There's an anniversary this year to suit every fancy, from Hitler's suicide (the 40th) to Handel's birthday (the 300th), from Bach's tricentennial to the fall of Saigon (the 10th).
With all these monumental observances clamoring for attention, I fear that S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall (who died 30 years ago on the 12th of this month) will be overlooked, just as we ignored his centenary, Feb. 2, 1984. This is sad because, in life, Cuddles Sakall had a bigger claim on the heart than did many whose names were household words at a time when Cuddles was a household face.
You'd have to be pretty heavy into movie trivia to connect the Sakall face with the Sakall name. Try this on your friends: start by telling them that Cuddles Sakall appeared in scores of films during a 40-year career. They'll register a blank, of course. Tell them he was in the cast with Bogart and Bergman in "Casablanca," with Betty Grable in "The Dolly Sisters" and with Doris Day in what seems a dozen Warner Bros. musicals. You've whetted their interest, but they still can't fit the name to the face.
Finally, in triumph, your friend the trivialist will exclaim: "Of course! The fat little man with the Viennese accent as thick and as rich as goulash who would shake his wobbly cheeks and lift his arms in a consummate gesture of jolly befuddlement!"
Back in the days when movie credits were shorter than the film itself, if you watched them you could spot his name. Sometimes the "Cuddles" was in quotation marks. (Occasionally, it was in parentheses.) Always he was the waiter, the piano teacher, the innkeeper (Ann Blyth's uncle in "The Student Prince," rubbing his hands in mock distress as he sought to find proper accommodations for the Edmund Purdom character).
Lon Chaney Sr., the Man of a Thousand Faces, he was not. Sakall had one face and he played one part. He was the perennial Pillsbury Doughboy sprinkled with paprika. His character was one of total ingenuousness, the perfect fool to plop into a melodrama and relieve the mood of menace, uncorking the wine while babbling cheerfully at Rick's Bar as the Gestapo sought to prevent resistance fighter Victor Laszlo from giving them the slip.
Sakall, as it happens, was not Viennese. He was born in Budapest, but he did extensive work, stage and screen, in Austria and Germany before the Nazis gave him the jackboot. He was seldom out of work in Hollywood, where he could be seen at the same old stand, behind the piano, giving voice lessons to Jane Powell.
Every Hollywood performer with a vaguely Germanic accent in the '40s was typed as a Nazi or, in Peter Lorre's case, a sinister figure who trafficked in stolen falcons or exit visas. Every Hollywood "German" save Sakall. The very notion of Cuddles dressed in Nazi regalia is obscene.
He was our persistent reminder that all was not rotten in Central Europe. You could watch him and think of liquid, lilting waltz music on the Danube. He was gemutlich, as warm and sweet as a glass of Tokay wine.
In the '40s, he brought comfort and stability to a time out of joint, when we ached to recapture the joy and decency of an Old World where the distinguishing stamp was Hapsburgian, not Hitlerian. Of course, it was a world that never was. But as cherubic Sakall met Leon Ames at the captain's station, beatific smile beneath those twinkling eyes, he had you fooled.
With Cuddles up there on the screen, you just knew that everything would turn out all right in the end.
We missed the anniversary of his birth. We owe him some acknowledgement on the date of his death.