Tag Archives: Gerald Oliver Smith

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.

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

Poster:  70th Anniversary edition.

Poster: 70th Anniversary edition. Dooley Wilson is finally included.

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.

Conrad Veidt, Claude Rains:  'Oh, ve Germans must get used to all climates -- from Russsia to the Sahara.'

Conrad Veidt, Claude Rains: ‘Oh, ve Germans must get used to all climates — from Russsssia to the Sahara.’

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.

Veidt:  'You were not always so carefully neutral:  we have a complete dosssssier on you . . . '

Veidt: ‘You were not always so carefully neutral: we have a complete dosssssier on you . . . ‘

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” . . .

Death of Strasser:  In the words of Daffy Duck, 'We lose more darn Nutzis that way!'

Death of Major Strasser: In the words of Daffy Duck (from ‘Plane Daffy’), ‘They lose more darn Nutzis that way!’ 

. . . 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.

Gerald Oliver Smith, Curt Bois, Norma Varden: 'I beg of you, monsieur: watch yourself! Be on guard! This place is fuuuull of vultures! Vultures everywhere . . . everywhere!"

Gerald Oliver Smith, Curt Bois, Norma Varden: ‘I beg of you, monsieur: watch yourself! Be on guard! This place is fuuuull of vultures! Vultures everywhere . . . everywhere!’

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.

Wolfgang Zilzer as the man with expired papers.

Wolfgang Zilzer as the man with expired papers.

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.

Jacques Lory (born in Paris), Lotte Palfi Andor (born in Bochum, Germany)

Jacques Lory (born in Paris), Lotte Palfi Andor (born in Bochum, Germany). Look at the tragic anxiety in her face . . . !

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.