Best Actor of 1935 – Peter Lorre (Mad Love)

Other Notable Performances:  Peter Lorre (Crime and Punishment), Charles Laughton (Ruggles of Red Gap), Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty), Victor McLaglen (The Informer), W.C. Fields (The Man on the Flying Trapeze), Boris Karloff (The Bride of Frankenstein), Gary Cooper (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), Ronald Colman (A Tale of Two Cities)

Peter Lorre an actor who has been remembered for his quirky voice and disturbing eyes that we often forget he was a fine actor.  He came to Hollywood from Germany in 1935 and immediately turned in two fantastic performances.  In some ways his portrayal of Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment is meatier than the obsessed doctor in Mad Love.  While Lorre has some great moments in Crime and Punishment – especially after he begins to overcome the guilt of his crime and toys with the inspector – his task is tougher in Mad Love.

Lorre pulls off the near impossible:  he plays a crazed villain that the audience can empathize with.  Dr. Gogol, a brilliant Paris physician known for performing daring and intricate experimental operations, is an awkward, socially inept man who can only love from afar.  His love for actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) is unfulfilled.  He has never talked to the beautiful woman; he only sits in the same box every night watching her perform.  On the last night of the show he works up the courage to go backstage and introduce himself, eager to discuss her schedule for the next season.  But Yvonne graciously explains that this show has been her last because she is going to England with her husband Stephen.  Gogol is heartbroken.

Things change however when Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) is seriously injured in a train wreck, his hands crushed beyond repair and Yvonne, anxious for her pianist husband to play again, goes to Gogol and begs him to help.  Gogol reluctantly agrees, unable to say no to the woman he loves.  What he doesn’t tell anyone is he has to amputate the hands and attach new ones onto Stephen – new hands salvaged from the body of a recently guillotined knife thrower which will have disastrous unforeseen consequences.

The plot about Stephen Orlac’s new hands is not what makes this picture compelling.  Peter Lorre’s characterization of Dr. Gogol drives the movie.  He is creepy but not inhuman.  We can connect with his shyness and social discomfort.  In fact, Gogol is acutely aware that he is unattractive and inarticulate; early in the picture we sense that he knows better than anyone Yvonne could never love him.  Maybe it is this knowledge that pushes him over the edge when circumstances thrust her back into his life.  He finally sees a way to have the once unattainable but the closer he gets to having her (in his mind) the more his own inadequacy is highlighted, pushing him further into obsession and psychosis.

What is so remarkable is that Lorre created a whole person who isn’t defined by his insanity.  If things had gone a different way we sense he would have continued as the quiet and reclusive genius, without turning murderous.  Lorre is alternately scary and sympathetic, though we know the scary will overcome as the picture progresses.  With Mad Love Lorre proved that he was one of the most interesting and dynamic actors of the 1930s.

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4 Comments

Filed under 1935, Yearly Best Performances

4 responses to “Best Actor of 1935 – Peter Lorre (Mad Love)

  1. Very interesting choice, and rather unexpected. Although I prefer Lorre in some other films (including M and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) I can’t argue with this designation.

    My own top choice is one from your formidable runners-up list, Charles Laughton in RUGGLES.

    Others that would seriously contend for my runners-up scroll would include:

    Robert Donat (The 39 Steps)
    Robert Donat (The Ghost Goes West)
    Takeishi Sakamoto (An Inn in Tokyo)
    Claude Rains (The Mystery of Edwin Drood)
    James Cagney (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
    Frederick March (Les Miserables)
    Franchot Tone (Lives of a Bengal Dancer)
    Seymour Hicks (Scrooge)
    Fred Astaire (Top Hat)
    Clark Gable (Mutiny on the Bounty)
    Edward Arnold (Diamond Jim)
    Will Rogers (Steamboat Round the Bend)
    Edward G. Robinson (The Whole Town’s Talking)
    Charles Vanel (L’Equipage)
    Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur)

    Lovely essay here.

    • I absolutely agree that Lorre is better in “M” and possibly better in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” But if I were handing out awards in 1935 I would have seen this as Lorre’s year. There were so many great performances, but none that were as complex and demanding as this one. I think Laughton is also a strong choice but, like Meryl Streep today, he was so good I don’t expect anything less out of him. And once again you reminded me of someone I meant to include in my list of runner ups, Paul Muni. I don’t know how I missed him. Thank you as always Sam!

  2. I’ve enjoyed reading all your postings about 1935, Jason, though I haven’t really seen enough variety of movies from that year to contribute much – however, I will hopefully be seeing some of those you have written about in the future and chiming in with some late comments! I’m glad to see you mention Ronald Colman in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ here as I think he gave a great performance, though I find it a slight pity that he didn’t take the double role of Carton and Darnay. I also like James Cagney in Hawks’ ‘Ceiling Zero’ , although I’m not sure if you would count it as 1936 since it was made right at the end of ’35 and released in the January of ’36.

    • Thank you as always for the kind words Judy. I’m glad you are reading and commenting and I look forward to any thoughts you have as you see these movies. I wasn’t a huge fan of “A Tale of Two Cities” but I thought Ronald Colman was very good. The only reason I didn’t rank him a little higher was because his part was a little small (though doing a double role would have remedied that). ‘

      I go by release date, so “Ceiling Zero” would be grouped with the movies from 1936, though I still haven’t seen this one and have not been able to find it. There are actually a lot of Hawks movies that I haven’t been able to find which is somewhat surprising to me.

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