Here’s a pop quiz: who was the highest paid actor on the set of “Casablanca”? It wasn’t Bogart, even though “The Maltese Falcon” had moved him into the front ranks of Warner Bros. leading men the year before. Nor was it Ingrid Bergman (she was under contract to David O. Selznick, who made her take a $7,000 cut in pay to do the picture). Nor was it Paul Henreid or, heaven knows, the wonderful Dooley Wilson. No, Conrad Veidt was the highest paid: $5,000 per week, much of which he, a grateful British citizen, donated to British war relief.
Major Strasser is Veidt’s most famous role, but hardly his only claim to fame. He also played a leading role, the somnambulist murderer, Cesare, in “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” in 1920. In the 1930s, Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, used Veidt’s image as the model for The Joker in the original comic strip. Well-known in Germany as a staunch anti-Fascist, the Gestapo tried to assassinate him, but he escaped to England. He was subsequently blacklisted and none of his pictures were shown in Germany till after the war.
Connie Veidt never got through a Hollywood picture without getting his hair mussed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a character who survives the final reel. Humphrey Bogart drills him in “Casablanca” . . .
. . . and in another Bogart picture, “All Through the Night” (1941), Veidt dies in an explosion at sea (entirely his own fault, of course: a terrorist plot gone haywire). In “A Woman’s Face” (MGM, 1941), Joan Crawford, swaddled in mink, shoots him in the back at the end of a high-speed chase in horse-drawn sleighs (I’m not kidding), after which he plunges several hundred feet into the icy rapids below. Conrad Veidt’s actual death came suddenly and too soon, but under far less violent circumstances than the ignominious departures he was wont to suffer in pictures: he died of a heart attack in 1943, the year after “Casablanca” was released, at the eighth hole of the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. He was only fifty years old. He left the bulk of his estate to British charities. In typical Hollywood fashion, his name was misspelled on his death certificate.
Curt Bois does a deft turn as the reptilian pickpocket. I have great admiration for actors like Curt Bois: in a tiny role built on a single running gag, he makes a lasting impression and conveys the sense of being full of complexities. We spend less than half a minute with the little scoundrel he plays, yet those seconds are so lively, it’s hard to believe the part is as small as it actually is.
Bois was born in Berlin on April 5, 1901. He began acting as a child and had become a popular cabaret performer in the decade before Hitler came to power. He scored a great triumph playing the drag role in “Charley’s Aunt” in Vienna. During the Weimar years, he toured extensively in vaudeville and cabaret throughout Germany, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland. In Berlin, he was a popular favorite at Trude Hesterberg’s political/literary cabaret, Wilde Bühne (Wild Stage). Bois’ performing style was often compared to Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.
He left Germany for Vienna in 1933; not long afterwards, he moved to Zurich, where he performed at Trude Hesterberg’s cabaret, Corso. From here, he and his wife (singer Hedi Ury) went to Paris to stay with his sister, Ilse (also a performer). In 1934, they decided to get out of Europe altogether. After a time in New York (where Bois appeared on Broadway in two shows — the first, a drama; the second, a farce), they wound up in Hollywood, where he made his American movie debut in “Hollywood Hotel” (Warner Bros., 1937) — a terrible picture, but notable for the Dick Whiting/Johnny Mercer classic, “Hooray for Hollywood.” (Mercer also has a small acting part in it.) His final picture was Wim Wenders’ “Der Himmel über Berlin” (“Wings of Desire”). He was ninety years old when he died in Berlin on Christmas Day, 1991. His eighty-year acting career is said to be the longest in history. He appeared in 183 pictures.
Then there’s the curious case of Wolfgang Zilzer, the man in the opening scene with the expired papers. Zilzer was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but raised by his German parents in Germany. In 1933, when he applied applied for a United States visa, he was astonished to learn he was already considered a U.S. citizen.
Zilzer appeared in more than 100 pictures, usually in uncredited roles. When he did get a credit, he most often appeared under the name of Paul Andor. The year after he appeared in “Casablanca,” he married a German Jewish actress named Lotte Palfi. Palfi had fled from Germany in 1934 and then played only bit parts for the rest of her career in America. She appears in “Casablanca” as the woman selling her diamonds in Rick’s café.
Woman Selling Her Diamonds: But can’t you make it just a little more . . .?
Moor Buying Diamonds: Sorry, madame, but diamonds are a drag on the market: everyone sells diamonds; there are diamonds everywhere . . . Two thousand four hundred.
Woman Selling Her Diamonds: All right . . .
Like Curt Bois, Lotte Palfi conveys a whole life in a few words. You can tell the money isn’t enough for her to buy an exit visa, and also that she has nothing more to sell. What will become of her? She gets it all across in those two short lines.
Does she look familiar? She should — she played a small, very famous part 34 years later, now acting under the name of Lotte Palfi Andor. Again, the scene was about diamonds: she’s the woman who recognizes the Nazi war criminal, Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), on West 47th Street, in the middle of New York City’s Diamond District. She was still married to Wolfgang Zilzer (a/k/a Paul Andor) at the time . . . but she divorced him in 1991 (the year of her death), because he insisted on moving back to Germany and she refused to leave New York.