A review and interview with The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre‘s author Stephen D. Youngkin, and researcher/web guru Cheryl Morris.
In my experience, there are two kinds of celebrity biographies – the ones that stay close to the surface and are meant for a quick and enjoyable read, and the ones that go much deeper, giving the reader a thoroughly comprehensive look at not only a performer’s life, but also their essence. I think it’s pretty safe to say that The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin falls into the second category.
By far the most comprehensive and exhaustive (in a great way) examination of an actor’s life, Youngkin has captured a portrait of character actor Peter Lorre that is not only fascinating, but sometimes exhilarating, occasionally painful, and finally haunting. Lorre’s prominence in Classic Hollywood had been documented so often in short bio pieces on TCM and in stories from other celebrity bios that I’d always felt as if I’d had a good handle on his life. What more was there left to know?
Youngkin’s years of work and research have shown that what we think we know about Peter Lorre only scratches the surface. Take for instance Lorre’s lifelong, sometimes tumultuous, friendship with theater director and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Like all really great bios, The Lost One gives us not only the details of Lorre’s relationship with Brecht, but the context – occasionally sidetracking deeply into the German Theater scene of the 1920’s and 30’s, dissecting the social and political climate surrounding the world that Brecht inhabited – a world that Lorre would work his way into, continuing to learn, study, and perform with Brecht until a close relationship was born. It was a relationship that would go on to affect the rest of Lorre’s career, a constant contrasting presence to his affluent Hollywood lifestyle and celebrity hobnobbing.
Above all else, the theme that runs through The Lost One is “passion.” Peter Lorre was passionate about acting, and sacrificed almost everything else in life to chase his dream. Malnutrition, debt, war, drugs, and the House Un-American Activities Committee couldn’t keep him from the stage or screen.
In fact, the only thing that probably came the closest to derailing Lorre’s career was typecasting. Murderous creep? Horror film sideshow? Gangster thug? If those are your first ideas about Peter Lorre’s characters, you need to take the time to read Youngkin’s definitive take on Lorre’s life.
This one’s a must read for Lorre fans, or anyone who has more than a passing fascination with Classic Hollywood, Bertolt Brecht, or early twentieth century theater. I picked up a copy so that I could read more about Lorre’s relationship with Bogart – I came away with a much deeper appreciation for one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors.
I was extremely honored to be able to have a conversation with The Lost One’s author Stephen D. Youngkin, and Cheryl Morris, the web guru who aided Youngkin with research and now maintains The Lost One’s web presence.
Bogie Film Blog: Stephen, Can you tell me a little about yourself? Where you’re from, what you do for a living?
Stephen D. Youngkin: I’m initially from the Mid-West. During graduate school at the University of Utah, I developed a strong interest in cinema history. After ten or so years working as an archivist at the Utah State Historical Society, I relocated, first to Pullman, Washington (Washington State University), where my wife was working toward her DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), then to Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State University) . . . she received degrees from both schools. I am working on another project, when time permits. Two daughters, one seven, a second, seventeen months, keep me pretty busy. How did Patrick McGilligan get all those books written with three daughters?!
BFB: Speaking of being busy, I have to commend you on your work here, as the scope and scale of The Lost One is huge! How do you even go about compiling this much information about one person? How long did this process take?
SY: I became interested in Peter Lorre in the early-mid 1970s. Poking around the library, I found a dearth of information about the actor, certainly no written source that filled the gap between M (1931) and The Patsy (1964). I began thinking about writing a book.
At that time, I was in graduate school majoring in an unrelated field. My mentor knew a colleague at an Arizona university who was in contact with Vincent Price about their shared interest in American Indian art. Phone numbers were exchanged and Mr. Price made himself available. From there, my contact list mushroomed.
Price put me in contact with attorney Robert Shutan, who introduced me to Celia Lovksy (Lorre’s first wife -BFB). And one day she asked, “Would you like to talk with Fritz Lang?” I think the answer was pretty obvious. She picked up the phone and rang up Mr. Lang. . .
“I’m sending a young man up to talk with you. He’s writing a book about Peter.” After our interview, Mr. Lang said, “You know, the lady next door worked with Peter. Her name is Frances Drake (co-star of Mad Love).” Of course, this was pure luck.
And in those says the Screen Actors Guild was very good about forwarding mail. I wrote hundreds of letters. Sometimes my questions were answered in hard copy. At other times, I set up interviews. It was easier to access celebrities in those days. If you made it past the receptionist and/or agent, you generally had the interview. Even though I wasn’t sure what direction my interest would take, I knew I needed to get to these primary sources, many of whom were advanced in years, on record.
I first thought about doing a filmography, but Allan Wilson at Citadel Press (I still have his letter) said that he didn’t feel there was sufficient interest in Peter Lorre at that time. So, no Films of Peter Lorre, at least for now. Lorre went on the back burner for a time, then James Bigwood, Raymond G. Cabana, Jr. and I collaborated on The Films of Peter Lorre. By that time, around 1981, Citadel had changed its mind.
Once I decided to write a full-length biography, I visited film and theater archives in Germany (both East and West Berlin), Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, etc. I’m embarrassed to admit how many years I spent on the quest. As I say, for long periods, Lorre was pushed to the back burner during graduate school, subsequent grant work, etc.
At that point, I wasn’t convinced, having talked with agents, that I would even find a publisher. One agent told me, “Forget the films, forget about Brecht, give us the drugs, the women. Give us Bogart and Hitchcock.” It wasn’t the kind of reception that encouraged me to press ahead.
BFB: I think your devotion certainly paid off. In my experience, there are two kinds of Hollywood biographies – the ones that stay close to the surface and are meant for a quick and enjoyable read, and the ones that go much deeper, giving the reader a thoroughly comprehensive look at a performer’s life and being. I think it’s pretty safe to say that The Lost One falls into the second category.
SY: The reason for the biography’s comprehensiveness is at least two-fold. First, I was in no hurry. As far as I knew, no one else was working on a book about Peter Lorre. And I had the full and exclusive cooperation of a number of key sources, including Celia Lovksy, Cathy Lorre and Robert Shutan (Lorre’s close friend and attorney). Also, I’m basically a researcher. It’s what I enjoy, visiting archives, taking interviews, etc. There is an inherent drawback to this, however. You never want to stop researching and begin writing. There’s always another stone to turn over.
And that’s how some books never get written . . . the biographer just can’t draw a line and say enough.
BFB: There’s so much detailed information about Peter Lorre’s work in Europe – is someone keeping record of his legacy there, or did you have to do a lot of digging through records on your own?
SY: For Lorre’s theater work, I began at the beginning, digging up programs, reviews, even a few of his co-workers on the stage. This was probably the most challenging work but also the most rewarding. So many of the themes in Lorre’s life date from these early years. Also, the period very much interests me.
For the most part, people were very forthcoming with material.
BFB: Cheryl – Stephen gives you a pretty big acknowledgement at the beginning of the book. What was your contribution to the biography?
Cheryl Morris: I helped Stephen with the research by looking up information in back issues of the trade paper Variety and various city newspapers. I proofread and copy-edited the manuscript. Through the radio and TV logs of the New York Times, as well as other sources, I compiled Peter’s radio and television credits for the Appendix, and I keyed all of Peter’s credits for the Appendix. And at the end, just before publication, I proofread the galleys.
BFB: Can you tell me a little about yourself? Where you’re from, what you do for a living, what projects you’re working on now?
CM: I’m originally from California, but I’ve been living on the East Coast since 1985. I’m a computer programmer, specializing in web design. Besides the official website of The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre – http://www.peterlorrebook.com – I work on three other websites: author Sandra Grabman’s personal site (http://www.sandragrabman.com), Charlie Datin’s Cruise Trek site (http://www.cruisetrek.com), and a site for a local small business owner.
I also write a Peter Lorre News blog, located at http://peterlorrenews.blogspot.com/, in which I cover screenings of Lorre movies on TV, in theaters, libraries, and other venues, as well as anything else Lorre-related – such as the 5-week Peter Lorre class called “The World of Peter Lorre” held in Vero Beach, Florida, years ago by an instructor who felt Peter was underused by Hollywood and wanted to help class participants understand his range as an actor.
I’m starting work on a travel website focusing on museums and guided walking tours. This site will be linked through the Peter Lorre News blog.
BFB: How did you come into contact with Stephen?
CM: Stephen and I have been friends since 1976 when we started corresponding. Along the way, I read various drafts of the manuscript for The Lost One on its way to publication. I had been a fan of Peter’s since 1973 and had a small collection of reviews, articles, photos and such, so I was able to help him with some of the research for his book.
BFB: How did you initially become interested in Lorre’s work?
CM: The first Lorre movie I saw was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on re-release to theaters in the early 1970s. This was back in the days when the Disney studio typically re-released movies from their vaults. But I really became a fan of Peter’s when I saw The Raven and Tales of Terror during an Edgar Allan Poe Week on a local TV station. I thought he was funny – and he had such big sad eyes.
BFB: Stephen, your book offers a wonderful, and very detailed, portrait of Bertolt Becht, giving us a lot of information even beyond his relationship with Lorre. Lorre clearly seemed to want to keep his ties to the theater and its community. What do you think was the draw that kept pulling him back?
SY: Lorre saw Brecht as one of the two most important writers of the 20th century, the other being James Joyce. He not only referred to Brecht as his best friend, but himself as one of Brecht’s actors. You can’t get a handle on Lorre without first understanding his friendship with Bertolt Brecht. This was the pivotal relationship in his life. How Lorre professionally looked at himself turned on it. In fact, he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the only critical opinion of his work that mattered was Brecht’s.
The men influenced each other in profound ways. Lorre’s dual acting style gave form to Brecht’s theories. And Lorre’s capabilities, as Brecht saw them, defined him as an actor. From 1929 to the ends of their lives, they stood in one another’s shadows. But to back up, Lorre found himself caught between Bogart and Brecht. The former represented celebrity and good times. The latter, intellectual respectability. Clearly, Lorre wanted both. And he might have had both had Brecht’s film stories written for him been commercially viable. (Actually, one of them would have made a splendid noir, but studio politics damned the project.)
Readers are pretty familiar with the arc of Bogart’s career, but few know much about Brecht, his new style of acting, his time in America, etc., hence I covered it fairly thoroughly. This was the hidden part of Lorre’s life. Who would have guessed that during the making of the popular Bogart-Greenstreet films, he collaborated with Brecht on plans to redirect his film career?
When his movie career began to flounder during the late 1940s, Lorre made the choice (after some waffling) not to join Brecht in East Berlin. Life in Communist Germany was austere. Not so Hollywood. He liked it there. Addicted to the lifestyle? Definitely. And to the easy access to drugs. But also his friends were there, people who looked after him. And then there was the issue of politics. Lorre was politically liberal, but he certainly was no Communist. In fact, he had little interest in politics. Lastly, for someone in poor health, there was the need to stay close to good medical care. And, quite frankly, Lorre was tired, too tired to start over.
BFB: It seems that he earned a stronger reputation for being a versatile performer in the theater than he did on screen. What do you think held him back from being typecast as quickly in the theater?
CM: European theater owners and playwrights may have had a different way of looking at actors than did Hollywood movie studios of the 1930s and 1940s, when the contract system was in place.
Performing on a stage requires a different set of skills in performance and delivery; Europeans may have looked more at what an actor could bring to a part. On film, though, it seems that Hollywood looked for the actor’s “niche.”
Play a gangster in one 1930s Warner Bros. film, and suddenly in the minds of moviegoers, you “always play a gangster.” Appear in one 1930s Universal horror film, and suddenly, you’re “a horror film actor.”
Once Hollywood found that niche, they ensured the actor would continue in it – unless he had the box-office clout to break out and do something different. But there was always the chance audiences wouldn’t accept the actor in another type of part . . .
BFB: Cheryl, you mentioned in an earlier email that a video of one of Lorre’s early stage shows was taken. Which show was it? Is it available?
CM: It’s Bertolt Brecht’s Mann ist Mann.
The German director Carl Koch filmed a production of the play in 1931. Once available for screening only at the Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv in East Berlin, it’s now on DVD – and DVD copies are making the rounds.
The almost stop-action slow version runs fifty minutes, a frenetically faster version much shorter. However, the 16mm film is very poor quality and correlating scenes and text is difficult.
BFB: Was there one thing that really surprised you about Lorre as you researched his life?
SY: There were many surprises, but one of the most unexpected was just how well Lorre expressed himself in his few letters, especially those personally written (Celia often acted as his amanuensis) to close friends. In German, his writing is beautiful, even poetic.
CM: I was shocked to find out about his drug problems. A book I read on John Gielgud just put it starkly – “Peter Lorre was addicted to morphine.” Back in the 1970s, most people became addicted to drugs of all kinds because they were experimenting or “all their friends were doing it.” I didn’t know how it had happened to Peter – until I read the opening chapters of The Lost One.
BFB: It sounds like Lorre could be both a perfectionist with his work, while at the same time struggling with issues of procrastination and drug addiction. I’m amazed at how he maintained such a great career during his struggles. How do you think he was able to reconcile both sides of his life?
SY: Excellent question (and observation). There were several times during his theater career that drug addiction forced him to drop out of a play, but that was very rare. Yet, in other cases, drugs actually kept him performing, especially through stretches of debilitating health problems. Co-workers only occasionally sensed or came face-to-face with his addiction.
I’m thinking first of Norman Foster, who directed six of the Mr. Moto pictures. He first met the actor in a sanitarium and came away with the idea that Lorre was definitely not up to such a physical role. During filming Lorre was often moody. And then there’s the famous story about Lorre listening to Hitler over the radio. Norman comes in and tells him they are ready to shoot. Lorre, saliva running down his face, screams, “The world is falling apart and you want me to make a picture.” Lorre had such long running exposure to drugs that he learned how to work with them for the most part, how to pace himself.
The burden of directing, starring in, and co-producing The Lost One weighed heavily on him. Co-workers said that when he wound down, he would disappear, then reappear (seemingly) refreshed and ready to rally off. Co-workers of W.C. Fields say that liquor sharpened the comedian’s creative edge. I don’t know that morphine served the same purpose, but it seemed to keep other health problems at bay, at a high cost that he would eventually pay. You don’t see it on screen, at least not often.
An exception is the British film Double Confession (1951). Ken Annakin, who directed the picture, admitted that he was captivated by Lorre so just let him go, with the result that the actor went over the top with improvisation. What Annakin might not have known is that Lorre was heavily on drugs, meaning morphine, at this point. You have to keep in mind that Lorre had been on and off morphine since his early twenties. For the most part, he knew how to keep the obvious signs at bay. Sheer professionalism will out.
BFB: Being a Bogart site, I have to ask, do you have a favorite collaboration between Bogart and Lorre out of the five films that they made together?
SY: Knowing a little about what went on behind-the-scenes tends to color your appreciation. I think The Maltese Falcon is clearly their best film. However, I’m very fond of Beat the Devil because I know how much Lorre enjoyed making it . . . and it shows on screen.
CM: My favorite Bogart-Lorre movie is All Through the Night. I especially like the way Peter’s character Pepi stands up to Bogie’s “Gloves” Donahue, instead of Bogie getting the better of him, as he does in the other four movies they made together.
BFB: Both men had made an impression in cinema before The Maltese Falcon, but that was certainly the film that brought them both the widest attention for their careers to that point in the U.S. Could you speak for a moment on their relationship? Both men weren’t your typical good looking leading men. Do you think there was a kindred spiritedness to being both typecast for so long?
SY: Bogart and Lorre had so much to build on. They held each other in high esteem as actors. And both were professionals who did their job and went home . . . or out for a drink. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, just have fun doing it. And stir up some trouble along the way. Any interview with one of Bogart and Lorre’s friends and co-workers quickly came round to their mutual discontent at Warner Bros. They hated the Front Office, the patriarchal echelon. Typecasting was part of it, but more so a lack of respect for authority, especially what they perceived as arbitrary authority.
However different their approaches – Bogart was a chronic complainer, Lorre more subtly insubordinate – they were on the same page. People also talked about how the pixie in Lorre, his elfin charm, amused Bogart, who came to think of him as a good luck token.
CM: I believe their friendship was probably based more on their appreciation for the acting profession, rather than the problems they had with typecasting. I’ve read that Bogart was very proud to be an actor. Peter Lorre loved being an actor, too – for him, there was nothing else – but he didn’t want others to know how seriously he took his craft.
Also, although Peter had a particular “character type,” he actually played a variety of characters – especially at Warner Bros. Make a list of Lorre characters at Warners and you’ll probably find them fairly evenly divided between Villains and Heroes.
BFB: Do you have a favorite “behind the scenes” story about Bogart and Lorre?
SY: Well, this one is not tied to a particular film, but I’m fond of the story about Bogart and Lorre wheeling Dave Chasen’s safe onto Beverly Boulevard. It’s in character for both of them.
CM: My favorite story is the one of Bogart knocking on the kitchen window of a house in the Hollywood hills early one morning and asking the woman inside for a cup of coffee. Recognizing him from the movies, she invites him in. And then he calls up Peter and asks him to pick him up and take him to the studio, where they were working on Passage to Marseille. When Peter arrives, Bogie is sitting at the kitchen table, talking with the kids in the family, and drinking brandy and coffee. I’ve wondered what it was like for the kids to have these two stars in their home.
Because although Peter generally supported the leads in his movies, he was as recognizable as Bogie was. He was doing a lot of radio at this time, appearing as the guest star on all the big variety and anthology shows, like Duffy’s Tavern and Suspense.
BFB: What about between Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet? Does a certain film standout as a favorite collaboration between the two?
SY: I’m not sure I should repeat one of my favorite stories . . . it’s a little off color, but so typical of Lorre’s penchant for charging a situation. One day when Greenstreet was sunning himself during the making of The Conspirators, Lorre cracked, in Hedy Lamarr’s presence, that he was glad someone around here had a pair of tits. It was not surprising to learn that Lamarr disliked Lorre.
Both The Mask of Dimitrios and The Verdict stand out for me. I think Lorre and Greenstreet’s chemistry reached its peak in these films. They make such a comfortable fit.
CM: The Verdict (1946) is my favorite Lorre and Greenstreet movie. It’s the film I think of when I think of them. Their characters are best friends, and as they have always played off each other well, they have several amusing and charming scenes in The Verdict. It’s out on DVD now, so Lorre and Greenstreet fans can check it out.
BFB: How about just a favorite overall Lorre film?
SY: That’s a tough question . . . best and favorite doesn’t always equate. This will rub some Lorre fans the wrong way (or at least leave them scratching their heads), but I’m very fond of Silk Stockings because we see Lorre as he wished to be seen. Director Rouben Mamoulian wanted to present the private Lorre, the one that he knew personally. Clearly, Lorre relished the comedy role. He not only danced, in a way, but also sang. It’s fun to watch Lorre being himself.
CM: I tend to have favorite Lorre characters, rather than movies, just because Peter didn’t usually have the lead in his films.
Among my favorite Lorre characters are Marius in Passage to Marseille, Victor Emric in The Verdict, Johnny West in Three Strangers, Mr. Moto in the Moto film series, Nikolai Zaleshoff in Background to Danger, and Capt. Chang in They Met in Bombay. My favorite Moto film is Thank You, Mr. Moto, released second in the series, but filmed third.
BFB: Are there any misconceptions to Lorre’s life that you’d love to clear up?
SY: I suppose it still rankles me that Lorre is considered a “horror” star. As early as 1935, studio publicists and critics began singing this song . . . and setting the stage for his stature as a horror icon. There again, the actor preferred to call Mad Love “psychological terror” rather than horror. No one listened, of course.
Lorre did work with Lugosi and Karloff relatively early in his career, but in what were predominantly comedies, e.g. You’ll Find Out and The Boogie Man Will Get You. No monsters here, just “old dark house” silliness and an Arsenic and Old Lace spin off. And unlike Lugosi and Karloff, Lorre most often balanced menacing roles with humor.
The only horror film Lorre conceded was The Beast with Five Fingers (which he didn’t want to make). And the AIP-Edgar Allan Poe films? Well, when Price and especially Lorre got done with them, they were comedies.
When you survey his film roles, Lorre actually played a wide variety of roles, even comedy, when, to my mind, he is at his very best.
CM: The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre does an excellent job of debunking the popular myths about Peter’s life – that he “ran away from home to become an actor,” that he “studied under Sigmund Freud” – myths you can read about on some of the popular biographical websites.
On the Lost One website, we also have a biographical sketch, written by Stephen in 2000, for the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture that addresses these errors.
Peter wasn’t always the creepy, scary guy with the high-pitched voice seen in caricatures and cartoons. He was a talented actor who could play any kind of character. He could be the guy you wouldn’t mind having a drink with or introducing to your family. And he could also be the guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
BFB: Considering that Lorre seemed averse to ever writing an autobiography, what do you think he’d make of the tribute you’ve created for him?
SY: I’ve often wondered what Lorre would have thought of The Lost One. Friends of his have said he would have appreciated the fact that someone took the time to look behind the screen image, to explore other facets of his life. There was so much more of himself that he wanted to share.
With the help of co-workers, friends and family, I tried to peel back the many layers of a very complex man. And I do think that he would have enjoyed reading the firsthand recollections and seeing just how respected and loved he was. Did I get to know him? Years of research and shared memories certainly brought me closer to the man. Still, there is an element of mystery within every person that cannot be broached, only respected.
Knowing Lorre as I do, I think he would have just shrugged and said, “You got some things right.”
CM: I think he would appreciate the effort we make to show the various facets of Peter Lorre. Many Lorre websites and blogs are out on the internet, and many of them use photos of Peter as Dr. Gogol, one of his two “horror film” parts, or other photos in which he’s cringing or cowering.
But the photos Peter saved throughout his life were portraits taken in the early years of his Hollywood career. Portraits of him dressed in a suit and tie and looking very debonair.
These portraits will appear in a special slideshow I’m building for the redesigned home page of the Lost One website.
BFB: The candid pictures you used in the book were one of my favorite parts, for sure! Can you talk to me a little bit about the website you maintain for the book?
CM: I started building the site in May 2005, several months in advance of The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre coming out in print. Initially, Stephen and I used the site to promote the book, as well as include a lot of photos and information on Peter. With so many message boards and chat groups on Peter, having a website made it easy to get out the word on the book to Peter’s fans.
Since then, the site has gradually become more of a general “Peter Lorre” site, with galleries of photos, images of posters and lobby cards from Peter’s movies, DVDs of Lorre movies and TV shows, and Peter’s radio shows.
In fact, Stephen has been contacted through the Lorre website by documentary filmmakers who invited him to participate in extra features for DVD box-sets, such as the Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection Vol. 2, and the remastered Mr. Moto movies.
I’m currently redesigning the website, and there will be a lot of new material and many more photos.
In addition, we have a Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Lost-One-Authorized-Biography-of-Peter-Lorre/636098279737484.
A Twitter page — https://twitter.com/lorrebook.
And a YouTube channel — http://www.youtube.com/user/PeterLorreBook.
These will all be linked up on the redesigned website – but of course, anyone is welcome to visit them now.
BFB: Thanks so much Stephen and Cheryl! As a fan, I truly appreciate the years of work you put into chronicling Peter’s work, keeping his legacy alive for generations to come!
*The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre is available to purchase in paperback here! I highly recommend you pick up a copy!*