'Cuddles' Sakall: Christmas, Connecticut and Casablanca
BY FRED ABATEMARCO -- Desperate to cast off the yoke I felt as an Italian-American teenager in Brooklyn, I imagined instead I was Craig Petersen, a student at the University of Hartford, Connecticut. I even made up fake ID draft cards in my high school print shop for my alter ego.

So in the 1980s, when my wife and I stumbled upon Christmas in Connecticut, a 1945 comedy about a flat-dwelling magazine columnist masquerading as a gourmet country squiress on a rural Connecticut farm, the irony was delicious beyond my imagination.

Here was a movie that cut close to my bones, replete with fantasy, publishing--and food. Everything, in fact, except a high-schooler's fake ID.

There's a boy-meets-girl storyline somewhere in Christmas in Connecticut. But mostly it is a screwball who's-zoomin'-who holiday romp in the snow about a half-dozen characters, each of whom is running a scam.

"From my living room window as I write," types faux foodie Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, "I can look out across the broad front lawns of our farm, like a lovely picture postcard of wintry New England." (Outside her real window, laundry on a clothesline is flapping on a Manhattan rooftop.)

She fords on with her food forgeries: "I just stopped to test the crumbly brown goodness of the toasted veal cutlets in my oven. Cook these slowly ..." (Stanwyck is choking down sardines for breakfast as she types.)



Food is the unheralded star of Christmas in Connecticut. Steak with Bordelaise sauce, pickled walnuts, Chicken Maryland, Irish stew transformed into Hungarian Paprikash. And, of course, the quintessential farm breakfast: flapjacks. You just have to wait for them to get unstuck from the kitchen ceiling.

The plot twists come fast and the romance drags on in the county snow. But it all turns out bright and cheery as a Christmas holiday should: Everyone gets what they want--or at least what they deserve.

Can you decorate your tree to a more perfect backdrop than that?

I watch Christmas in Connecticut every chance I get, and not only during the holidays. But the movie I undoubtedly have seen more than any other is Casablanca.

Certainly, the appeal is Humphrey Bogart at his best as a drippingly cynical, steel-cold tough guy who is nonetheless warm, mushy and sentimental on the inside. Even without hard-smoking, boozy Bogie, there'd be a more compelling reason to watch Michael Curtiz's near masterpiece: Ingrid Bergman.

The Stockholm-born actress was 27 when Casablanca was released and she is more beautiful in this movie than in any other. You make a serious mistake getting caught up in the movie's pitch-perfect dialog if you miss the dozens of alluring Bergman close-ups. I melt when I see her beaming smile in Paris; her searching eyes walking into Rick's Cafe; her perfectly pursed and defiant lips addressing Inspector Renault. Thinking of that perfectly sculpted face not showing up to meet Rick at Gare de Lyon, I too felt my insides were kicked out.

Casablanca is many splendid things, from its Oscar-nominated all-star cast, to its flawless black-and-white cinematography to its heroically mythical and heartbreaking denouement. Thanks to Bergman, it may also be the most romantic love story ever.

What connects these two wartime classics? Budapest-born S.Z. Sakall, dubbed "Cuddles" by studio boss Jack Warner. Sakall played Carl, the impish headwaiter in Casablanca, and Felix, the magician in the kitchen in Christmas In Connecticut. With his chubby face and rotund frame, Sakall puts the screw in screwball and serves up great lines in both flicks.



When an elderly German couple want to toast their imminent escape to America and invite Carl to join them, Sakall mischievously produces a glass from his pocket and adds: "I thought you would ask me, so I brought the good brandy." And when they mangle their acquired English--"What watch?" "Ten watch!" "Such much?"--Sakall gently stifles a laugh and says: "You will get along beautifully in America!"

Then there's his effortless put-down of a self-important customer. When the snobbish guest tries to invite Rick for a drink, Carl politely explains that the standoffish Bogart never drinks with customers. "Perhaps if you told him I ran the second-largest banking house in Amsterdam?" says the imperious customer.

"Second largest?" deadpans Sakall. "That wouldn't impress Rick. The leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen." Brushing off a riposte from the crestfallen customer, Sakall adds with a sly grin: "And his father is the bellboy!"

He is no less wry in Christmas in Connecticut as the chef behind the fraudulent foodie Elizabeth Lane.

"You mad at your stomach darling?" he chides her, replacing her sardines breakfast with a mushroom omelet whipped up in his nearby restaurant.

And regarding our heroine's stated need for a mink coat, Sakall counters with finality: "You need it! Nobody needs a mink coat but the mink."

Christmas in Connecticut airs at 10pm on Tuesday, August 4, during the all-day Sakall marathon as part of TCM's Summer Under The Stars. Casablanca airs at midnight on Friday, August 28, as part of the all-day marathon of Paul Heinreid films.

ABOUT FRED ABATEMARCO
Fred Abatemarco is a career journalist who has been associate editor at Newsweek, editor-in-chief of Personal Computing and editor-in-chief and president of Popular Science. JoeSentMe members know him best as the creator of the Back FROM the World and FishTales blogs.