As is to be expected of space travelers, Hungarians claim to have founded certain places… One of them being Hollywood.
Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures (left), one of the early Hungarians in Hollywood is said to have had on the wall of his office an inscription: “TO BE A HUNGARIAN IS NOT ENOUGH.” To this George Marx adds, “in a low voice, Adolph would add, ‘but it may help’.” He continues, “Non-Hungarians in Hollywood used to say, “If you have a Hungarian friend, you don’t need an enemy.” The MGM commissary was said to have a sign that read, “Just because you’re Hungarian, doesn’t mean you’re a genius!”
The influence of Hungarians on Hollywood is astounding. In 1996, the Associated Press reported that of 136 Oscar nominations since 1929, Hungarians had won 30 of them. Some of the names are more familiar than others. George Cukor – not to be confused with the aforementioned Adolph Zukor, ‘Mr. Motion Pictures,’ founder of Paramount Pictures, and producer of perhaps the first film The Prisoner of Zenda – captured five best director nominations, including for My Fair Lady.
“’Enry ’Iggins says of Zoltan Karpathy: “Every time we looked around there he was that hairy hound from Budapest. Never leaving us alone, never have I ever known a ruder pest.”
William Fox of ‘20th Century Fox’ was born near Tokaj, Hungary, famous for its sweet wines. Among the better-known actors other than Bela Lugosi (born Bela Blasko) and the Gabor clan, we can name Leslie Howard, born Laszlo Steiner, and Tony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz (born in Budapest, fluent in Hungarian), and Peter Lorre.
Speaking of Bela Lugosi… there is the following unforgettable exchange between Johnny Depp playing legendary B-moviemaker Ed Wood and Martin Landau (himself of interplanetary space travel frequently) in his Oscar-winning portrayal of aging, foul-mouthed, bitter, and morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood:
[Ed and Bela are watching Vampira’s TV show.]
Ed Wood: Oh, I hate it when she interrupts the picture. She doesn’t show ’em the proper respect.
Bela Lugosi: I think she’s a honey. Look at those jugs!
[Bela Lugosi casts a love spell on Vampira who is on TV while moving his fingers like Dracula]
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: My Gosh, Bela, how do you do that?
Bela Lugosi: You must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian!
‘Some ‘Hungarians” famous in film and television will come as a surprise. Drew Barrymore’s mother was Ildiko Jaid Mako. Jerry Seinfeld might talk about Ceausescu above, but his father was named Kalman Seinfeld. Paul Newman’s mother was Hungarian. And half of the famed animator set behind The Simpsons and a series of other cartoons, Klasky Csupo – Gabor Csupo – is a Hungarian (he fled Hungary in 1975 hiking through a 2 1⁄2 hours through a darkened railway tunnel to Austria).
The trivia of all these cases is to say the very least, is entertaining. Other great finds on the webenetics site are the following: Ilona Staller, aka Ciccolina, of blue movies and green politics, had a red father – a member of the early communist Interior Ministry. And Juan Epstein’s mother – whose signature concluded every excuse note Juan Epstein brought to class in the 1970s ABC sitcom Welcome back, Kotter! – is in fact Hungarian, Juan Epstein having been played by Robert Hegyes.
“What’s that? Hungarian roots?” Budapest & Wanting the Other MTV
Then there are the Hungarian roots of rock and pop stars. Appropriately enough, while Art Garfunkel is of Romanian Jewish ancestry, Paul Simon is of Hungarian Jewish ancestry. Tommy Ramone, drummer for The Ramones, was born with the more sedate name of Thomas Erdelyi.
We can salute Gene Simmons of KISS (or should it have been KISZ?) as half-Hungarian, and you might find it ironic, but you ought to know that Alanis Morissette is supposedly half Hungarian. It also turns out that the father of the Knopfler brothers o the Dire Straits band was a Hungarian Jew who fled the Nazis to Glasgow in 1939. The Hungarian tie of Dire Straits is interesting – even if probably entirely incidental – in light of the ‘video within a video’ of the band’s most famous commercial/video success, Money for Nothing (1985).
Money for Nothing is better known for its line “I want my MTV” – brilliant and somewhat satirical marketing; mention the video channel coming of age in an iconic way in your song/video and you will guarantee play there. (It was also the first video played when MTV Europe debuted on 1 August 1987 – for those too young to remember, MTV, no not Magyar Televízió, was a brief experiment in playing something called ‘music videos’ until reality shows killed the music video star).
The premise, the inspiration of Money for Nothing was a bunch of workers moving appliances and commenting while, as it turns outs, watching Sting’s The Russians video on a wall of TV screens. (Ooohhhh, Sting mentioned the Russians, do they really love their children too? Ooooohhhhh, how daring… because I’m sure the Russians do love their children too… 1985, the eighties, ugh).
I had always wondered about ‘the video within the video’ since the bikiniclad “mama she got it stickin’ in the camera lens” model appears to be posing in the Halászbastya (Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side of Budapest) that I had then just recently visited.
Turns out I wasn’t hallucinating for as Dennis O’Connell writes: “The video was produced by Steve Barron, who envisioned that the entire video be computer animated. The band wanted a live video. The final product was a mix: footage from Budapest enhanced by computers along with a computer generated character, Sal, which was inspired by Joe Pesci’s character in Raging Bull.”
Sting, the object of the workers’ derision that gave rise to the song, performs back up vocals on Money for Nothing. Bringing everything full circle, my Russian History professor in college decided to open his semester with Money for Nothing blaring as students entered the classroom.
In keeping with the alien riff, Hungarians love their inside jokes. The crowd-favorite, sentimentalist Hollywood film, Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (nope, neither of them Hungarian), was directed by Michael Curtiz (Kertész).
S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall, a Hungarian stage actor, played the role of Karl, the kindly Austrian waiter in Rick’s Café. The famous historian John Lukacs (author of Budapest 1900) among others has argued that there is a typical Hungarian inside joke in this film – or at least the film bears the marks of its Hungarian director.
Ingrid Bergman’s underground, Czech resistance leader husband in the film is named Victor Laszlo. Now, of course, as Lukacs notes – personally, he describes the movie as “imbecile” – ‘Laszlo’ is neither a first nor last name in Czech. It is, however a sometimes last name, but frequent first-name in Hungarian – and Curtiz was surrounded “by a slew of Hungarian scriptwriters in Hollywood, many of whose first names were Laszlo”. Hence, the name in the film. (There is also a popular contemporary cartoon named “Camp Lazlo,” but Lazlo is a Brazilian spider monkey, and as far as I can tell there is in no conscious Hungarian connection behind the name choice.)
But I would argue there are even better inside Hungarian jokes than that of ‘Victor Laszlo’ woven into movies, as I will now demonstrate.
THE BOY NAMED WOLF IN HUNGARIAN WHO MADE RALPHIE CRY…
It took over 30,000 feet, several time zone changes, and countless years to figure it out. A few years ago I was flying out west and scanning the music channels for the headphones. On the classical music channel I suddenly came upon a familiar tune. Yes, there it was: the tune that would repeat every time the school bully would appear in the lovable, sentimental, nostalgia-fest for a life that few of us ever lived, that is A Christmas Story (1983).
I thought I recognized the music: it was Sergei Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf, and the theme – that which Prokofiev used for the wolf – became the school bully’s signature in the film. Upon the first hearing of this tune, when the school bully makes his first frightening appearance, the reminiscing “Ralphie,” the little boy who is the main protagonist of the movie, exclaims, “it was Farkas, Scott Farkas, the school bully… he had yellow eyes, yellow eyes I tell you.” (Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy “lay there like a slug… it was his only defense”!)
When I came to this personal epiphany in 2001, there was no indication on the Internet that anybody else had recorded this observation, which led me to question whether an overactive imagination had gotten the best of me yet again. What a great difference a couple years can be in the Internet age: now a Google search for “farkas wolf ‘christmas story’ Prokofiev” yields 8,510 hits, beginning with the Wikipedia entry for the film!
Why is this important you ask? Well, if you know Hungarian, you will know that ‘farkas’ is the Hungarian word for ‘wolf.’ Therefore, to play the theme of the ‘wolf’ from Prokofiev’s work – a piece drafted, it would appear, for children to learn the various instruments of an orchestra – is to play an obscure ‘inside joke’ on the viewers of the film. (Making it even better is the fact that the actor who plays the part of Ralphie is ‘Peter’ Billingsley.)
Jean Shepherd, upon whose book the movie is based – and who also narrates the film from the perspective of an adult Ralphie looking back on his childhood – appears to have chosen the name of the bully, ‘“Scott (Scut) Farkas,’ himself.
The story is set in 1940s northwestern Indiana – significantly, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf debuted in 1936 and became the subject of a Disney cartoon – so the presence of people of Hungarian ancestry and last names is plausible. It is always possible that the Prokofiev-wolffarkas nexus is just an unintentional, if very witty happenstance.
But the idea of it having been one of the ultimate Hungarian ‘inside jokes’ – although Jean Shepherd does not appear to have been Hungarian himself – is enhanced by the comparatively unknown and definitely less memorable sequel to A Christmas Story, My Summer Story (1994), in which Ralphie’s father recounts the story of “the Hungarian barber’s cross-eyed daughter.”
Shepherd died in 1999, but as with many common last names from other cultures – and farkas can perhaps be deemed one of those – growing up with Hungarian acquaintances it is conceivable that Shepherd would have known the meaning of the name in Hungarian.
Richard Andrew Hall holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, where he focused his studies on east central Europe. He is the author of articles on Romania, Hungary, nationalism, and east central Europe in general, in academic journals and more recently on the Internet.