no english and spent every waking hour learning the script phonetically, not wholly understanding what his lines meant yet still managing to pull off a performance that, paired with the american release of M, put him on Hollywood's a-list.Peter moved to California in 1933 upon the election of Hitler in Germany, and became an American citizen in 1941. Soon after the move he was cast in "Mad Love" and the Mr Moto series (which he hated), cementing Lorre's type as the sinister foreigner for most of his career. Initially one of Warner Brothers main supporting actors, Lorre was cast in huge blockbusters Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, followed by numerous (9 in total) pairings with Sidney Greenstreet. What you don't hear a lot about is how badly Lorre was treated by the studios. He's no Judy Garland, but he had his fair share of abuse.  from the beginning, due to his naivety and not having a good grasp on the english language, his contracts were considerably lower than that of his costars, even though often he had the more recognizable name. he tried to break free of the studio system by forming his own, Lorre Inc, in the late 40s- but his poor business acumen led to its failure.  He also entrusted his earnings to an account manager who robbed him blind, leaving him in dire financial straights throughout the 50s and 60s up to his death.      
   Lorre on stage in Spring Awakening
From his late teens, Lorre developed a morphine addiction he managed to keep hidden from just about everyone until, during the Mr Moto era, severe pain he'd dealt with for years led to a botched gall bladder surgery and was prescribed the drug, exacerbating his addiction struggle to an unmanageable degree and taking a toll on his health.  Its just a tragic story. You can't help but fall in love with him a little even when he's playing psychopaths.  He had the same draw Monroe did, if he's in a shot you can't keep your eyes off him. If you watch his earlier films like Face Behind the Mask, it's easy to see how badly Hollywood blew it for him with the Moto films and the later parodies of himself. Lorre tried to return to the stage in the 50s and made his directorial debut in Germany with Der Verlorene (the Lost One) that bombed at the time, but due to his health and appearance issues the only work he was offered from Hollywood were poking fun at his former typecast, B-horror films, and TV shows. he was happy to be working, and had taken on the attitude that if that was the Lorre people wanted he wouldnt disappoint - but he was constantly depressed and felt he'd been wronged and forgotten by the studio system.               

From M to Arsenic and Old Lace to his place in the history books as the first ever Bond villain, you cant help but want things to have gone well for Peter Lorre. In interviews he seems like a genuinely nice person.  On film his talent is unmatched.  It's a shame it couldn't have worked out easier for him, but at least now, like most great artists, he is getting the respect he deserves after his death.   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bullying - 1920's Style

Over the past year or so bullying has been a hot headline.  It seems like opponents to social issues lately always talk about how they didn't have these "problems" in "their day", or use that thought as their reasoning behind their belief that sexual preference is a choice.  When I get into conversations (which usually end up in arguments) with folks once they say they would never support someone taking part in an alternative lifestyle, i have to ask them, "So you don't watch Montgomery Clift?  Or Stanwyck?  Dietrich? Hudson?"

One thing most of us can agree on - Valentino was a beautiful man. at the height of his success in the late 1920's, women swooned, men were jealous, and, much like today, journalists would find any reason to put his name in an article to drum up publicity and make a quick buck.  Often Valentino's masculinity was questioned in print. As one of the first mega stars, he was very concerned with his public image and was upset by the stories questioning his sexuality. Fairbanks was a "man's man", Valentino, while lusted after and adored by women, was seen as a threat to the "American male" with his feminine clothing, product in his hair, and soft mannerisms.  The rumors got so wild in a Chicago Tribune article, blaming Valentino for the weakening of men nation wide, that in July of 1926 Valentino challenged the newspaper writer to a boxing match to prove he wasn't a "pink powder puff".  Although the writer of that article didn't rise to the challenge Frank O'Neill of the New York Post did - and Valentino won the fight that took place on the roof of  New York's Ambassador Hotel.

About a month later, Valentino fell gravely ill. While the rumors continued to fly (He was poisoned by a jilted lover! stabbed by a jealous husband!) In reality Valentino had severe ulcers exacerbated by internal injuries from the fight, resulting in an abdominal tear.  He had put off seeing a doctor for a few weeks between promoting his film and dealing with his recent divorce, and didn't seek help until he was found coughing up blood and doubled over in pain. After surgery and days of suffering, pleurisy set in and there was no longer hope of saving him.
Without the fight to prove he was tough, his condition probably wouldn't have worsened as quickly and he might've lived.  It's sad that what other people think holds so much weight over all of us, that people's opinions, no matter how closed minded, lead us to feel sometimes there's no other way to make the criticism and ridicule stop other than to do something drastic.  Here we are, 100 years later, still dealing with these issues and it just makes me wonder, will we ever reach a point where we can just let each other be happy?

Friday, June 15, 2012

To Colorize, Or Not To Colorize. That is the Question . . .

Orson Welles once said - "Keep Ted Turner and his goddamned crayolas away from my movies". 

1935's She

 People are pretty evenly divided on this issue, and firm in their beliefs.  On one hand, some folks view colorizing old films as blasphemy, as a ruination of the director's vision, and desecrating works of art.  On the other hand, some people believe it exposes great films to a generation otherwise uninterested due primarily to a lack of the color they've been bombarded with since birth.

As an 80's kid, I can see where both sides are coming from.  I absolutely worship classic film, black and white doesn't bother me at all, or sepia,  or that funky blue when they filmed night scenes outdoors in broad daylight... But as I've learned from trying to have these discussions with my peers, I'm in a serious minority in my love of old movies.

We've all heard someone say it "oh, if its black and white I wont watch it".  Frustrating in it's narrow-mindedness,  it is unfortunately a common phrase uttered from film watchers under 40.  So - if a company re-issues a colorized version of a classic, is it really such a bad thing if it garners new fans of the time period? And, if someone falls in love with a film, and then moves on to view whomever's entire catalog, colorized or not, is it really such a bad thing? And if the directors had had the option to film in color in the 20s or 30s, would they have always chosen black and white?

Its A Wonderful Life

When Ted Turner acquired the vast majority of films from MGM (including numerous UA and RKO films), Hollywood and film lovers alike banded together to fight his restoration project, claiming he was trampling artistic freedoms and obliterating America's heritage.  Reagan and Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act in 1988 to enter the most important works into an archive, unaltered, to preserve our history and protect the films from permanent re-issue editing.

But is it really such a bad thing?  While I'm a firm believer the original versions (and pre-code versions, if available) should be in constant rotation, is it so wrong to also show color versions to bring in a larger audience?   I would love to have that job, not just because I'm so interested in film history but because I'd feel a lot better knowing someone who truly loves the films is in charge of the edits. Also, technology has come a long way since the 80's, so the color process doesn't make them look so horrible.  A good example of what doesn't make a good finished project:
Casablanca - Old Color Process

A lot of folks also tie in reformatting with colorizing.  They are 2 very different things.  I'm sure we've all seen the clip on TCM about "pan and scan",  I can see where the problem is with that, they are completely omitting pieces of scenes. I'd chain myself to the studio doors in protest if I created a movie and they just lopped off half the frame throughout the whole film. 

Maybe I'm not enough of a purist, but coloring as an alternative, not a replacement, doesn't bother me. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Happy Place

Everybody has that one place they go for peace and quiet, to clear their head, wake up, what have you.  This is mine:

You don't often see Grauman's COMPLETELY empty so that little window of time from when the sun starts to rise and before 8am seems almost magical.
(pic from )

 Just me, coffee and cigarettes, and a bunch of little bookmarks in time of where someone amazing stood for one minute at some point.  Also at this time of day all the shops lining the blvd. have their gates rolled down and on them are painted the faces of Hollywood past. 

No tourists, no cars, nobody chasing you down trying to sell you a souvenir or tour of the hills, just a few straggling locals heading to school or work, and, if you cock your head just right, no glimpse of modern day Hollywood.  Best thing ever.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Still fighting for Hollywood - Mary Pickford

Ms. Pickford's been in Los Angeles news a lot lately.  First West Hollywood gave the go-ahead for CIM corporation to tear down her first studio, The Motion Picture and TV Fund Nursing Home almost went under, and now the Pickford Film Institute has been entirely defunded.

The "American sweetheart" was pretty much unstoppable after DW Griffith gave her her first film role in 1909.  Acting in 51 films that year, by 1912 she was the most famous actress in the world. She was also one of the first women to write, direct, and produce films.  She may have played the virginal, sweet faced innocent on the screen, but she was a razor-sharp buisnesswoman who pretty much ran the industry in the early 1900's. The fact that she almost single handedly built this town via her philanthropy and job-creating projects leaves me scratching my head a little when I think about how the city seems to have forgotten what she did for this place.  You would think especially Hollywood would better preserve the legacy left behind by the first mega stars that paved the way for just about everyone here.  Her name is on numerous buildings but most people you ask have no clue who she was, and to me that shows that something is seriously lacking here. I read a story the other day that they are planning a biopic about her - what took so long?

I wasn't here when Pickfair was demolished (the HORROR!) but it makes me wonder what will be deemed unnecessary to keep in the future.  is Musso and Franks next?  Graumans is owned partially by the same company that just demolished Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, is it next to go? The Roosevelt?  Or what about those beautiful theaters downtown, half of which are sitting empty - will the United Artists building be next to come down?

The saddest thing about the Pickford Institute's defunding is that it was the last bastion formally paying homage to Pickford both by keeping her story alive and by continuing her charity to the community by providing film classes and history lessons to kids, and offering grants for schooling.  I get a little angry when I think how they've torn down her home, her studio, parted out United Artists, ruined the health care program she set up for the industry, and are now letting the education programs go, for what?  To bump a politician's salary?  To build ugly modern buildings on sites where Hollywood was literally born?  And where are all the stars that wouldn't have had the glitz and glamour to be drawn to if not for her and the greats from her era? She wouldn't have let them be forgotten or eradicated from the history books.

To me, Pickford is one of the most important figures in Hollywood's history.  Even today it's still a boys club and to accomplish what she did over 100 years ago is both impressive and fascinating.  What can we do to ensure future generations learn about her and the other important players from her era? It seems this city is so interested in making and hoarding money it's forgotten it has to massage it's roots every now and then or it's surely going to wither and die.  And I don't mean they need to pump out more remakes.  They need to remember what made the movies an institution to begin with, and go from there.

You can sign the petition to try to keep the institute going here: