Yes, that is Ingrid Bergman posed with Sydney Greenstreet in one of those glossy publicity stills used to promote – or, to use the old studio coinage, to “exploit” — 1942’s classic Casablanca.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to extol those marvelous old studio stills that are now being packaged — obviously erroneously — as “Hollywood Unseen.”
The photo above, for example, is somewhat misleading since Greenstreet had a small role in the picture. In Hollywood’s heyday the studios’ publicity departments often staged their stills by posing stars together in situations that were not necessarily in the movie. Thousands of these orchestrated photos would be blanketed world wide to what was the communications maw of the time – the vast print media.
Print was king in the U.S. in the 1940’s with nearly 2,000 newspapers published every day. Worldwide, that total was geometrically increased. The global reach of print was staggering back then, and the studios took full advantage. Photo stills were second only to theater trailers as promotional tools for movies.
Also in Casablanca, although he had no scenes with Greenstreet, was Peter Lorre. They had already made The Maltese Falcon the previous year.
In 1943’s Backround to Danger, director Raoul Walsh’s treatment of a spy thriller from the reliable Eric Ambler, the mustache-sporting Greenstreet had to cope with star George Raft along with Lorre. Greenstreet and Lorre appeared together in at least four other films, the best of which probably is 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by Jean Negulesco and also based on an Ambler novel.
The pair delivered entertaining performances in Negulesco’s 1946 mystery Three Strangers, also starring Geraldine Fitzgerald. As in The Maltese Falcon, Greenstreet’s character finds himself within inches of realizing a fortune that slips from his reach.
Greenstreet and Lorre are justifiably regarded today by classic movie fans as one of the screen’s great character actor duos. Critic David Thomson refers to them as “Lear and the Fool.
That may be a bit harsh but there is no doubt that Greenstreet and Lorre comprised an immensely entertaining screen duo that believed in having fun at the other’s expense.
Lorre’s most notorious prank didn’t involved Grenstreet, though. It happened one day on the Warner Brothers’ studio set of Casablanca (no, the picture was NOT shot in Morocco!). Director Michael Curtiz, a native of Hungary (nee Mano Kertesz Kaminer), had a reputation as a dedicated womanizer.
Curtiz would hire winsome young extras to accompany him during shooting breaks, with sexual favors as part of the deal. He would choose any private place on the set usually behind some flat in a secluded area. He’d have the grips move a piece of furniture there, a couch, or even a mattress — almost anything to soften his lovemaking, recalled actor Paul Henreid in his 1984 autobiography.
Lorre got wind of this arrangement, and arranged for the sound department to bug the location of Curtiz’ assignations. Henreid (‘Victor Laszlo’ in the movie) recalled that we were all resting between takes one afternoon when suddenly, over the loudspeaker, we hear Mike moaning, ‘Oh God! Oh no,no,no…’
We were stunned. For a second we thought he was in pain, and we jumped up, but Peter Lorre, grinning like a madman, waved us back, and we realized what was going on. Mike’s moaning became increasingly ecstatic: ‘Oh yes, yes — oh God, yes.’ And then: ‘Take it all, take it all — my balls too!’
The entire cast collapsed in laughter. Fortunately for Curtiz and his status on the set, he never found about Lorre’s trick.
A marvelous gag photo of Lorre and Greenstreet surfaces in the recently published HOLLYWOOD UNSEEN: Photography From the John Kobal Foundation edited by Gareth Abbott. It’s billed as a collection of studio shots showing the “real” lives of stars. They were, in fact, publicity shots.
One shows a seated Greenstreet, in full Santa Claus garb, amusing himself next to a a fully decorated Christmas tree while a maniacal-looking Lorre stands behind swinging a baseball bat aimed at Greenstreet’s head. A marvelous photo.
And their home studio, Warner Bros. LOVED to use them in those publicity stills.