Of Men and Monkeys

The Great Communicator and Ronald 

Been reading a fascinating account by the late Sir Ralph Richardson of his early life (if you get the spiffing new UK DVD of THINGS TO COME there’s a vintage Russell Harty interview with the Great Man, and it’s a rare chance to wallow in authentic old-school eccentricity — the man’s mind is simply and gloriously ELSEWHERE) and was struck by this reminiscence of RR at around age 4:


“I remember being given a stuffed monkey which frightened me out of my wits. My father was very understanding, and said he would keep it for me in the cupboard in his studio until I felt equal to possessing it, and I can see him very sharply, I don’t know how long after, reaching up to the cupboard at my request, to give it back.”

Those two sentences move me in ways I can’t define, although I can at least say that the contrast between “I can see him very sharply,” and the immediate “I don’t know how long after, ” captures the strangeness of memory in a very precise way.

Anyhow, Fritz Lang had a toy monkey also, and he called it Peter, perhaps after Peter Lorre, whom he had transformed into a star. Lang was devoted to Peter the Primate in his later years, and posed for many photographs accompanied by his tiny companion. Friends have speculated that Lang, childless and alone in life, may have seen his monkey effigy as a sort of substitute son.

Fritz and Peter

It’s rather sweet and sad, and maybe the only cute thing in Lang’s entire life (I bet his baby photographs show him scowling through a monocle and wielding a whip).

There’s a rather peculiar moment in THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR. MABUSE, Lang’s last film, where a restaurant customer motions to a waiter, and that functionary obligingly brings him a toy monkey: not, I think, Peter himself, but some kind of stand-in or body-double. It’s some kind of homage to Lang’s most loyal friend, I suppose, but the bizarre nature of the scene recalls the work of Luis Bunuel.

Bunuel was a Lang fan but I have no idea if the feeling was mutual, although the two eventually met and got on well enough. Lang even signed an autograph for Don Luis.

An earlier, abortive meeting failed to happen because Lang, at a party, did not see Bunuel due to his advancing blindness, and Bunuel did not hear Lotte Eisner’s cry of “Look! It’s Fritz Lang!” due to his deafness.

I passed my blind neighbour in the stair yesterday, startling him, and since I was listening to El Presidente rather loud on my MP3 player, I have no idea if my apology was audible, or indeed if it was inappropriately boisterous. I expect that’s what made me think of this.

wet, she was a star

At the Marrakesh Film festival I fell in with a nice animation producer who had initially rather alarmed me by sporting light-bulb-sized extrusions upon his skull, reminiscent of the Space Aliens in Lynch’s Lumiere film (PREMONITION OF AN EVIL DEED — according to my friend Comrade K, a re-imagining of the “Black Dahlia” case). When faced with the kind of physical abnormalities that sit up and say “hello!” I find I have to fight my inner idiot, who wants to say things like, “You’re sitting there like everything’s normal, but do you realise you’ve got…?” His bulbs glinted in the North African sun. “Don’t Look At His Bulbs!” a voice cried within me.

But he was such a nice chap I soon got over my fascist idiocy and was able to appreciate the conversation. My new friend had helped run the Oxford University Film Society as a student, and had looked after Fritz Lang when he visited. “I had the job of tucking him in at night — he kept his eye-patch on. There was an awkward moment when I thought he was going to make a play for me, but he fell asleep.”

This, I suggested, was a bombshell. “I’ve never heard ANYONE suggest Fritz Lang was gay.”

“I think he was… not particular.”

Me and my monkey in Marrakech

6 Responses to “Of Men and Monkeys”

  1. my grandparents had a pet monkey for a while. it hated everybody except my grandma, or else it hated her especially because it was only interested in sitting on top of her head and pulling her hair out.

  2. And don’t forget Marco Ferreri’s sublime Bye Bye Monkey in which Gerard Depardieu discovers a live chimp cradled inside the arms of the dead King Kong whose body has washed up on the beach alongside the Wst Side Highway in New York. Marcello Mastroianni, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Mimsey Farmer, Avon Long and James Coco also figure in this demented masterpiece.

  3. And there’s Orson Welles’ monkey, acquired on Treasure Island, featured, I think, in F For Fake (where it’s seen bonding with Clifford Irving) and memorialised in the script of The Big Brass Ring.

    Ah, so poor Dick is dead! I bloody knew having lightbulbs growing out of your head wasn’t healthy. He was a nice chap though, that’s terrible.

    Fiona would like a monkey, but I don’t think the climate or tha cat would agree with it.

  4. There’s also the monkey who treats a pice of felt as if it were his mother in Star Spangled to Death.

  5. I wanna see that!

    Great monkeywork in Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother too.

    Fiona rates the monkey in Romero’s Monkey Shines as “the best monkey”.

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