As this TCM tribute sets forth, the Budapest-born, jowly S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall was adorable, hilarious and popular on the set. But did those qualities alone get the character actor prominent play in 46 Hollywood movies?
One of many film people to flee Nazi-dominated Europe, arrive on American shores, and wend their way to southern California, Sakall had the good fortune (in the small village of Los Angeles) of connecting with a supportive network of fellow emigres — mostly, but not exclusively, Jewish.
[In Sakall’s case, as is made apparent by the immigration papers that are part of the Skirball exhibition, the guy walked, at age 58, across the border from Tijuana into the U.S.]
These folk hit the palm-tree-shaded ground running, transferring extensive movie knowledge — high-contrast cinematography that would forge the ‘noir’ genre, mittel-Europa black humor that would salt-and-pepper American comedies — cultivated from established careers in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The happy beneficiaries were the hungry film factories of Hollywoodland.
One of the key backstage players was a powerhouse talent agent, Paul Kohner, who counted Sakall as his client. The smart and handsome Czech-born Kohner ported to America a sizeable resume as a movie producer in the old country.
Once ensconced first in New York and then in Los Angeles, he morphed into a massive mover and shaker. His agency, begun in 1938, represented writers, directors and actors among many immigrant clients. (Career clients included Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Dolores del Río, Maurice Chevalier, Billy Wilder, Liv Ullmann, Henry Fonda, David Niven, Erich von Stroheim, Ingmar Bergman and Lana Turner).
Kohner’s relentless efforts for Cuddles and Co. are displayed in a charming mock-up of his talent agency, which occupies one rich corner of the wonderful “Light and Noir” show — now on at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 | Skirball Cultural Center | thru March 1