I Was a Teenage
Peter Lorre Companion
by Anne Sharp
Right after my mother kicked my father out of the house, she started watching a film show on public television Friday nights hosted by Charles Champlin, then the movie critic for the “Los Angeles Times.” Each week they showed a classic foreign film and if you liked it, you got a chance to see it again when they reran it Sunday afternoon. So on the nights when all my friends in sixth grade were watching “The Brady Bunch,” I was sitting on the couch across from my mother and dog, watching something tremendous and adult and shattering: “Grand Illusion,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Seven Samurai,” “Ivan the Terrible,” “The Blue Angel,” “Knife in the Water,” and so on.
Not in a million years would my dad have let me watch movies like this. I had been an extremely phobic little girl. There was a talking clown doll, a Christmas present from an uncle, that made me run away and cry whenever I saw its face or heard its strangled artificial voice. Yvonne was fascinated by the uniform reaction she got from me just by taking it out of its box. Eventually the box was stored in the basement, whereupon I refused to go downstairs. It wasn't so easy to escape the “Romper Room” jack-in-the-box, though. During certain times of the morning and afternoon just the sight of a television set would parch my throat and rattle my vesicles. I couldn't even bear to hear that sinister, mechanical cranked-out rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” that heralded the Clown Eminence of “Romper Room”'s imminent entrance, let alone remain in the room when that hideous staring red-mouthed monster sprang out of his tin casket. There was an even worse clown who came in my dreams to stare in my window. One night he came down on me in bed to smother me with a kiss, till I screamed and woke up.
My father got sick of having to get up and calm me down after such nightmares, and he retaliated by refusing to let me watch anything “scary” on TV, by which he meant "not for kids." So that meant “Romper Room” was fine, and so were Bozo and Milky the damn clowns, and so was all other programming that made me run mad with fright. Such as the ancient grotesque cartoons the UHF stations broadcast constantly throughout the day, with their gruff, sniggering villains and pathetic falsetto-voiced animal heroes, and those snarling, vindictive trees in “The Wizard of Oz” every Easter, snaring poor hysterical Judy Garland in their homicidal branches. Nothing in Charles Champlin's foreign film world, not even Caligari's sideshow or Lola Lola's house of erotic pain, could match such a cavalcade of psychotic horror, violence and misery.
Of course mom came to assess my father's censorship of my viewing with the same contempt she reserved for his other tries to rule her household. So the very Friday after she'd got rid of him, she let me and Yvonne, who were then ten and twelve respectively, stay up to watch a double feature of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” on a special midnight edition of Sir Graves Ghastly.
Sir Graves was a child-oriented local television movie host on the order of Sergeant Sacto, Poopdeck Paul and Jerry Booth. Like Charles Champlin, he offered films that were decidedly not meant for nightmare-ridden little girls. Nevertheless, sitting up in the folded-out sofa bed in the living room next to my drowsing sister, I watched, not with fear but with a strange tingle of warmth, these ultimate forbidden films.
Frankenstein and Dracula. Karloff the cadaverous baby, longing to be dandled, raging at the shackles and teasings offered him instead. Lugosi the demon smiler, plying his voice like a gypsy violin: "Commm... hurrr." These lovely corpses stretched out their arms to me. Little girl, nothing to be frightened of. And there wasn't. I followed them into their dark worlds, came back wondering, moved, but perfectly unharmed. I longed to see them again.
So I pursued my tender Boris and racy Bela through many afternoons and middle-of-the-nights, all over the TV schedule--silly Sir Graves, with his embarrassing jokes and stunts, was not, thank God, the only panderer on my broadcast dial. And the more time I spent as a guest of these dead men, the more I craved their company. First I'd watch any movie with them in it. Then anything that was a horror film. Then almost anything that was a film, that glowed with the lure of a projector lamp rather than shimmering with the repellent sheen of video. I preferred films in black and white. That was the real color of movies. Color looked too fake-real-ugly. Besides, in the black-and-whites, the clothes and the settings and the men were much more beautiful.
So that's how I happened to be sitting on the couch that Friday night in spring, with the dog quietly snoring on the floor and mom knitting and smoking in her armchair, watching this film "M."
You must remember this. There's a city made of grey stone where it's always night. All the people are afraid of a little man who slips around in shadows, emerging whenever he sees a stray child. First he flirts her into the bushes, offering candy, fruit and toys. Then he sticks her with the switchblade he uses to cut up oranges, and leaves her for her mother to cry over.
Every child knows this sort of thing goes on. Even before the child abuse boom of the 1980s, there were always cautionary tales of predators going around. Yvonne and I met our own big bad wolf when we were in fifth and second grade. There had been an M prowling our neighborhood in a black car, and he too had candy, although what he sprang on you wasn't a switchblade. At the time Mom had been working on her master's degree at Wayne State, and we girls were on half-days because of the teachers' strike, so we had to stay in the house alone for a couple of hours until she got home. One day Yvonne answered a phone call from a man who said he was Jerry Booth from “Jerry Booth's Fun House” on Channel 9. "Are your mom and dad home?" Yvonne hung up and called the number mom left for us. Mom came right home; she actually phoned Channel 9 and talked to Jerry Booth himself. No, he hadn't called. From then on, we had a babysitter in the afternoons.
So I was firmly on the side of those beefy, greasy old German men with the leather trench coats and cigars stuck in the bowls of their pipes, as they hunted down M the Knife, trapped him in a cage, and dragged him down to the basement to carve open his stomach and take out his latest Red Riding Hood. Get him! Get him!
They got him! Yeah! The little creep! He wriggled and shrieked and honked in fright. He crouched in the corner. He hid his face in his pudgy little hands. Then he opened his big round eyes, and turned to me, to me.
Oh, don't let them hurt me! he said.
He said it in German; they didn't translate it in the subtitles, but I heard it. Oh what big eyes he had.
He couldn't help it. Voices told him to do it. Everything would go black, and when he came to the children had become dead. How had it happened? And then the ghost of each child would follow him down the street.
Help! They're going to kill me!
There was nothing I could do. It had all happened years ago, and it was only a movie. Who knows if they were merciful to him? I went to bed in tears.
Again, they reran the Champlin program on Sunday afternoons, so if you liked what you saw on Friday enough to see it again, you had another chance. By this time, indulgent as ever of my privacy and not caring to put up with any more grade-Z Karloff films in her living room, mom had bought me my own little portable TV. I could watch what I needed to under optimum, intimate conditions.
What really floored me, what really almost scared me, was finding out he'd been there all along. In one form or another, he'd been there all my life. Not only through the moving image medium, but in the flesh, or rather the spirit. Like a dybbuk, he could take people over temporarily. Whenever the subject of murder, or perversion, or other weirdness came up, they would smile and speak in his cadences. But they “did” him so badly. What I wanted was my master's voice, the real thing.
There was something luring but painful to me about the timbre and cadence of that voice, that cello played with an over-rosined bow. The sound is unmistakable, in German or English. But in German, I don't know, maybe he wasn't perceived as having an accent, or what sounds he made were interpreted as normal, regional, traceable probably to nearby locales, Vienna via the Carpathians in his case. But the purling arabesques of his English pronunciation, especially as it hardened into the Mitteleuropaisch-Middle American intonations of his later California exile years, have tickled up so many sniggers. I myself accepted the occult loveliness of his voice with what I felt was the appropriate reverence. With horror, though, the truth came to me that I was constantly hearing people making fun of him. Him! On TV variety shows, on radio ads (especially around Halloween), on Sir Graves Ghastly, even on the playground, from the lips of my contemporaries, who had probably never even seen one of his films other than maybe “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” I heard their mocking cruel ignorant mimicry and blushed and raged to myself.
It was also disturbing how someone who'd been dead so long could still be so much around.
Every Sunday morning I would get the TV book out of the “Free Press” and scan the movie guide, in consultation with the Halliwell's “Filmgoer's Companion” mom had given me for my eleventh birthday, to see if anything good would be on that week. A good film by now meant one thing. The fact that he had made so many meant that nearly every week he'd be on the schedule, sometimes two or three times, unfortunately all too often after midnight, which meant I would drift around most of the school week in a semi-hallucinatory state of sleep deprivation.
There was a sort of straight version of Sir Graves on every weekday afternoon, Bill Kennedy, a hilarious old prune of a former Hollywood contract player who hosted movies mainly from his old studio, Warner Bros. Which meant he'd show lots and lots of beguiling little programmers featuring that other studio-era Warners contract artist. What riches! It was great during summer vacation. During the school year, I had to get sick a lot.
It was better, really only possible to watch him alone now. My TV set had a little ear jack hookup, so in the middle of the night while mom and Yvonne slept behind the walls on either side of me, I could tuck the plastic nugget in deep and listen without revealing myself, spared that shame, at least. It was almost like the feeling for the basement doll, that unbearable searing sense of unease when he was near. Only this doll in his little box must be looked at, and when he laughed and murmured and screamed, I must listen.
I had no delusions of reference. I'd memorized the mortal dates in Halliwell's. I knew this was a ghost, really the ghost of a ghost, oblivious to everything and certainly to me. But this didn't make any difference. I felt what I felt.
It's astonishing how many people will ask who your favorite actor is. Don't they have any idea what a personal question that is? I would flush and stall, trying to come up with an acceptable reply. I must tell the truth or die. In the end I always died, though, because I tried to be frank, but would be pressured into betraying him. People would make a face and say, "Well, what you mean is you like his acting. You're not in LOVE with him."
I would nod and turn away. I saw mental hospitals in my future.
He was so beautiful.
He was never the first thing on the screen. Stupid Hollywood must have known what they had in him. His face of a Buddha in repose, his iridescent purr, his beckoning expothalmic gaze, his body, that imperfect instrument articulated to numinous perfection by that master marionettist, himself. They deliberately teased you by holding off his entrance till the last possible bearable moment. My heart would go heavily, threaten to stop. Then he would materialize-and I could hear my capillaries crackle.
Every Saturday at eight I turned on my digital clock radio (digital clocks had supposedly just come out at this time, in the smarmy Seventies-ha! Karloff had had one forty years earlier, in “The Black Cat”) and listened to Jim Gallert's show “Jazz Yesterday” on WDET. The trumpet fanfare heralding Benny Goodman's “Stealin' Apples,” the “Jazz Yesterday” theme song, was my catnip. Because it was the music of his time. When they played stuff from the late twenties, it was him in Berlin. Oh, yes, I knew what that meant. I was young, but I'd read Isherwood. The thirties and forties were him in Hollywood, his beautiful deft hand with a cigarette, in all those white linen suit-and-fern foreign intrigue thrillers. I saw his deliberate gests in Artie Shaw's clarinet, heard his low-register tones in Coleman Hawkin's sax and his soft, facetious faux-Asian falsetto in Django Reinhardt's sweet guitar curlicues.
Jim Gallert played jazz from the pre-postwar period, 1920 to 1945. The right time frame. Because after V-E day, it was pretty much over with him from what I could sadly see.
Look at “Mask of Dimitrios,” release date 1944. He was about forty then, button-cute, really quite slim for him (they'd probably fed him speed like mom said they'd done with Judy Garland, as part of Warners' fleeting, misguided effort to market him as a sort of miniature Charles Boyer during his post-Moto period.) As in Maltese Falcon, a pleasing love interest for croaking old Sydney Greenstreet.
Compare with “The Verdict," 1946. The identical pairing, but what a nasty shock to see. For years I wasn’t able to watch more than a few minutes of it.
Something happened to his voice. I noticed it again and again, starting around 1945, worsening at the end of the decade and almost unbearable by the start of the 1950s. The lovely bizarre viol warped, became harsh and unpliable. Part of it was his gradual adaptation of our twangy American English consonants; that accentuated that scraping tonal quality. But there was also, especially in the post-”Verlorene” period, an awkward slurriness suggestive of the lingering effects of stroke. He sounded more and more like a mean impressionist's version of himself. And of course by then he'd been doing himself for too many years and knew it, and what an Escher's staircase that must have been for him.
And right around that 45 mark, no doubt for the same reason, his pliant, altricial features had begun to stiffen and freeze into the gargoyle mask he wore for the last decade of his life. This was particularly hard to take for me. I forced myself to watch some of the more important later films, “The Beast with Five Fingers,” “Silk Stockings,” the Roger Corman Poes. But it was always in pain and in mourning. Although he was he, always, and there were gems among the dross. That moment, for instance, in “Story of Mankind,” in which, as Nero, he reclines on his darkling balcony with a lyre, gazing with drowsy spent ecstasy upon Rome as it frizzles beneath him.
One night Jim Gallert played three versions of the Gershwin tune “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” one after the other. I lay on my bed, marking time till 2 AM; Channel 2 would be running “The Face behind the Mask,” which I'd had to wait five years for.
The lyrics of that song cycled back and back, stinging the integuments of my heart as each vocalist took his or her turn with it. First the words were drawled and winked at, then rattled off by one who didn't care as much, and finally, satisfyingly wound up in a snug, artful embrace. The movies and the radio that we have today may fade away. He was alive when they wrote that, I thought bitterly. What did they know then about the ontological half-life of celluloid? or movies on TV? or the Nostalgia Era? or a fourteen-year-old girl trembling under this merciless thing that had crept over her when she was little, that she had hoped she would eventually grow out of, that she wasn't growing out of?
Movies fade away! Benny Goodman disappear! Microorganisms would devour me utterly before “Stealin' Apples” would cease to be heard, or he who'd died four years after I was born would cease to walk the earth in silver and ebony light.
From “The Peter Lorre Companion: A Bildungsroman” by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.