The extraordinary career of Hollywood star Sig Arno is mostly remembered through the 150 films he appeared in from 1921 to 1962, but his roots in the cabaret scene of Weimar Berlin is a lesser told story.
Born Siegfried Aron in Hamburg in December 1895, he attended the Talmud Torah school before training as a fashion designer at the Hamburg School of Applied Arts. He made his stage debut at the Stadttheater Harburg and also performed in Hamburg and Prague before moving to Berlin in 1921, with his younger brother Bruno.
They took neighbouring apartments at Zähringerstraße in the Charlottenburg district of the city, a few doors along from Anita Berber and her family.
His first film role came almost immediately when he appeared alongside his younger brother in Die rote Katze. A year later he married for the first time, to actress Lia Dahms, and had a son, Peter, in 1926.
The tall, thin, awkward-looking performer soon formed a double-act with the burly comedian Kurt Gerron. As Beef and Steak they were regulars at the Kürfurstendam cabaret of comedians, the KaDeKo.
Comparisons immediately started to be drawn with other stage and silent movie performers of the time and his signature role soon became that of the sad-faced misfit.
Film roles kept on coming – fifteen in 1926 alone – but Siegfried maintained his commitment to stage and cabaret work. In 1930, he was cast in the premiere of the acclaimed revue Im weißen Rößl (The White Horse Inn) at Berlin’s Großes Schauspielhaus, alongside Max Hansen and Camilla Spira.
By 1930, Siegfried was regularly being referred to as the ‘German Charlie Chaplin’.
In 1933, like so many others, he fled Germany and worked in cabarets across Europe. An extended spell with fellow KaDeKo performer Willy Rosen’s Theater der Prominenten troupe in the Netherlands, reunited him with his double-act partner Kurt Gerron.
His first marriage ended in divorce and in 1934 he married his second wife Barbara Kiranoff. He made just two films over the next six years, Gado Bravo in 1934 and his debut as a director in De roem van’t regiment in 1936.
The lure of Hollywood proved too strong and Siegfried arrived there in 1939, making three films that year including The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The following year, he appeared alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator.
Over the next fifteen years, and now known as Sig Arno, he proved to be one of the most high-profile of the European emigrants to America. He appeared in plays, operettas and revues in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and was nominated for the ‘Best Featured Actor in a Play’ at the 1958 Tony Awards. Another 53 film credits were to follow – never in a major role, but often playing waiters, barmen, loafers and ‘quirky Europeans’.
In 1953 he married for a third time, to Austrian actress Kitty Mattern, and two years later returned home to Germany.
He continued to work on stage and screen and, in 1966, was awarded the German Film Prize for an outstanding contribution to cinema.
He died from Parkinson’s disease in Los Angeles in August 1975, aged 79.