Archive for Peter Lorre
Getting in the mood for Halloween. It had been years since I saw THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS — I remembered it being slightly disappointing, and Fiona didn’t remember it at all. The heart sinks slightly at Curt Siodmak’s script credit, yet his scenario isn’t in any way laughable. It does have dull stretches, though. Director Robert Florey seems to come awake in fits, thrusting wildly canted angles or serried rows of faces at us, then falling back into soporific busywork. But from the time of the first death, the good scenes start to slowly outnumber the dull ones, and there’s always Peter Lorre…
It’s surprisingly brutal for its time, with the severed hand scuttling about like it owns the place, flashing its stump brazenly. There’s a wet, meaty back view complete with wrist bones, apparently painted trompe-l’oeil fashion on the hand actor’s wrist, while the rest of his arm is blacked out. Apart from the various stranglings, it’s the hand who suffers most of the violence, crucified and burned by the neurasthenic Lorre (playing a character called Hillary, a mild-mannered name that doesn’t seem to quite suit him).
The source novel surely owes a debt to Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Hand, which likewise plays with the idea of a disembodied hand strangling victims from beyond the grave, only to offer a not-quite-reassuring rational explanation. But we can go further back and credit the inspiration to Algernon Swinburne — when Maupassant saved the poet from drowning, he rewarded his rescuer with an ashtray made from a human hand. As you do. I have to presume that the young writer, sat at his desk, Gauloise in hand, casting around for inspiration, seized upon the first interesting thing to catch his eye. A good thing for French literature he didn’t alight upon his waste-paper basket made from a human arse, or his paperweight made from a fossilised spleen. In fact, Maupassant’s study was decorated with the disassembled parts of an entire human being, gifted to him by Swinburne. Possibly they were the parts of Swinburne himself. But astute readers will have realized I stopped telling the truth here some time ago, though they may be surprised to learn how late in the paragraph the fantasy takes over.
A very good bit — Lorre hears scuttling, and the previous astrology books on his shelves start to nudge outwards in a creeping series — the hand is crawling behind them! Swiping the volumes to the floor, Lorre searches out the stray extremity, and Florey tracks along INSIDE the bookshelf, behind the books, until the wriggling thing is discovered, cornered, and Lorre smiles with genuine pleasure at catching it. He then hammers a nail through it, seals it in the safe, and reports to Robert Alda, “I locked it up.” But Fiona misheard this, owing to Lorre’s thick accent, as “I looked it up,” and imagined that he had somehow tracked it down on the bookshelf under H for Hand, or possibly B for Beast. It’s a nice idea — why has there not been a remake to exploit this possibility? One thinks, of course, of the very good “A Farewell to Arms” gag in EVIL DEAD II…
Look, I made it a gif! It depicts Kay Kyser being violated by a stuffed gorilla. Yes, I *am* proud of myself. Why do you ask?
YOU’LL FIND OUT (1940) is worth resenting slightly because it unites Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre but is nothing but a silly comedy with not very good comedians. Kyser tries way too hard and isn’t funny. Sidekick Ish Kabibble tries less and is almost funny. On the other hand, Kyser also stars in John Barrymore’s last film, PLAYMATES, so we should be lenient on this one. And none of the ghouls is embarrassing, in fact all get to do their accustomed stuff and do it well. They are the reason to watch.
There’s also some fun stuff with electronic voice effects, Sparky’s Magic Piano style, which play a big role in the plot. I want to use this feature to decode the film’s writing credits. Director David Butler and James Kern are credited with the story, which is nothing much — an old dark country house spookshow with Scooby Doo explanation. Kyser and his band are playing a gig at this joint, so it’s like THE GANG’S ALL HERE with ectoplasm. Butler directed a lot of “zany” films which aren’t good like HELLZAPOPPIN. He worked with Kyser and with El Brendel and Eddie Cantor and did ROAD TO MOROCCO. Jerome Kern, a former attorney and singer wrote the script itself — I guess they needed someone with an education.
But three more schmoes are credited with “special material.” Monte Brice seems like a real Pat Hobby character, a silent era hanger-on with lots of vague credits for “story construction” or “special material,” mainly in comedy. One title intrigues: the lost WC Fields version of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. We can assume it’s lost because it has an IMDb review by our old friend F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre. I suspect Brice may be responsible for the more visual-comedy material, such as the ape assailant above, and maybe the film’s one real inspired gag, the dog playing fetch with a stick of dynamite. Comedy with real terror, as whenever the petrified comics hurl the high explosive away from themselves, the playful pooch brings it back.
Andrew Bennison is also credited, and also has silent movies on his CV, but mainly as a titles writer, so I expect he was writing cheesy quips for Kay and Ish.
And then there’s the mysterious R.T.M. Scott, who has no other screen credits at all. But I think I now who he is. Musician Raymond Scott worked with early electronic music. He also contributed tracks to David Butler’s earlier ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN. So I suspect he came up with the electronic vokes. I have no idea what the TM stands for though. Scott’s real name was Harry Warnow.
The guy credited for providing the film’s “Sonovox” equipment, however, is someone called Gilbert Wright, so that confuses things. But my theory is that Scott knew of the Sonovox and suggested it to Butler as a plot device. This is of no importance whatsoever. Thank you for your time.