Monthly Archives: May 2013

Major Personalities in Minor Roles in ‘Casablanca’ — Part III

Original  Poster.

Original Poster.

An actress I like very much, Norma Varden, makes a brief appearance in the first scene of “Casablanca.” She plays the wife of Gerald Oliver Smith, the British twit with the silly hat, monocle, caterpillar moustache, sea-bass lips and zebra-striped tie who gets his pocket picked by Curt Bois.  Varden has less to do in “Casablanca” than usual — two lines only — but, as always, she presents a fully-realized personality; because the picture is so popular, it may be the role for which she is best remembered. She was born in London and was a piano prodigy in her youth. She studied in Paris and made her musical debut while still in her teens. Soon afterwards, she switched to acting. In the West End, she became a regular performer in farces at the Aldwych Theatre throughout the Nineteen-twenties. In the thirties, she made a number of pictures  and eventually landed in Los Angeles with her ailing mother in 1940. “Casablanca” was one of seven pictures she made in 1942. (Over at Paramount that same year, she did an amusing turn in another, much larger role — as the wife of Robert Benchley(!) — in the first Hollywood picture Billy Wilder directed: “The Major and the Minor.”) When she retired in 1969, she had one hundred and fifty-two credits. She died on January 19, 1989, one day before her 91st birthday.

Gerald Oliver Smith, Jack Wise, Norma Varden:  They also serve who only stand and wait.

Gerald Oliver Smith, Jack Wise, Norma Varden: They also serve who only stand and wait.

Jack Wise is the waiter who stands impassively (but slightly irritably) by, while Gerald Oliver Smith fumbles comically about, looking for his wallet that’s no longer there. Wise appeared in one hunrdred and seventy-two pictures, and just about never got a credit. So I’m giving him a credit here. He’s proof that there are indeed small parts.  It’s a tiny part, and he does it up brown. Like a good waiter, he’s not the center of attention, but he conveys just enough impatience to prove he’s a person, not merely an extra; he has a life beyond this foolish British couple who are wasting his valuable time. Without giving any obvious indications, you can tell that Wise’s nameless waiter hates this Limey son of a bitch, and knows he’s about to be stiffed through no fault of his own . . . and it’s hot.

Speaking of foolish couples, consider Herr und Frau Leuchtag. They, too, have only one scene, but they’re quite unforgettable. Frankly, I’m not crazy about him. Ilka Grüning seems perfect in her role — sweet, without being cloying.

Ludwig Stössel, Ilka Grüning as Herr und Frau Leuchtag.

Ludwig Stössel, Ilka Grüning as Herr und Frau Leuchtag.

Herr Leuchtag:  Liebchen . . . Sveetness-heart, vat vatch?

Frau Leuchtag:  Ten vatch . . .

Herr Leuchtag:  Such much?

Carl the Headwaiter:  You will get along beautifully in America . . .

Ludwig Stössel plays the sweet old darling, Herr Leuchtag. Like the horrible, ubiquitous S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, he was from Austria-Hungary, and spent his career on playing courtly, cutesy-pie old gentlemen from “ze olt countr-r-ry.” He achieved his greatest fame in a series of Italian Swiss Wine Colony commercials.  Stössel was “That Little Old Winemaker, Me.”

"That Little Old Winemaker, Me" -- Ludwig Stössel in his most famous role.

“That Little Old Winemaker, Me” — Ludwig Stössel in his most famous role.

Those of us who grew up seeing those terrible ads may never forgive him. For those who were too young to see them, here’s a sampling of two — the color registry is atrocious, much in keeping with the product the ads promote. By the way, that’s folk singer Glenn Yarbrough who sings the insipid jingle. When these commercials first aired on television, Yarbrough was accused of selling out . . . but selling out what? Or whom? The Limeliters? It would have been more appropriate to accuse him of scraping the bottom of the barrel — Stössel, too.

‘Bottles’: Et in Arcadia Ego

The Medicine Dropper Quartet juices up on rum in preparation for the waltz.

The Medicine Dropper Quartet juices up in preparation for the waltz.

Here, with minimal introduction, is my favorite cartoon of all time. It’s from Metro in 1936. This cartoon is a Special Feature on the DVD of “San Francisco,” which I wrote about the other day. I am very fond of “San Francisco,” but am seldom in the mood to look at the whole thing; occasionally, I’m not in the mood to look at any of it. I am, however, always in the mood to look at “Bottles” again. As you will see for yourself, it’s nearly plotless; it’s really nothing more than a ten minute acid trip — most of which is charming and good-natured, but it turns nightmarish in the last minute or so.

No matter how many times I see “Bottles,” it never fails to draw me into its enchantment. I love to see the bath salts dance the Sailors’ Hornpipe while a pair of inflated red rubber gloves whistle the tune. I love to hear the hot water bottle basso sing “Lost in the Cradle of the Deep” to the accompaniment of a tuba. I love how the India ink fakir charms the Cobra Toothpaste from his tube by playing on an eye-dropper oboe. I love the quartet of inebriate medicine droppers who play a woozy waltz melody atop four wine glasses. (By the way, Hitchcock and Waxman used this same waltz in the first reel of “Rebecca”: it underscores the scene in the Monte Carlo hotel restaurant, where Laurence Olivier has breakfast with Joan Fontaine. I have yet to identify its title . . . but I will.) UPDATE (October 10, 2013): I knew that waltz was familiar — it’s from Act I of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty”; Disney did a version of it and titled it “Once upon a Dream.” The tune also appears in the ghastly “Weekend at the Waldorf.”

Bottles 00a Bottles 01 Bottles 02

Look at the fabulous individuality of those four terpsichorean soaks! Each one of them is distinct; each is at a different level of drunkenness. The episode lasts only a few seconds, but what lively seconds they are! The members of the Medicine Dropper Quartet are the drollest drunks I ever saw. They, in particular, take me back to my younger days, when I spent many a carefree night on the dance floor. I know first-hand the euphoria those droppers enjoy as they go circling round the rims. Et in Arcadia ego. And by the time the talcum powder begins to shake snowflakes out of his bum onto the heads of the Dutch boy and girl skaters (courtesy of the Old Mill Perfume display), I’m completely under the spell of “Bottles.” The happy hallucinatory atmosphere delights me. I love the hilarious nightmare that begins at the entrance of the Spirits of Ammonia!  I love the Halloween haunted house orchestration. I love all the bassoon music. I love the music throughout the entire cartoon. I love everything about “Bottles.”

Terpsichor . . . wheeee!

Terpsichor . . . wheeee!

Nothing else from the Hugh Harmon/Rudolph Ising “Happy Harmonies” catalogue (which was Metro’s answer to Disney’s “Silly Symphony” series) ever came close to this blissfully weird ten-minute exercise in cheerful surrealism.

Spirits of Ammooohhhnia! Brrrrrrr! Things that creep upoooohhhn ya! Brrrrrr!

Spirits of Ammooohhhnia! (Brrrrrrr!)
Things that creep up oooohhhn ya! (Brrrrrr!)

“Bottles” was not nominated for an Oscar, of course.  Another, much less interesting “Happy Harmonies” cartoon, “The Old Mill Pond,” snagged a nomination, but the award that year went to “The Country Cousin,” one of Disney’s “Silly Symphony” cartoons.  It’s standard issue:  the animation is excellent, as one expects of a Disney cartoon from that era, but I don’t think it’s half as much fun or nearly so imaginative as “Bottles.”  Worse, it’s rife with that same old Disneyesque scorn for urbanity and sophistication that I see and dislike so much in so many of his pictures.

“The Country Cousin” is an eight minute, wordless retelling of the old Country Mouse/City Mouse story. The entire first half of the cartoon relies on variations on a single joke: the newly arrived bumpkin rodent keeps making an unseemly racket and his top-hatted, citified cousin must keep shushing him. At the four minute mark, the bumpkin swallows a great deal of hot mustard, which causes great black plumes of ashy waste to billow from his burning mouth as from a locomotive’s smokestack. To douse the mustard’s fiery corrosion, the rustic innocent drinks off an entire dish of Champagne — this is a Disney cartoon, so drunkenness is immediate and dreadful. (The comic antics in Disney cartoons nearly always involve intense pain or extreme discomfort.)  The next three minutes are taken up with the harmful effects of demon alcohol: dizziness, nausea, remorse, loss of balance, belligerence, impairment of judgment, headache . . . the works — everything but the madcap hilarity of light-headedness. The final minute takes the hungover bumpkin out into the nightmare streets of the city, where he must dodge murderously fast traffic that keeps roaring at him from every direction until at last he comes upon a sign that points him back to the bucolic nowhere from whence he came. And back he goes, without bidding his host good-bye — like a Hollywood agent.

It’s interesting to compare the Disney cartoon’s censoriousness about alcohol consumption to the pie-eyed hilarity of the bibulous medicine droppers in “Bottles”: they are seen to be very tipsy indeed, yet while in their cups, they have a grand old time, wear shit-eating grins on their faces and play music in tune. I’ll take Happy Harmonies’ merry tipplers over Disney’s sorehead sots any day. In Disney cartoons, the drunks never have any fun.