Today, I'm looking at the life and career of the beloved old Hollywood character actor S.Z. Sakall. Here he is as Otto Oberkugen in In the Good Old Summertime (1949).
This article is part of the What a Character! blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club.
S.Z. Sakall was one of the most endearing character actors in old Hollywood films. His portly frame, exasperated temperament, and fractured English were a much loved addition to many movies in 1940's and 1950's. Today, I'll give you a look at some of his best films and where you can watch them, but first, here's a little background.
Sakall was born Gero Jeno (there are actually several variations on the spelling of his birth name; his immigration papers say "Jacob Gero") on Feb. 2, 1883, in Budapest to a Jewish family. Sakall always enjoyed performing, and he began writing comedy sketches when he was still a teenager under the pen name, Szoke Szakall, which means blond beard in Hungarian. Sakall became a stage and screen star in Hungary during the 1910's. Eventually, he moved to Vienna where he became a major star in Wiener Film, an Austrian genre that featured a unique blend of melodrama and comedy in an historical setting.
Sakall left Europe in 1940 after the Nazi regime's rise to power. Sakall and his wife were Jewish, and, sadly, most of their other family perished in the Holocaust. However, Sakall, like so many Jewish emigres, found safety and work in Hollywood.
It's a Date (1940, William A Seiter)
|S.Z. Sakall and Kay Francis share secrets on the set of It's a Date (1940).|
Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
|S.Z. Sakall gives himself top billing in Casablanca (1942).|
Christmas in Connecticut (1945, Peter Godfrey)
|S.Z. Sakall teaches Barbara Stanwyck how to "flip flop the flop flips" in Christmas in Connecticut (1945).|
Whiplash (1948, Lew Seiler)
Sakall's cuddly style and film noir don't seem like a logical fit, but the genre became so popular in postwar Hollywood that most actors had to take a walk on the dark side. Whiplash is an entertaining low-budget movie starring Dane Clark as a successful painter who turns to boxing because he wants to impress a dame (surprise! surprise!). Sakall plays a kindly cafe owner who lends Clark a sympathetic ear. Whiplash is available on DVD.
Romance on the High Seas (1948, Michael Curtiz)
Sakall's "Cuddles" persona (he hated that nickname) was more suited to lighter fare, and he appeared in several musicals during the last years of his career. One of the best is Romance on the High Seas, which just happens to be Doris Day's screen debut. Sakall plays the uncle of Janis Paige in a mistaken identity farce that takes place on a cruise ship. Day is great in her debut, pulling off many memorable numbers, including the Oscar winning, "It's Magic." Romance on the High Seas is available on DVD and video on demand.
Sakall's last film was the operetta, The Student Prince (1954), starring Mario Lanza and Ann Blyth. Sakall died of a heart attack on Feb. 12, 1955, at the age of 72. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
For articles from past blogathons I have participated in, go here.