Last December I wrote an encomium to Christmas in Connecticut, the most delightful Christmas movie ever made. Here’s what I had to say about veteran character actor S.Z. Sakall:
“Respect [to] S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, playing his usual cute and addled self. In Casablanca he’s the comic-relief waiter who says that Rick’s casino is “honest as the day is long.” Here he’s Uncle Felix, the fretting chef who is the real genius behind Barbara Stanwyck‘s recipes. Sakall can squeeze more wit out of a simple eye-roll than Danny Kaye can get with 20 minutes of rubber-faced frenzy.”
So true. Now just in time for Christmas 2010 we’ve posted a new profile of S.Z. Sakall.
Sakall made a career of playing jolly uncles, flustered fathers, and cute, jowly characters of all types — hence the nickname “Cuddles.” Actually, it was his second career. He was a respected actor and writer in Budapest, Vienna and even Berlin from the 1910s through the 1930s, but he fled to America as Adolf Hitler reached the height of his powers and World War II began — another talented Jew driven out of Europe in that crazy era.
S.Z. Sakall was 57 when he arrived in Hollywood, speaking little English, but he quickly found his niche. He averaged about three movies a year from 1940-1954, playing characters with names like Poppa Carl, Dr. Schlenna and Uncle Latsie.
Sakall actually played characters named Uncle Felix twice: in Christmas in Connecticut and again in Painting the Clouds With Sunshine in 1951 — by coincidence, again with Dennis Morgan of Christmas in Connecticut.
Maybe it’s not such a coincidence: Sakall was a contract player for Warner Brothers, and as such he ran into the same co-stars again and again. Christmas in Connecticut was his third film in four years with Sidney Greenstreet, after Casablanca in 1942 and Hollywood Canteen in 1944. They never actually shared the screen in Casablanca, but it’s fun to imagine these old boys running into each other on the Warners lot now and then, on the way to their latest project. Maybe Sakall had lunch with another Hungarian on the Warners payroll, Peter Lorre.
“Cuddles” had the gift of getting laughs without derailing the drama of the main plot, which is not so easy. He also managed to get plenty of heart and dignity in his characters, and he could play straight as needed. His scenes with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca are marvels of efficiency and added depth, as Sakall manages to show devotion to his boss while also suggesting that he himself leads a more complicated unseen life away from the cafe.
You can’t say Sakall “makes” Christmas in Connecticut, exactly, because he shares the film with a half-dozen other scene-stealing actors (and a cow). In fact, by all rights he ought to be irritating, with the cutesy dialogue they give him about “flip-flopping the flop-flips” (that is, turning pancakes) and his multiple hands-to-the-face “oh no!” moments.
But in truth he’s charming, essential and a delight to spend time with — just as he was in so many other films. Europe’s loss was Hollywood’s gain.
Happy holidays, everybody, from Who2!