Long before I knew him as the serial-killer in M or the director of Der Verlorene, I knew Peter Lorre as an animated character in Bugs Bunny cartoons and as the guy who introduced that old-timey radio show Mystery Playhouse each week with the line "Hello creeps!"
Peter Lorre played a lot of fascinating roles in his career--in some great films and in some....well, not-so-great films. But his most fascinating role was always that of "Peter Lorre." I recently read Sarah Thomas' new book, Peter Lorre: Face Maker (Berghahn, 2012), which is a smart and fresh study of Lorre's career. Thomas examines what she terms Lorre's "extra-filmic persona," but rather than focus on his extra-filmic roles, she instead concentrates primarily on his screen roles. You can read my review at Senses of Cinema.
After reading Thomas' book, I wanted to rediscover the Peter Lorre who appeared in animated form on The Flintstones, The Simpsons (posthumously), and several Bugs Bunny cartoons and guest-starred on episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, What's My Line and dozens of other television shows. Thanks to the internet, I have been able to do so.
And the picture of Peter Lorre that emerges from these appearances complicates the standard notion of the trajectory of his career from the great promise of his early days in European theater and film to the self-caricature that he seemed to have become at the end of his career. Here are two of my favorite Peter Lorre as Himself performances, one from the beginning of his Hollywood career and one that came toward the end.
Promotional Video for Mad Science (1935)
In an MGM promotional video for Mad Science, an elegantly-dressed female fan rings up an elegantly-dressed Lorre lounging in a chair with a book, a dog, and his ubiquitous cigarette.
Woman: "Aww, I thought you were magnificent in M."
What's My Line (1960)
Twenty-five years later, Lorre appeared as the mystery guest on the February 14, 1960 broadcast of What's My Line to promote the smell-o-vision classic Scent of Mystery.
Arlene Francis [correctly guessing Lorre's identity]: "Are you by any chance a sad-eyed, innocent villain in pictures."
Lorre [chuckling]: "Yes, I'm afraid I am."