S. Z. Sakall’s ultra-rare 1954 memoir, The Story of Cuddles, attests that there was more to the comic actor than adorable fretfulness and jiggly jowls
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He was a professional fusspot. He resembled an outsize toddler. With the help of a good dialect coach, he could have starred in a live-action Elmer Fudd movie. He should have been cast with the Marx Brothers. He should have been a Marx Brother. These are some of the thoughts I had over the past few months as I watched the Hungarian-born character actor S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (1883-1955) charm his way across my laptop screen in whichever of his movies I managed to get my hands on.
Thanks to my local library’s interlibrary-loan wizard, I was also able to read Sakall’s sparkling and rather startling memoir, The Story of Cuddles: My Life under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler, and the Warner Brothers. (I’ll pause for a moment so the reader can appreciate the sublime deadpan of that subtitle.) The British publisher Cassell & Co. released the book in 1954 – it was translated from the Hungarian – and it seems not to have had an American release. This seems less than sporting, as Sakall was a fifth, fourth, and sometimes even third banana in forty-two Hollywood movies. He made them during his fifteen-plus years in California, where, at age seventy-two, he died of a heart attack the year after The Story of Cuddles came out.
I know of Sakall’s memoir’s existence from Wikipedia, where I also learned something that he doesn’t come right out and say in his book: that “all three of his sisters” died in Nazi death camps. (Wikipedia’s sourcing is vague here; more on this later.) I had every expectation that Sakall’s book would offer a devastating account of a family tragedy, but it turns out he didn’t write all that much about the darker aspects of his life. And at no point in the book did he mention that he was Jewish.
The Story of Cuddles begins with the customary early memory: Sakall – then known as Yani – recalls moving with his family into a tenement house directly across from Budapest’s Central Cemetery. Sakall’s father is a stonecutter with a specialty: tombstones and memorials – hence the desirability of cemetery-adjacent digs. Sakall’s mother dies not long after the move, and her sister Emma becomes his stepmother. She and Sakall’s father have two children together, bringing the household sibling tally to seven. After the father dies, Aunt Emma takes over the improsperous stonecutting business and the family toddles along not unhappily under her no-nonsense but loving leadership.
As a child, Sakall was something of an S. Z. Sakall character: sensitive and easily riled, with fretfulness his default setting. Despite being conflict-averse (“The boys knew that I loathed all brawls and fights”), he was a first-rate mischief-maker. His memoir is chockablock with high jinks, often involving animals. Sentences like “It wasn’t easy to collect a hundred and forty-six chickens and carry them up to the second floor” are typical.
The reader can be forgiven for entertaining the possibility that, for the good of the gag, Sakall has taken narrative liberties; a story about an adolescent Sakall finding himself naked in a bathtub with a watermelon comes to mind. By the point in the memoir when the adult Sakall, in the hospital recovering from a battle wound, describes how he surreptitiously tore the pages out of a boring book every time the nurse who had been reading it to him left his bedside – “We would finish the book that much sooner!” he explains to the reader – I was picturing Chico Marx in the hospital bed doing the furtive ripping. I came to accept that The Story of Cuddles was meant to be an entertainment – after all, Sakall says that before he was an actor, he was something he seems to believe better reflected his talents: a comedy writer.
Sakall finds his comedy calling early. The year before he graduates from high school, he mails a funny song he has written to a famous Budapest comic, who agrees to use it. As young Sakall saw it, “I had entered upon the career of literature. . . . Every night I went to the vaudeville theater and indulged my vanity by listening to my lines.” There he becomes known as “the boy with the blond beard,” which clears up his name change: “Now, ‘beard’ in Hungarian is szakall and ‘blond’ is szoke. So I became Szoke Szakall – which I later Americanized into S. Z. Sakall.” Readers can defer to their favorite TCM host on the matter of whether to stress the surname’s first or second syllable.
Sakall takes a job at a bank (“The sons of good middle-class families were bank clerks and not writers”), which leads to an involved story that finds him up against a fleet of Margaret Dumonts. (I wrote in my notes while reading this passage, “I don’t believe a word.” For this I enjoyed the story no less.) He feels shackled by the bank job’s limitations on his time. With Aunt Emma’s tepid support, Sakall ditches the job, but “we agreed not to tell anyone for the time being. I’d make my debut somewhere . . . in secret. If I failed, I’d go back to some regular job.” He haunts theaters and music halls. When he gets a chance to appear at the Furth Theatre as part of a charity performance, Aunt Emma’s steely resolve turns to goulash: she sells her sewing machine so she and Sakall’s siblings can buy tickets to the show.
This performance leads to more opportunities, which Sakall keeps gobbling up, but eventually military service calls. Once he has packed on sufficient poundage – at his medical exam, the doctor laments the thinness of the young man who would become known for his multiple chins and wobbly jowls – he joins the army; his training camp is outside Budapest, in a town called Torokbalint. Sakall performs card tricks for his colonel and otherwise entertains the troops, but he also sees combat and gets injured, which ends his service. He’s at home when Emma dies: “Somewhere, I am sure, Aunt Emma must have met Papa, Mama and the others . . . for by now, as I write this, Julius, Marishka, Nandy and Margit have also joined her.” Did Julius, Marishka, Nandy and Margit die in the Nazi camps? Julius and Nandy are both male; did Wikipedia mistake Nandy for a sister? Sakall doesn’t elaborate. Certainly the subject is exquisitely painful, and reliving his life’s highlights has an analgesic allure.
Now that his time is again his own, Sakall uses it well: “The most decisive station on my life’s road was the Royal Orpheum of Budapest.” He “loved the theater, I loved everybody working there – but I loved most of all the little secretary of the great music hall, Miss Bozsi Kardos.” In 1920, Bozsi becomes Sakall’s second wife, his first having died two years earlier.
Budapest knows terrific poverty after the First World War, and its citizens had no money to spare for theater tickets. Bozsi suggests that she and Sakall organize a touring theater company; he has his doubts but signs on. Their risk is rewarded. One night, a Viennese producer seeks out Sakall in his dressing room and invites him to do a guest appearance in Vienna: “Mr. Brett reassured me, when I expressed my anxiety, that my ignorance of German would only heighten my success. A comedian was really funny if he did not know something and made constant mistakes.” The muddled, malaproping S. Z. Sakall persona was born.
While the troupe is touring Vienna, they visit the Prater, whose fairgrounds are roped off because a movie is being shot. Sakall spies a familiar face up on a director’s rostrum, barking orders into a megaphone: it was “my childhood friend, Mike Curtiz” – that’s Michael Curtiz, the future Hollywood director of Sakall in 1942’s Casablanca and other gems. The charmed meeting inspires Sakall to try film work. He does a German talkie, and then “everything seemed to follow naturally.”
Germany is good to Sakall, and he becomes famous; in Berlin he has his own film company and theater. But the city is gradually becoming shrouded in gloom: “After a while the streets of Berlin seemed to change. . . . People walked about all day. . . . They argued . . . quarreled . . . antagonized each other.” Danger nips at the heels of Sakall’s roving band of actors.
We were up to our necks in work at the Munich studios; we had neither time nor inclination to worry about politics. Yet we still knew on the whole what was going on – thanks to Mr. Pockl. Mr. Pockl was a clerk in the front office. . . . It was he who told us that if the Fuehrer came to power, the enemies of the Nazi ideas would be hanged on the lampposts of the Unter den Linden; the most popular actor would swing there just as certain as any unimportant little chap.
Back in Berlin a few months later, Sakall tries to get a better read on the situation.
In the film we were shooting my partner was Ralph Arthur Roberts, the excellent German actor. He was every inch a gentleman. I thought I would ask his opinion. Did he really think it possible that Hitler intended to hang actors on the lampposts?
“I’m certain of it,” said Roberts. “But he’ll start with the bad ones. . . . Your turn won’t come before the middle of May.”
Soon Sakall is standing face-to-face with the menace. He writes of attending a film premiere with Bozsi in Munich.
We always went to these first nights. Hitler usually sat in the box in the mezzanine. Often he applauded at the end of the performance.
On this occasion we presented a picture based on Gogol’s The Inspector-General. Hitler didn’t like the film – perhaps because it was by a Russian. At the end of the show he didn’t applaud, but left the theater angrily. I wasn’t enchanted with the film myself, but I didn’t rush out. Bozsi and I walked along a dark, quiet alley towards our hotel. Suddenly someone called to me from the other side – in a furious, raucous voice.
I didn’t stop. The voice became increasingly threatening:
“S-S-S-Sakall! . . . S-S-S-Sakall!”
Bozsi told me to stop. It was Hitler.
“Aren’t you ashamed to make such a stupid, senseless picture as this Inspector-General?” he said rather rudely. “I’m sorry for the time I wasted in the cinema!”
Bozsi grew pale and suggested that we should leave Germany as quickly as possible – for if Hitler came to power he would take his revenge on me for The Inspector-General.
“Surely he won’t have me shot because of a bad film?”
“Maybe not,” said Bozsi. “But he’ll send you to a concentration camp.”
I became frightened and helped her to pack.
This account has no punch line. As Sakall stories go, I think it’s to be believed.
Sakall and Bozsi sail from Rotterdam on May 13, 1939, and arrive in Hoboken on May 19. From there it’s on to Hollywood so Sakall can costar in the cut-above Deanna Durbin trifle It’s a Date, released in 1940. He was summoned for the role – and just in time – by the Hungarian-born Hollywood bigwig Joe Pasternak, who had executive-produced one of Sakall’s pictures in Germany and knew what Sakall could do.
Sakall devotes just forty-two pages to his years in America. He quotes from several of Bozsi’s letters to his family back in Budapest; they relay something of the psychic and professional cost he suffered leaving the Continent. An excerpt from a letter dated June 6, 1939: “On the whole, my Yani is very depressed. In Europe he was always used to being feted, applauded, celebrated, and he misses it here. We roamed the streets for days and no one paid the slightest attention to us.” Ten months later, Sakall’s spirits have revived. In a letter dated April 30, 1940, Bozsi writes, “Thank God, we are gradually getting used to American life. Yani is very happy. People begin to recognize him on the street.” The letter concludes with a story whose punch line finds Sakall being mistaken for Sydney Greenstreet. If a sense of humor had fingerprints, this page might be smeary with Sakall’s.
His filmography shows no fallow period during his Hollywood years. Sakall was by all accounts a beloved colleague; in his 2007 memoir, Include Me Out, Farley Granger writes of cracking up during his costar’s “endless repertoire of Viennese shtick” (Hungarian, Farley – Hungarian) while filming the middling 1953 musical Small Town Girl. Despite the all but contractually obligated jowl-wiggling and cheek-clutching (“Kind reader, if you see me doing this in a film, believe me, I like it as little as you do!”), and notwithstanding a hinted-at regret that he and Bozsi never had children, Sakall seems happy. He writes of a quiet California life spent acting, marveling at American customs, and fretting adorably over little things.
I had assumed that The Story of Cuddles – a largely comical memoir by a comedy writer – would play out as it had been: with amusing stories of dubious veracity, now with a palm-tree backdrop. But seventeen pages from the end, the book takes a turn that both jolted and reassured me: it was what I’d been waiting for. Sakall has just expressed his appreciation for the Hungarian-born actor Paul Lukas (“God bless him . . . and grant him many an Academy Award!”) for delivering word of his and Bozsi’s safety to their relatives back in Europe in 1945. (During the war, “we couldn’t write to our families – we were separated by the terrible curtain of fire and iron.”) And then Cuddles seems to snap, overwhelmed by a decidedly uncuddlesome emotion: rage. His full-page, apology-studded unburdening begins like this:
In this life story of mine I had intended to avoid politics. But is it politics that the Nazi murderers killed those we loved? It wasn’t for any political reason that they murdered them, nor for any religious reason, but only to be able to tear the rings from their fingers, to pick their pockets, to melt the gold fillings from their teeth. . . .
It isn’t pleasant to read such things, but neither is it wise to hide them from sight. It has to be said – and it has to be printed for everyone to read who cares to read it! Why make a secret of it? It is impossible, anyhow, to keep it a secret . . . for people ask what happened to Imre, Bozsi’s brother and Imre’s wife and his wife’s two brothers and their wives and children. . . . And where is my dear Bozsi’s sister, darling Marika, and her little angel of a daughter, Agi? And my sister Freda’s sweet daughter, Rosika?
Directly following his outburst, Sakall declares his gratitude for America and reverts to telling more of his funny little stories (“One day Bozsi ate some seafood which did not agree with her,” and so on). He may have swaddled his anger in tall tales, and he may not have been able to bring himself to catalog the murders of his siblings, but for the reader “who cares to read it,” Sakall finally tells the awful truth.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are public domain courtesy of the indispensable Wikimedia Commons.