Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre was an Austrian-American actor known for playing sinister foreigners. Born Laszlo Lowenstein in 1904 to Jewish parents in present-day Slovakia, Lorre's mom died of food poisoning when he was only four. As a teenager, Lorre was a student of Sigmund Freud in Vienna.

Lorre began acting at age 17 and moved to Berlin where he worked with playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. Lorre came to prominence portraying a child killer in Fritz Lang's 1931 German film M. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they used Lorre's image from M as an example of a "typical Jew" for their anti-semitic film The Eternal Jew. Ironically, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels (a fan of Lorre) warned the Jewish Lorre to leave Germany.

Lorre took refuge in Paris then London where he was cast by Alfred Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Though he spoke little English at the time, Lorre learned his part phonetically.  Hitchcock nicknamed him "The Walking Overcoat" since he rehearsed in a floor length coat no matter the season.  He  moved to Hollywood in 1935 where he roomed with fellow emigre filmmaker Billy Wilder at the Chateau Marmont Hotel.  Lorre and Wilder ate cold Campbell's soup each day to keep from starving.  Lorre took small bit parts until he earned the starring role in the Mr. Moto films playing a Japanese detective.

Lorre became close friends with Humphrey Bogart and the two appeared in five films together.  Though he was married, 44-year old Bogart spent clandestine weekends with Lauren Bacall, 19, at Lorre's ranch.  Lorre helped convince Bogart to marry Bacall with the advice, "Five good years are better than none."

Lorre's on-screen dialogue was always quotable among movie fans.  In Casablanca, his character Ugarte tells Bogart's Rick Blaine, "You know Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust."  In Beat The Devil, written by Truman Capote and John Huston, Lorre utters a classic monologue on the nature of time.  "Time. Time.  What is time?  Swiss manufacture it.  French hoard it.  Americans say it is money.  Hindus say it does not exist.  Do you know what I say?  I say time is a crook."

In 1941, Lorre became a naturalized American citizen.  He was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to name anyone suspicious he had met since coming to the United States.  He gave the committee a list of everyone he knew.

After World War II, Lorre's career went downhill and he e began appearing in mediocre horror films and tv game shows. He was the first actor to play a James Bond villain when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a 1954 TV version of Casino Royale. Lorre struggled with gallbladder troubles and became addicted to morphine. Though he ultimately kicked his drug habit he gained hundreds of pounds in a short period.  In 1956, at the funeral of his friend Bela Lugosi, Lorre supposedly asked Vincent Price, "Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?"

Lorre was married three times and had one daughter. Catherine Lorre gained notoriety for being stopped in her car in Los Angeles in 1977 by the "Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianchi.  Bianchi later said he intended to abduct and murder Catherine but he let her go when he learned she was the daughter of Peter Lorre.

In the 90's, Lorre was the inspiration for the character Ren in the cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show.  He was also the inspiration for the Boo Berry Ghost mascot for General Mills.  Lorre died of a stroke in 1964. Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.  (6" x 6", black ink print)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Grandpa Al

My Grandpa Al was a seminal figure in my life. The youngest of 12 children, he was born in 1913 in Austria-Hungary and came to America at age 2. He was raised in a poor Jewish family and acquired a "worldly education" on the tough streets of the Bronx. He married young and became a traveling pasta salesman singing Italian songs to his customers.

Tired of east coast winters, he moved his wife and three daughters (my mom included) across country to Los Angeles in 1948. After a failed pretzel business, he opened a liquor store in midtown Los Angeles at the corner of Western Avenue & Pico Boulevard. The store was adjacent to Redd Foxx's nightclub "Foxx's" and celebrities often came by for Al's barbecue chicken and ribs. Al loved telling the story about how he almost killed Wilt Chamberlain. It seems Wilt entered the store via the 8-foot high Western entrance for some ribs and left through the 7-foot high Pico door. Being 7 foot 1" tall, Wilt slammed his head on the doorframe and fell to the ground. Al gave Wilt a lifetime supply of barbecue to keep him happy.

In 1977 when I was 14, Grandpa Al gave me my first ever job as a clerk in his liquor store. I'd lived a sheltered life in the suburbs and that summer at Al's store was eye opening. The surrounding area was impoverished and crime-ridden. Two years earlier, Al was robbed four times at gunpoint. Six weeks before I began working, the store was robbed in the middle of the night and half the liquor stock was stolen or destroyed. Al was not intimidated. He'd made it through the 1965 Watts Riots and he considered himself a "tough jew." Al gave me lectures about the tricks of his trade. "Never leave more than twenty dollars in the register...Don't open the register until you see the customer's money...If someone asks you a question while the register is open, close the register, then answer the question." He showed me the thin strip of rubber beneath the counter that triggered the silent alarm. He taught me how to spot a counterfeit bill by rubbing the bill against a white piece of paper and looking for a faint green mark. He instructed me to leave a hundred dollars in singles in the "fake safe" in the storage room while leaving the lion's share of money in the "real safe" upstairs. He showed me the secret compartment beneath the register where he carried his loaded pistol. "I've never had to use this but if that day comes, I'm ready."

Grandpa Al was also a prankster. One time he decided to teach a lesson to a customer named Clarence who came in every day and stole candy bars. When Clarence entered the store, Al took a foil-wrapped Ex-Lax chocolate bar and inserted it into the outer wrapping of a Kit Kat bar. When Clarence approached, Al left the faux Kit Kat on the counter and walked away. I watched from the storage room as Clarence pocketed the Kit Kat and left. We didn't see him for two weeks. When Clarence finally returned, he looked noticeably lighter and pale. "Where you been, Clarence," my grandpa asked. Clarence's reply was unforgettable. "Man, you wouldn't believe the shit that's been happening to me." My grandfather finally sold the store in 1988. Along with my Grandma Stella, they devoted the rest of their life to raising money for the City of Hope Hospital to help aid children with cancer. This was my grandparents' tribute to their daughter Lita who died of cancer at a young age. Grandpa Al passed away in 1994. He was a beautiful man and I still miss him. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bogart

Humphrey Bogart's characters smoked, drank, fought and almost always got the girl.  His film image was that of a wounded, stoic, cynical loner with his own idealistic moral code. He was born on Christmas Day in 1899. His father was a renowned heart surgeon and his mother Maud a famous commercial artist.  An illustration of Bogart as a baby was used in an ad campaign for baby food making him a national sensation.  Though he grew up in affluence, Bogart despised pretension, snobs and phonies.

Bogart was expelled from prep school for throwing the headmaster into a lake. He enlisted in the US Navy at age 17 to fight in World War I. While escorting a handcuffed prisoner, the captive smashed Bogart in the face and attempted unsuccessfully to flee.  Bogart acquired a scar above his lip that became the defining feature of his tough guy persona.

Bogart made his stage debut in 1921.  He struggled in New York theater for ten years.  In 1929, he lost his savings in the stock market crash.  He was reduced to making money by playing chess for fifty cents a game in local bars and coffee houses.  His first big stage role came in 1934 playing escaped murderer Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.  He reprised the role for the film adaptation. Between 1936-1940, Bogart made an average of six movies a year for Warner Brothers, most of them mediocre.  These were his B-Movie years and Bogart was cast primarily as a gangster.

During this period, he entered his third marriage, to actress Mayo Methot.  Methot was a heavy drinker and paranoid that Bogart was cheating on her.  They fought constantly and the press dubbed them "the battling Bogarts."  Mayot set their house on fire, stabbed Bogart with a knife and slashed her wrists on several occasions.  Bogart bought a yacht he called Sluggy (named after Methot) and began finding refuge at sea.

In 1941, Bogart starred in High Sierra, a film written by John Huston.  When Huston became a film director he cast Bogart as Detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  (The role was initially offered to Ronald Reagan.)  The film was a hit and Bogart was able to shed his gangster image.  Bogart's watershed role came in 1942 playing Rick Blaine in Casablanca.  Bogart's teaming with Ingrid Bergman yielded the greatest romantic pairing in movie history.  Off set, the two barely spoke.  In 1944, Bogart met Lauren Bacall while filming To Have And Have Not.  Bogart was 44, Bacall 19.  They reunited for The Big Sleep and their scenes together crackled with sexual tension.  In 1945, Bogart divorced Mayo Methot and married Bacall.  They bore two children making Bogart a father at age 49.

Bogart bought a 55-foot sailing yacht from actor Dick Powell he named Santana. Bogart was an accomplished helmsman and he spent up to 40 weekends a year at sea.  On most voyages, he traveled stag.  He told Frank Sinatra, "The trouble with having dames on board is you can't pee over the side."

Throughout his career, Bogart became known for classic dialogue in his films. Memorable lines included "Here's looking at you, kid," "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "We'll always have Paris" and "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  In The Caine Mutiny, Bogart utters a line emblematic of his own life outlook: "There are four ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way."

In 1951, Bogart won a Best Actor Academy Award for The African Queen.  He became a vocal protester against Senator McCarthy and the Hollywood Blacklist. In 1956, while dining at Romanoffs, Bogart started coughing horribly. A heavy smoker and drinker, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.  He returned home and remained bedridden, losing so much weight he was transported up and downstairs in the dumb waiter.  In January 1957, Bogart was visited by his close friends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.  Bogart looked up at Tracy and said, "Goodbye, Spence."  (He's always said "goodnight" in the past.)  Tracy walked downstairs and told Hepburn, "Bogie's going to die."

Bogart died the next morning.  He was 57.  Because he was cremated, a glass-enclosed model of his beloved yacht Santana stood in place of his casket at the funeral.  John Huston eulogized Bogart with the words: "In each of the fountains at Versailles there is a pike which keeps all the carp active, otherwise they would grow fat and die. Bogie took delight in performing a similar duty in the fountains of Hollywood." (6" x 7", black ink print.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart were one of Hollywood's great classic couples. Born Betty Joan Perske in 1924 to Jewish immigrant parents, Bacall was known for her smoky voice and sultry, mysterious demeanor. She was discovered by the wife of director Howard Hawks who saw her on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. In 1944, Hawks brought Bacall to Hollywood to audition for his film To Have And Have Not. Nervous and quivering during the screen test, Bacall pressed her chin against her chest and tilted her eyes upward. This became known as "The Look," Bacall's trademark.

Bacall and Bogart fell in love while shooting To Have And Have Not. (Bacall was 19, Bogart 44.) Bogart divorced his wife Mayo Methot and married Bacall in 1945. The couple had two children and appeared in three more films together (The Big Sleep, Dark Passage & Key Largo.) In the mid 1950's, Bacall cut down her film appearances while Bogart struggled with esophageal cancer. Bogart died in 1957 and Bacall was devastated. At Bogart's funeral, Bacall put a whistle in his casket (a nod to her famous film line: "You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow.")

In 1957, Bacall had a short relationship with Frank Sinatra and she later married actor Jason Robards (who resembled Bogart). Bacall's career waned in the 60's though she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for The Mirror Has Two Faces. In 1972, she appeared in John Wayne's last movie The Shootist. Despite their opposite political outlooks (Bacall was liberal, Wayne conservative), the two became great friends. In 2006, Bacall made a cameo appearance in The Sopranos. In the episode she is robbed and beaten up and she utters two classic F-Bombs.

Bacall is first cousin to Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister of Israel. Lauren Bacall remains healthy, active and opinionated at age 88. Recently she said of the popular movie Twilight: "Yes I saw it, my granddaughter made me watch it, she said it was the greatest vampire film ever. After the 'film' was over, I wanted to smack her across her head with my shoe but I do not want a book called Grannie Dearest written about me when I die. So instead I gave her a DVD of Murnau's 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu and told her, 'Now that's a vampire film!'" (5" x 7", black ink print)