In my post several weeks ago, I highlighted the film pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in a series of Sherlock Holmes films. While other pairings, such as Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake as Blondie and Dagwood, and Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main as Ma and Pa Kettle, resulted in a series of films, in most pairings the actors played different characters in each film. Such a team was Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, who were joined in several films by Humphrey Bogart.
Between 1941, the start of Greenstreet’s short film career at age 62, and 1946, he appeared with Lorre or Bogart, or both, eleven times. By the time of his retirement in 1949, he’d appeared in a total of just 22 films.
Sydney Hughes Greenstreet was born in Sandwich, Kent, England, in December, 1879. One of eight children, his father was a tanner and leather merchant. At age 18, Sydney left home and travelled to Ceylon with the dream of making a fortune as a tea planter. When his plantation was wiped out by a drought, he reluctantly returned to England and took a job in a brewery. To relieve his boredom, he began to take part-time acting lessons. After two years of lessons, he left the brewery and became a permanent member of his teacher’s troupe, making his acting in 1902 as a murderer in a production of a Sherlock Holmes story. After appearing in every genre from comedy to Shakespeare, he made his Broadway debut in 1905. Spending the next 35 years as a stage actor, he consistently refused film offers until finally lured to Hollywood by friend John Huston, who was about to direct his first picture, THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). Greenstreet’s portrayal of Kasper Gutman, “The Fat Man”, marked his first pairing with Lorre and Bogart, and earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Laszlo Lowenstein, aka Peter Lorre, was born in Rozsahegy, Hungary, in June, 1904, the son of the chief bookkeeper in a local textile mill. His father was also a reserve officer in the Austrian Army and, with the outbreak of the Second Balkan War in 1913, moved his family to Vienna, anticipating that a much larger war was coming. Laszlo made his stage debut at age 17, working in a puppet show. His only ambition was to be an actor, and he supported himself with odd jobs, while travelling and finding small stage roles in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Finally noticed by German film director Fritz Lang, he was cast as a psychopathic child killer in the classic film M (1931), which made him an international star. He appeared in ten more German films between 1931 and the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. There is an unconfirmed story that top Nazi, Heinrich Himmler, was a fan of Lorre’s, and sent him a message urging him to leave Germany.
Once in London, Lorre met with Alfred Hitchcock who urged him to take a role in his upcoming film, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934). During the meeting, Lorre demonstrated his acting ability through appropriate nods, smiles, laughs and gestures. Hitchcock didn’t learn until sometime later that, although Lorre was fluent in several languages, English wasn’t one of them. A quick study, he learned his lines phonetically.
In 1935, Lorre moved to Hollywood where sadly, with a few exceptions, Columbia Pictures and MGM Studios were unable to find roles for him which allowed him to demonstrate his great talent.
After Greenstreet’s retirement from films in 1949, he spent several years portraying Rex Stout’s fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, on the radio. Lorre’s career went into decline due to health problems and his addiction to the morphine prescribed to cope with the pain.
Robert Serber, one of the Los Alamos physicists who developed the atomic bomb, noted that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was nicknamed “Fat Man”, in honor of Greenstreet. George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, stated that Greenstreet was the inspiration for the character, Jabba, The Hutt.
LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.