Today a tribute to S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (1883-1955). Like most Hollywood film buffs, I knew this performer well, but never learned his name until our friend Nora mentioned it one day, and now I will always know it. Because you just don’t forget a name like “Cuddles”, least of all when it is the name of a human being.
Sakall started out doing comedy sketches in Hungarian vaudeville, and worked his way up to stage and screen roles in Austria and Germany before leapfrogging to England, then the States. We turn you over now to our buddy Tom Racz, who’s from Hungary, has actually researched Sakall, and had some highly welcome (and rewarding insights):
“I honestly don’t know what his birth name was ( I have tried to research synagogue registers but no luck yet). I have seen it as Sándor Gärtner, Jenő Gerő, Jakab Gerő, János Gerő, but he got the name Szőke Szakáll (which means ‘Blonde Beard’) because of the blonde beard he sported as a young comedy writer to look older. The story goes that a telegraph boy was looking for him backstage and they told him to the letter is ‘for that guy over there, it’s for Blonde Beard!’…”
“…My grandpa told me when he was a kid rumor had it that if someone said ‘Good Morning’ to him he [Sakall] would say it back, so one day he saw Sakall on the street and sure enough he said ‘Good Morning’ back to him which was cool considering that he was only a kid and Sakall was a superstar. To us Hungarians he is more of a myth than an actual person, a piece of folklore that may or may not be true. His most successful work is a long comedy sketch called ‘String Quartet.’ It was played for decades all over Europe, some of its jokes entered Hungarian vernacular. I got interested in him when I found his early cabaret recordings from the late 1910s. He is pretty much playing a smartass here, very far from someone who would be named Cuddles. His humor is very dirty and very ethnic. He left the Hungarian cabaret scene for Germany where he had to learn the language very quickly but the payoff was huge. Max Reinhardt considered him a huge talent and he became pretty big in the German legitimate theater world. He became a staple in early German talkies until 1934 when he went back to Hungary after being insulted by Hitler himself (allegedly). In Hungary (and pre-Anschluss Austria) he made a few movies but they were never that amazing…then he left for England in 1937… then off he went to Hollywood to work with his high school buddy Michael Curtiz.”
Okay, me again.
Hollywood welcomed the chubby, bespectacled middle European with open arms in 1940. He was perfect for playing waiters, and music teachers, and shopkeepers, and immigrant dads and such-like. Most of us encounter him first as Carl the Headwaiter in Casablanca (1942), but by that time he had already been in a number of American films, notably the Barbara Stanwyck-Gary Cooper comedy Ball of Fire (1941). He’s also in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1945), April Showers (1948), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Oh You Beautiful Doll (1945), and The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), among many others. I associate him mainly with comedies, musicals, and show biz bio-pics, although he made all sorts of pictures. His last role was in a 1954 screen version of The Student Prince.
For more about the history of show biz, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.