Tag Archives: Robert Benchley

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.