Hollywood, Aliens, And A Christmas Story – Modern Pop Culture Images Of Hungarians in the US
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“They’re heeeeerrrrreeeeee…”: Alien-(n)ation.
One of the most enduring and entertaining images of Hungarians during the second half of the 20th century is the idea of Hungarians as aliens or Martians. Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, is not intended to be pejorative, and has been exploited to good effect and with great enjoyment by Hungarians themselves – to the point of their likely having been behind its origination. There are multiple overlapping/competing descriptions of how all this started. Consensus suggests that it came out of the circles of émigré nuclear scientists, physicists, and mathematicians who came to the US during 1930s and 1940s, many of whom were collocated at Los Alamos, New Mexico for the Manhattan Project.
As George Marx, a Hungarian professor of atomic physics in Budapest, asks in his extremely engaging chapter entitled “The Martians’ Vision of the Future,” how is it that there were groups of Austrians, Germans, and Italians involved in these scientific breakthroughs and yet it was Hungarians alone who seemed to gain the moniker and association of “alien?” Marx appears to prefer the account according to which one day the Italian Enrico Fermi was speculating about the universe and the possibility of life on other planets, and Leo Szilard, a Hungarian, ventured an answer to Fermi’s question:
“And so,” Fermi came to his overwhelming question, “if all this has been happening, they should have arrived here by now, so where are they?” It was Leo Szilard, a man with an impish sense of humor, who supplied the perfect reply to Fermi’s rhetoric: “They are among us,” he said, “but they call themselves Hungarians.” (according to Marx, this is Francis Crick’s version of the myth)
Marx elaborates on the “birth to a legend”:
The myth of the Martian origin of the Hungarian scientists who entered world history on American soil during World War II probably originated in Los Alamos. Leon Lederman, director of the Fermilab, reported possible hidden intentions. The production of scientists and mathematicians in the early 20th century was so prolific that many otherwise calm observers believe Budapest was settled by Martians in a plan to infiltrate and take over the planet Earth…According to myth, at a top secret meeting of the Manhattan Project, General Groves left for the gents’ room. Szilard then said: “Perhaps we may now continue in Hungarian!” Hungarian émigrés enjoyed speaking their mother tongue whenever a chance offered itself. This has made them look suspicious. Los Alamos was a place of top security. General Groves was annoyed that Neumann and Wigner had frequent telephone conversations in Hungarian. [Teller, talk in Budapest 1991.] The “thick Hungarian accent” was often heard even in the corridors of the Pentagon. (The Lugosi accent made the alien power of Dracula, the count from the faraway Transylvania even more realistic.)
Marx recounts the details of the arrival of the Martians-cum-Hungarians on planet Earth:
–Gabor, von Kármán, Kemeny, von Neumann, Szilard, Teller, and Wigner were born in the same quarter of Budapest [author’s note—most were Jewish…it is interesting to note that some anti-Semitic Hungarian nationalists at the same time assiduously include these names in lists of famous Hungarians]. No wonder the scientists in Los Alamos accepted the idea that well over one thousand years ago a Martian spaceship crashlanded somewhere in the center of Europe. There are three firm proofs of the extraterrestrial origins of the Hungarians: they like to wander about (like gypsies radiating out from the same region). They speak an exceptionally simple and logical language which has not the slightest connection with the language of their neighbors. And they are so much smarter than the terrestrials. (In a slight Martian accent John G. Kemeny added an explanation, namely, that it is so much easier to learn reading and writing in Hungarian than in English or French, that Hungarian kids have much more time left to study mathematics.) [quoted by Marx from “Yankee” Magazine (?) 1980] ([
Finally, in a somewhat more serious vein, the alien connotation has been explained in analytical terms as follows:
If we understand SteeDee’s theory correctly, the first Hungarians-
are-aliens story arose from some minor human incident. The
Hungarians may have stood out from the rest of the staff at Los
Alamos, perhaps by maintaining their own cliques and speaking
their own indecipherable tongue, and this made the English
speakers uncomfortable. The Hungarians were like aliens to the
rest, and since there were many reports of “flying saucers” in the
popular press in the 50s and late 40s, the “Martian” label was a
convenient way to sublimate the social tensions. To be called
extraterrestrials, in a jocular, rib-poking way, might have helped
reduce this social friction both inside and outside the Hungarian
group. If there was a problem with communication, the recurring
alien joke would provide a means to make light of it, thereby
expressing frustrations that could not otherwise be spoken. ( )
According to Marx, “as a matter of fact, these suspicious Hungarians—Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard—enjoyed the myth. Edward Teller became especially happy of his E.T. initials, but he complained about indiscretion, ‘Von Kármán must have been talking’.”
From Teller to Talleah…Zsa Zsa and Her Sisters
This brings us from Teller to Talleah, the difference being that Teller was a real Hungarian scientist who pretended to play the part of an alien…whereas Talleah is the name of an alien from the 1958 King of the B Sci-fi Movies, “Queen of Outer Space”…starring none other than perhaps the most well-known Hungarian among Americans, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who plays the role of an alien scientist! [More about this hysterical film and its hysterical reviews below.]
Of course, June 1989 put Hungarians on the map for many Americans. The reburial of Imre Nagy, the huge crowds, the solemn ceremony before hundreds of thousands and a live television audience, a landmark event in the history of Hungary…No, that was 16 June 1989…I am referring here to 14 June 1989, the day Zsa Zsa slapped a Beverly Hills police officer, an incident that immediately became fodder for every late night comedian and even two years later was the subject of a spoof starring the actress in the satirical film series, the Naked Gun. Such is the fate of Hungary and Hungarians in the United States.
There were actually three Gabor sisters: Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda. I am not sure whether to say marriage or divorce ran in the family. The three sisters had more marriages than they did important movie roles. To borrow a page from Dave Barry in another context (Dave Barry Slept Here, Random House 1989, p. 101), here are the final tallies of the three sisters in Marriages:
Final (?) Gabor Sister Marriage Standings
Zsa Zsa 9* *** ****
*It is difficult to know how exactly to calculate Zsa Zsa’s total number of husbands…since as she once responded: “How many husbands have I had? You mean apart from my own?”
**These numbers may be affected by the fact that both Zsa Zsa and Magda were married to the English actor George Sanders, if sixteen years apart. Not to make too much light of things, but Sanders eventually committed suicide. He played the part of Mr. Freeze in the Batman television series, that Zsa Zsa made guest appearances on (see below).
***It seemed only fitting in early 2007 surrounding the macabre and absurd Anna Nicole Smith custody fight that Zsa Zsa’s most recent husband—Prinz von Anhalt—claimed that he had a ten year affair with Anna Nicole and was the father of her orphaned child. (Supposedly, Zsa Zsa was angered and hurt by this admission, but can one completely discount the possibility that it was yet another attempt for Zsa Zsa to get back in the limelight, and after all, hadn’t Anna Nicole Smith been famous for being famous.)
****It may surprise almost no one in a certain sense, but Zsa Zsa’s daughter by Conrad Hilton (the only child of all three Gabor sisters) is grand- deer hunting t shirt to Paris and Nicole Hilton.
Zsa Zsa claims that she won the 1936 Hungarian beauty pageant (according to one Hungarian source, Sandor Incze who discovered Zsa Zsa, invented the idea of the beauty pageant…don’t think so), although her mother Jolie (“pretty” in French), married only twice, and fond of “new math” long before we knew it was new—like her daughters she seemed genetically incapable of telling her true age; if she was telling the truth her first daughter, Magda, would have been born when Jolie was thirteen!—claimed it was she (the mother) and not Zsa Zsa who had won the beauty pageant. (To use the famous Casey Stengel line “You can look it up!”…these things should be verifiable, although I will leave that to others to investigate since it is beyond the intended scope of this paper.)
The “Queen of Outer Space” or “Damn it, Jim, I’m a Former Hungarian Beauty Queen, Not a(n Alien) Scientist”
Zsa Zsa’s film career is summarized by the online film critic “Jabootu” as follows:
Unfortunately, Ms. Gabor’s Hollywood career proved much less epic [than her married life or run-ins with the law]. In John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge, Zsa Zsa played, in a bold move, a Euro-sexpot opposite Jose Ferrer’s Toulouse-Lautrec. The following year she appeared in a supporting role in the musical Lili, which co-starred the unrelated but similarly monikered Mel Ferrer. From there, though, it was all downhill. Her few starring roles included playing twins (!!) in the hilarious-sounding espionage meller Girl in the Kremlin. In case you’re wondering, one of the twins [is] Stalin’s mistress (!!), the other a spy working against the Soviets. Zsa Zsa also had a bit part in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. (
But perhaps “Jabootu” is being too hasty and superficial in judging Ms. Gabor’s career. Maybe we have underestimated Zsa Zsa’s roles in movie and television. For example, Zsa Zsa has recounted how she liked playing the role of “spy” when she guest-starred on the Batman serial as Minerva, a beauty parlor owner, whose hairdryers could read the minds of (male) clients. Was the episode perhaps a skillful allegory about how the totalitarian state uses the most banal and subversive means to pry into the lives of its citizens? (Was the “mullet” a communist plot to make Americans look stupid? Tune in next time, same Battime, same Batchannel…)
Evidence for such a, more enlightened, revisionist view comes from the 1958 movie “Queen of Outer Space,” in which Zsa Zsa plays Talleah, an alien scientist, who leads the women of Venus against the sadistic, disfigured Queen Yllana, thereby saving a flight crew of men from Earth whom Yllana has cruelly imprisoned. I argue here that this film only appears to be a sexist, cheesy, and moronic vehicle for profit, when in fact that is part of its subterfuge and inner-brilliance. The movie is, in fact, a subtle and sophisticated allegory of communist Hungary and the outbreak and crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Let us take another look at this film—although, unfortunately, we are forced to rely on the flippant and sometimes juvenile comments of “Jabootu” for a discussion of the plot.
In this first extended excerpt, we find Zsa Zsa’s Talleah (symbolizing the Hungarian resistance) being informed that recently arrived Earthmen (“bourgeois” intellectuals, “men” had been banished from the planet, although “scientists and mathematicians” were retained because they were needed) have been imprisoned by the evil Yllana (the communists/Soviets). Talleah recounts for the men, the sad history of the planet, the destructive war, how Yllana went from well-meaning rebel to tyrant, etc. The astute reader will notice here that Zsa Zsa is in fact recounting the destruction of World War II in Hungary—she says “Ten Earth years ago”!—the coming to power of the communists, the initial “popular” image of the Soviets as liberators, and their construction of a people’s dictatorship….
“To Be Hungarian Is Not Enough…”: Hollywood and Hungarians
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, 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 which 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 the 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 “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” (1994):
[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 ½ hours through a darkened railway tunnel to Austria).
The trivia of all these cases is to say the least 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 and 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 of 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 Televizio, 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 bikini-clad “mama she got it stickin’ in the camera lens” model appears to be posing in the Halaszbastya (Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side of Budapest) which I had then just recently visited (May 1985, the video came out in September 1985). 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 (Kertesz). 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” (Lukacs, 1989, pp. 178-179). 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 houston astros polo 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 (2001) 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”!)
(Spoiler Warning!: When I came to this personal epiphany in 2001, and even while I was writing this article in 2005, 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 two years can be in the Internet age: now a Google search for “farkas wolf ‘christmas story’ prokofiev” yields 123 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-wolf-farkas 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,” “It Runs in the Family (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.
“Honky”: The Hungarian Roots of a Racial Epithet
Speaking of the Hungarian(-American) “working class” in the Chicago environs. According to the entry on the wikipedia: Honky, Honkey or Honkie is an American racial slur for a Caucasian, usually applied to males. The word “honky” as a pejorative for Caucasians comes from “bohunk” and “hunky”. In the early 1900’s, these were derogatory terms for Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants. According to Robert Hendrickson, author of the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Black workers in Chicago meat-packing plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all Caucasians.
Honky, was later adopted as a pejorative meaning white, in 1967 by black militants within SNCC seeking a rebuttal for the term nigger. They settled on a familiar word they felt was disparaging to certain Americans of European descent; hunkie meaning an American of Slavic or Hungarian descent.
In the Simpsons cartoon series, Homer Simpson is fond of saying when something goes wrong, particularly at the nuclear power plant where he works, “blame it on Tibor, the guy who doesn’t speak English.” One can imagine that this is something of an inside joke among the creators of the Simpsons, since the chief cartoonist Gabor Csupo is Hungarian (supposedly Hank Azaria’s character Dr. Nick Riviera, a quack physician, is supposed to be a parody of Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy”—“Hi e-ver-y-bo-dy!”—but coworkers just assumed he was making fun of Gabor. Personally, I have always thought he sounds oddly like Andrei Codrescu on NPR…) According to the online urban dictionary of slang, “blame it on…Tibor” has entered at least some marginal popular discourse as shorthand for blaming the foreigner—thus in keeping perhaps, unintentionally, with the roots of “Honky”:
A tibor is someone in your office whom you blame when you have done something stupid, illegal, or immoral. Typically the person is someone who cannot defend themself. Especially effective when the Tibor cannot speak English. “You’ll have to jiggle the handle. That idiot, Tibor, lost the key.”
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write by Aylmer