'The Unknown Guest' is a German comedy film. I'm tempted to make a cheap joke that the phrase 'German comedy' is an oxymoron ... and, indeed, much of the knockabout slapstick in this film is merely embarrassing. But in fact there is some genuine humour here in this by-the-numbers farce, supplied by the comedy skills of one beloved character actor and an unjustly obscure character actress.
Harry Hardt and Anni Markart play a wealthy couple, whose urban household employs many servants. As is typical in such houses (and not merely in Germany), there is a rigid status system among the servants: the lowliest among them is the chambermaid (Lucie Englisch) who is married to the household's chauffeur (Hans Brausewetter). The chambermaid came to the city from a Bavarian village; her husband has never met her relatives. At the top of the food chain in the servants' quarters is the brawny battle-axe housekeeper (Senta Söneland).
During her employment, the maid has frequently sent letters home to her widowed father (from this address) but has never told him that she is employed as a maidservant.
The master and mistress of the house go away on holiday, but they inform the servants that the master's rich father (also a widower) will be coming to visit in their absence. Naturally, he is to be given every possible hospitality and consideration.
Shortly after the mistress and her husband depart, along comes a stout respectable-looking man. But he isn't the master's rich father: he's actually the father of the chambermaid. This very posh house is his daughter's address, so he assumes that she's the mistress here. And all the other servants assume that the maid's father is the expected wealthy visitor. The maidservant sees no reason to disabuse anyone of their errors: she contrives to masquerade as the mistress of the household (to impress her father) whilst convincing her husband and her fellow servants that her provincial father is actually the wealthy father-in-law of the household's true mistress.
Naturally, there are no end of farcical complications. The heavy-set unattractive housekeeper tries to vamp the 'wealthy' houseguest, not realising who he really is ... and that he has no money. Senta Söneland gives a deft performance as the housekeeper, who pursues her romantic objective with the same brisk efficiency she applies to her household duties. Despite her evident talent as an actress, Söneland was a very unattractive woman who had serious health problems; she committed suicide a few years after this movie was made. Her performance in this film reminds me of the American character actresses Minerva Urecal and Marjorie Main (neither of whom I ever liked); Söneland is similar to both of them yet more talented than either.
By far, the standout performance in this film is given by the actor who plays the chambermaid's father: none other than Szöke Szakall, the Hungarian Jewish character actor who later fled Europe (one step ahead of the Nazis) and had a fondly-remembered career in Hollywood under the name S.Z. Sakall in films such as 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' and 'Casablanca'. In 'The Unknown Guest', Sakall demonstrates many of the little physical crotchets that would stand him in such excellent stead during his Hollywood years. He shakes his jowls, clutches his face, wipes his brow while muttering desperately. What a delightful piece of Hungarian ham! (Although, in deference to Sakall's religion, perhaps 'ham' is not the best word for him.)
I wish that someone could explain something for me. Many reference books refer to S.Z. Sakall as 'Cuddles' Sakall, claiming that he was billed by this nickname in some of his Hollywood films. I've seen several of Sakall's American films, yet I've never seen one in which this fine actor is billed as 'Cuddles'. Can someone please either verify this rumour or end it once for all?
I'll rate 'The Unknown Guest' 6 points out of 10, for the fine performance of Szöke Szakall and for the splendid support by Senta Söneland.
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