Nothing makes me smile more than when I’m watching a movie on TCM that I have never seen before and the smiling, round face of Cuddles Sakall appears on the screen. And this past Friday’s lineup had double the Cuddles; the network’s night of Gordon MacRae films featured two movies co-starring Sakall, Tea for Two and The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (both from 1950). After realizing this, I promptly jumped on the phone to Carrie, where all I had to say was the word, “Cuddles!!!!” and she knew exactly what I was talking about.
What can I say? Some actors are just that delightful.
S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall may not have liked the nickname, but it fit his on-screen personality perfectly. In more than 40 films between 1940 and 1954, Sakall played memorable characters long on jolly good humor and short on English language skills.
Born in Hungary in 1883, Sakall got his start in vaudeville and became a film star in his home country. At the age of 57, as World War II broke out and it became increasingly dangerous for the Jewish Sakall to remain in Europe, the actor immigrated to America, making his Hollywood film debut opposite Deanna Durbin in It’s a Date (1940).
Sakall is perhaps best known for the role of Carl, the headwaiter of Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca (1942). And loving that movie the way I do, I naturally mark this performance as a personal favorite. But the majority of his film roles are much less dramatic in nature; indeed, Sakall is a bright spot in many a classic romance, usually offering some much-needed comic relief.
Among his more notable parts are Professor Magenbruch, one of Gary Cooper’s hapless colleagues in 1941’s Ball of Fire; Charles Coburn’s butler in the same year’s The Devil and Miss Jones; Schwab, one of James Cagney’s backers in the fabulous 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy; and Mr. Oberkugen, Judy Garland’s excitable boss in 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime (a pale, yet still somewhat enjoyable musical remake of 1939’s The Shop Around the Corner).
And in one of our guilty pleasure trifles, Cinderella Jones (1946), Sakall takes on yet another professorial role. Look for more commentary about this film next month–Carrie and I have been waiting for a chance to review it, and TCM’s finally replaying it on December 12th!
But more than any other, I particularly adore his role as Felix, Barbara Stanwyck’s chef and best friend, in 1945’s Christmas in Connecticut. Trying to learn the meaning of the word “catastrophe,” Felix mercilessly mangles the word into the barely intelligible “catastroph” and answers every increasingly absurd crisis with a shrugging assurance that all is “hunky-dunky.” And the scenes in which he attempts to teach Stanwyck how to flip flapjacks are utterly hilarious (“Watch now. I show you how to flip-flop the flop-flips”).
Cuddles passed away shortly after his 72nd birthday in 1955. His final film, The Student Prince, had been released seven months prior. It’s sad to think that his career in Hollywood was so relatively short, a mere fifteen years. But in those fifteen years, he definitely made his mark–for it’s hard to think of any character actor from the classic days of Hollywood who was more endearing, more adorably amusing, and more heartfelt than Cuddles Sakall.
Tell us: what’s your favorite Cuddles film?