No Small Parts: Supporting Actors in Casablanca (1942)

Seeing Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art last weekend as part of the Ingrid Bergman centennial retrospective reminded me that the film is so much more than just a vehicle for its four stars, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains (admittedly, Rains’ name is not above the title either in advertising or in the film’s opening credits, but his role is large enough and his lines memorable enough that he has been accorded a higher position in viewers’ hearts). Casablanca is also a wonderful showcase for the many character actors who populated Hollywood in the 1940s, a large number of whom were European refugees, like the characters they play in the movie. With the exception of John Qualen, because I cannot find any videos of his performance, I have tried to account for all of the notable supporting roles in the film by writing a little about each actor and showing his or her work in clips. As Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski said, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” and American character actor Dabbs Greer once remarked that “every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.” That is certainly true of the many performers who shine, even if only very briefly, in Casablanca.

The striking presence of German actor Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) brings life to the role of Third Reich official Major Heinrich Strasser. A tall, imposing man with a distinctively nasal voice, Veidt made a name for himself in Weimar-era horror films including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Hands of Orlac (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) and after fleeing the Nazis (he vocally opposed them, which earned him death threats from the Third Reich) in the early 1930s, he found work in the UK and US playing many elegant, mysterious, oftentimes villainous characters. In the 1940s he was recruited to play Nazi generals, as in Escape (1940), All Through the Night (1941) and, most unusually, as both a Nazi and his anti-Nazi twin brother in Nazi Agent (1942). It makes sense, therefore, that Veidt would be cast in a similar role in Casablanca and it is a tribute to his artistry that he was the highest-paid actor in the cast.

Inveterate scene-stealer Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) takes charge of every frame he is in, which isn’t bad for a guy who didn’t start making movies until he was in his early 60s (his debut being in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon). Greenstreet doesn’t have much to do in Casablanca except throw his weight around (both symbolically and literally) but any time he shows up, you smile.

In two short scenes in Casablanca, Curt Bois (1901-1991) appears as a nameless pickpocket who warns visitors to the city about “vultures everywhere” as he steals their wallets. Berlin-born Bois, who was Jewish, fled Germany shortly after Hitler came to power, finding work in Hollywood starting in 1937. His career, which lasted eighty years, culminated in his final film performance as Homer the aged poet in Wings of Desire (1987), probably one of the largest roles Bois ever had in the movies. You may also recognize the wife in the pickpocketed couple; that is English actress Norma Varden (1898-1989), who later had bigger roles as the society woman nearly strangled by Robert Walker at a dinner party in Strangers on a Train (1951) and as the wealthy murder victim in Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

Peter Lorre (1904-1964) got the biggest applause at MoMA aside from Ingrid Bergman, and for good reason. Audiences appreciate Lorre’s immense talent, his wide-eyed stare and perhaps especially his Hungarian-accented tenor voice, which could swing from charming to smarmy in the blink of an eye. Lorre could play morally ambiguous, or repugnant, characters and yet still have an ounce of sympathy because he was that good an actor.

Standing to the left of the door to Rick’s place, you can see Dan Seymour (1915-1993) as Abdul, the heavyset bouncer who does not have any dialogue. Seymour appeared in many films and TV shows between the early 1940s and the late 70s, often with character names like “Fats,” “The Pig” and “Big Louie” and character descriptions for uncredited roles including “Fat Doorman in Cairo Theatre,” “Fat Turk at the Café” and “Fat Native Man.” Despite the continuous casting based on his weight, Seymour proved that excellent actors come in many sizes; two of my favorite roles of his being in films directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat (1953) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). (Lang and Chicago-born Seymour became friends while making Cloak and Dagger (1946) after Lang found out that Seymour spoke German. Another interesting fact: Seymour held a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Chicago.)

Moviegoers remember Dooley Wilson (1886-1953) for singing the now-classic “As Time Goes By” at Ilsa’s (Ingrid Bergman) request, but as piano player Sam, Wilson does not merely play a worker in Rick’s hire. On some level Rick and Sam have an employer-employee relationship since one man pays the other, but Sam was also witness to the romance between Rick and Ilsa; Rick considers Sam a trustworthy confidant.

Leonid Kinskey (1903-1998) plays the small but memorable role of Sascha, the bartender at Rick’s Café Américain, seen here attempting to woo Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau – more on her below). Once described by columnist Louella Parsons as “the maddest Russian on land and sea,” Kinskey made a long career out of playing a long list of types, including political agitators, spies and informers (Trouble in Paradise, Duck Soup, Manhattan Melodrama, Algiers), prisoners (We Live Again, Les Misérables), gigolos (Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio), cowboys (Rhythm on the Range), snake charmers (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), interior decorators (Goin’ to Town), waiters and bellhops (I Live My Life, Week-End in Havana), professors (Ball of Fire), musicians and composers (The Cat and the Fiddle, 100 Men and a Girl, The Great Waltz, On Your Toes, The Helen Morgan Story), poets and artists (Café Metropole, Nothing Sacred, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle). In Casablanca, however, Kinskey plays a barkeep who does not have many lines, yet the ones he says are always amusing. Perhaps most famously, Kinskey tells Bogart, “Boss, you did a wonderful thing!” and kisses him on both cheeks after Bogart has helped a young couple to obtain exit visas.

Madeleine LeBeau (b. 1923), the sole surviving cast member from Casablanca, fled France with her husband, French Jewish actor Marcel Dalio, in 1940, adding realism and poignancy to LeBeau’s singing of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”

American actress Joy Page (1924-2008) plays Annina Brandel, one half of a young Bulgarian couple seeking a way out of Casablanca. Page appears a few times throughout the film, not usually saying much, but in this scene she moves Rick (and the audience) as she pleads her case.

Helmut Dantine (1918-1982), uncredited, plays Joy Page’s husband. A Viennese actor, Dantine is perhaps best remembered for playing many Nazi characters from the 1940s through the 1970s. You will also notice Marcel Dalio (1900-1983), another uncredited actor, playing the croupier at the roulette table. Dalio was a well-known actor in France, his best roles being in the two Jean Renoir films he made, Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Like so many European Jews, however, he had had to flee the continent and went to Hollywood, never playing such large roles again in American film but always popping up in large supporting casts. As previously mentioned, at the time Dalio was married to Madeleine LeBeau, who plays Yvonne in Casablanca.

Ilka Grüning (1876-1964) and Ludwig Stössel (1883-1973) play the uncredited roles of Mr. and Mrs. Leuchtag, a couple who is immigrating to America after finally receiving their exit visas. Their friend, Carl the headwaiter, is played by Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall (1883-1955) who found success playing a series of kindhearted fathers, uncles, bosses and working-class men in films including Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Romance on the High Seas (1948), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Small Town Girl (1953).