Thursday, February 16, 2012

Casablanca (Warner Bros., 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

It’s 9:10 a.m. and this morning I’ve been watching yet another videotape: the 50th anniversary edition of Casablanca, a well-done production from Turner Entertainment that features the film Casablanca itself, an original theatrical trailer and a half-hour documentary narrated by Lauren Bacall and featuring Pia Lindstrom (what do you do when you want to make a documentary about a famous film and both of the stars are dead? You get his widow and her daughter … ) which was entertaining and didn’t tell me much about the film I didn’t already know. Casablanca was a film I discovered in the late 1960’s — I vividly remember a column Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about that time, concerning Casablanca and why it had held up as well as it had; his conclusion was that audiences responded both to the black-and-white nature of the story (you know who the heroes are and you know who the villains are — and you know, well before Bogart’s character does himself, which one he’ll turn out to be) and to the whole notion of sacrifice, of giving one’s life (or, at least, one’s safety and security) to a larger cause.

I think that’s still a large part of the appeal of this movie. Casablanca is a beautiful film precisely because it achieves a near-perfect balance between (if you’ll pardon the paraphrase of the famous feminist slogan) the personal and the political aspects of its story; the balance may have come from the use of Hollywood’s infamous platoon system of getting screenplays written (Julius and Philip Epstein apparently contributed the atmosphere and the celebrated wisecracks, Casey Robinson — uncredited — wrote the famous flashback sequence and got the Bogart-Bergman romance into shape, and Howard Koch concentrated on the political material), and director Mike Curtiz was more interested in atmosphere than in story values (fortunately, he had a cast of actors — Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Sakall — that could almost direct themselves), but the film comes together because of a passion in its making that obviously stemmed from the wartime situation, and at the same time transcended it, to the point where this film has become a living metaphor for sacrifice and heroism.

A few random thoughts on this movie. One thing that disappointed me about the included documentary was that cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s name wasn’t mentioned even once — yet he is responsible for much of the appeal of this film (and the video transfer is especially kind to his work, both the hard-edged lighting of the daytime scenes and the softer, more rounded lighting of the romantic night shots) — you can even see the sparkle in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes, and do a double-take before you realize it’s a key light. His noir-ish photography adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and gives the film a “German” quality that fits the subject matter well — and also ties in to the presence of Conrad Veidt in the cast (it was his last film, and as someone who was present at the birth of German Expressionism in film, on the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it seems appropriate to have him play this character). Claude Rains, as usual, comes close to stealing the film right out from under the principals — as he did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which his corrupt Senator was by far the most interesting character in the story — and Bogart’s performance is extraordinarily nuanced; he actually looks like a different person in the Paris flashback sequence (when Bergman talks about him as if he were two different people, we can see what she was talking about), and he was the right age for the role (43) — he was able to suggest the hard-bitten cynicism his character had adopted as a defense mechanism without the deeper world-weariness that came through in his later films. — 2/16/93


I went over to my partner Bob’s place and brought the videotape of Casablanca (not the new one, which is VHS, but my old off-the-air recording, which still held up pretty well), since I’d given him my journal entry about it and I wanted to share the film with him since he’d just (presumably) been reading my comments on it. He had a hard time with it at first; he doesn’t like movies that are that dependent on dialogue (thereby forcing him to listen harder than his ears can sometimes stand), and he had a hard time figuring out who was who and which side they were all on, but as the film progressed — and the main plot line emerged from a rich (but, I could understand, possibly confusing) tapestry of subplots, he finally broke down and said, “Mark, I can see why this movie is considered a classic.” Bob thus becomes my second lover in a row, after John Gabrish, who had never seen either Citizen Kane or Casablanca until I showed them to him.  — 2/21/93


We ran a videotape of the film Casablanca. I had told John Gallagher it was the Schindler’s List of its day, and when John G. asked if Casablanca was as depressing as Schindler’s List, I said, “No, it’s a Forties movie, it’s more romantic.” Certainly, though, two of the main characters in Casablanca have their counterparts in Schindler’s List — Oskar Schindler’s turnaround from callous, though not evil, Nazi sympathizer to heroic Jew-rescuer evokes memories of Rick Blaine’s similar changeover from embittered cynic to hero in Casablanca, and Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List is so evocative of the Nazi Conrad Veidt played in Casablanca I suspect Fiennes used the Forties classic as a starting point for his own portrayal. Casablanca itself holds up beautifully as a classic, one of the few artistic triumphs of the Hollywood committee system: four writers (one, Casey Robinson, was uncredited at his own request), a director (Michael Curtiz) for whom no one would claim auteur status — and a vividly balanced portrayal in which the romance, the political intrigue and the wisecracks interlocked into a film of rare emotional power and force, instead of going off in their separate directions as they have in virtually all the attempts to duplicate Casablanca since. John G. liked it — though after seeing M he’s such a Peter Lorre fan I think he was disappointed that Lorre’s character gets killed off after only 20 minutes — he was very impressed by the film, though it didn’t jolt him emotionally as much as some of the others I’ve shown him have. — 2/11/94


After Undercurrent was over I walked over to Charles’ place with the video of Casablanca (“You’re actually going to show me a good movie?” Charles said, in mock astonishment), the 50th anniversary edition from Turner Video with a 30-minute “Making Of … ” documentary at the end and a beautiful restoration job that does true justice to Arthur Edeson’s superb photography. (When I read in Charles Higham’s biography of Bette Davis that she refused to work with Edeson because she didn’t think he was a good glamor photographer for female stars, I couldn’t help but think of the superb job of glamor photography he gives Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca without sacrificing the dark, almost noir atmospherics required by the other aspects of the story.) This film is a living contradiction of the auteur theory and an example of how good the studio system could be at its best. With three different writing units working on various aspects of the story — Julius and Philip Epstein on Bogart’s character, the intrigue and the wisecracks; Howard Koch on the politics and Casey Robinson on the love story — the multiple resonances of the tale actually came together in a surprisingly strong and well-constructed script, even though it was written “on the fly” while the film was actually shooting.

I remember reading Koch’s book on the making of Casablanca, which mentioned that the reason Robinson didn’t get screen credit was he refused to take it except for scripts he had written entirely by himself — which, in this case, meant he did himself out of an Academy Award — and also that there were two drafts of the final scene, one in which Bergman ended up with Bogart and one in which she ended up with Henried. The idea was they were going to shoot both versions, preview both and see which one audiences liked best. As things turned out, so Koch’s story goes, once they shot the Henried ending — the one that is in the film now — they realized that that was the only way the film could end, and abandoned the other draft without bothering to shoot it. (Charles and I had fun after we watched the film concocting still other possible endings — I suggested one in which Bergman turns traitor, gives the names of the Resistance leaders throughout Europe to Conrad Veidt and leaves Casablanca with him, and Charles came up with an even sillier one: Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre use the letters of transit to go, not to Lisbon, but to Turkey … to continue their search for the Maltese Falcon.)

What’s striking about Casablanca — especially now since it’s been almost as long since I first saw it (in the early 1970’s) as the film was old when I first saw it — is how meticulously it’s constructed. Though the film runs almost two hours — an unusual length for the time, when even “A” features rarely ran over 100 minutes — there isn’t a single wasted scene. Every scene in the film advances the plot and tells us something we need to know. One also notes with pride the marvelously subtle use of parallel actions to add depth and weight to the story, a kind of symbolism that works on an almost subliminal level (when people say of a film like this, as one of the people did in the documentary, that it can be watched again and again and acquires more depth each time you see it, this is frequently what they mean) — particularly the marvelous matching shots towards the end of the flashback, one in which Bergman, drinking with Bogart at La Belle Aurore on the day they are scheduled to flee Paris, knocks over her champagne glass and spills her drink on the table; the other, as we come out of the flashback to the present action, when Bogart, having reminisced the events we’ve just seen while drinking in his office at Rick’s, knocks over his glass and spills his drink on his desk.

It’s a marvelous film, too, in that it’s proven surprisingly timeless even though it was also clearly topical — one can readily ascertain which patriotic bits in the plot impressed and moved audiences in the early 1940’s — and it would be interesting to note what young people think of this film now, in an era in which the whole idea of sacrificing one’s personal happiness for some cause greater than yourself is decidedly unfashionable. (In the early 1970’s, while we were still living the remnants of 1960’s idealism, this was actually one of the film’s most impressive aspects: the idea that commitment to a cause was not a new phenomenon but one with quite a long and honorable tradition behind it.) Casablanca has achieved iconic status in the culture, generating such memorable catch-phrases as “You must remember this,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris” and even a famous line that actually never appears in the film (though it could have): “Play it again, Sam.” And another marvelous thing about it is how it manages to suggest the fear and terror of Nazi occupation even though there is surprisingly little violence — just the arrest of Ugarte (Peter Lorre) at the beginning and the shooting of Strasser (Conrad Veidt) at the end. It’s a measure of the restraint that was one of the good outcomes of the Production Code — that, barred from the most direct and obvious methods of putting dramatic points across, filmmakers of the 1930’s and 1940’s frequently came up with scenes that live today because they’re far more imaginative than the all-too-obvious ones in modern movies! — 11/22/97


Later we spent the next four hours trolling around the recently issued DVD of the film Casablanca, which Charles was surprised to see I’d actually bought (especially since I’d bought the VHS pre-record issued in 1992 for the film’s 50th anniversary, which included the making-of documentary You Must Remember This which is also included on this two-DVD set). We ran a whole string of the “extras” for which I’d bought the set and then ran the movie itself — which at least this time around seemed to have burned itself out in my brain; it’s still one of the great films of Hollywood’s classic era, and especially after sitting through the first two Matrices I could appreciate the meticulousness of the plot construction, the precision with which the script is put together and every action in the film logically leads to the next[1]. Charles was struck by how long the film kept us waiting before each of the principals were introduced — indeed there’s that marvelous tracking shot in which we see a right arm initialing a receipt, “O.K., Rick,” and it’s only when the camera keeps moving up towards this person’s face that we meet the star of our film, Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine. But maybe this revisit to Rick’s Café Americain would have been more moving if we’d run the film first and then the extras.

The extras included some deleted scenes (alas, without sound — they were shown silent with subtitles indicating what the dialogue was based on the surviving scripts; one of them was a scene in which Bogart visits Paul Henreid in jail after he’s arrested at the Resistance meeting, and it’s easy to see why that wasn’t used in the final cut since it would have just slowed things up on the way to the climax), some bits and pieces of scoring stage sessions (two long excerpts from Max Steiner’s score, and versions of Dooley Wilson’s songs “Knock on Wood,” “As Time Goes By” — which was recorded in two pieces because his performance of it in the film is interrupted by Bogart’s “I thought I told you never to play that!” outburst — and a novelty number unused in the final film called “What Done Noah Done?” and a few more extended pieces. One was a cartoon parody called Carrotblanca, though when this was made was unclear; the credits were in a modern Warners style and it seemed a recent (or at least 1990’s) attempt at a pastiche parody of the film, with favorite Warners cartoon characters: Bugs Bunny as Bogart, Sylvester the Cat as Paul Henried, Tweety the bird as Peter Lorre, Daffy Duck as Dooley Wilson and Yosemite Sam as the Nazi officer played by Conrad Veidt in the actual film. Oddly this was at its most amusing when it had least to do with the original — though calling Rick’s café the “Café au Lait Americain” was cute and the scene in which Bugs gets Yosemite Sam to confess to all manner of crimes and lock himself up was by far the best (and funniest) scene in the film.

Also included were an April 1943 radio dramatization of Casablanca on the Screen Guild Theatre, a CBS show sponsored by a blessedly defunct company called “Lady Esther,” which made face powder and cream (and whose spot announcements, read ostensibly by “Lady Esther” herself but actually delivered in a sepulchral voice that suggested Joan Crawford trying to play Lady Macbeth, tried to convince us that the company’s products were actually mixed by hurricanes, or at least by wind-making machines of hurricane velocity!). The show reunited Bogart, Bergman and Henried from the original cast (though, alas, the actor they got to play the police inspector was hardly in the same league as Claude Rains!) and actually managed to do a good job of condensing the original film into a half-hour time slot without some of the really silly devices used in the similarly abbreviated radio version of The Maltese Falcon I’ve heard (with Bogart but none of the other original film actors). The final “extra” (at least among the ones we sampled; the disc also contained the 1980’s PBS documentary Bacall on Bogart, still the best single show I’ve seen on him and his career) was the one I was most interested in going in: a 1955 excerpt from Warners’ TV show which alternated between series based on three Warners’ films (Casablanca, Kings’ Row and Cheyenne — the last a nondescript 1947 Western with Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman that made an odd pairing with blockbuster hits like the other two films!) and also included promotional segments on then-current Warners releases and Gig Young as host tying it all together. (The VHS releases of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant contain clips from these shows featuring James Dean promoting these films — and the one for Giant is the source of the infamous clip in which Gig Young and Dean talk about traffic safety and Dean says, “Drive carefully — the life you save might be mine,” which was pulled from the show after he did die in a car accident caused by the carelessness of the other driver involved, and replaced with a segment on Giant’s composer, Dimitri Tiomkin.)

The excerpt included here was about 20 minutes long and featured a General Electric commercial (for their steam-and-dry iron) as well as a story called “Who Holds Tomorrow?,” which updated the setting of Casablanca to 1955 and featured a blonde who turns various heads in Rick’s Café (which, somewhat to my surprise, was a freshly created set and not the one used in the original film) and is ultimately found to be in possession of certain unspecified secrets which various hostile governments want to get hold of. Eventually Rick (Charles McGraw, a “tougher” actor than Bogart had become by 1942 but hardly as subtle or nuanced a performer — my hopes that this show would provide an interesting alternative reading of the Rick Blaine character were dashed pretty early on) romances her long enough to get her to go to the U.S. with the American ambassador (unidentified — there were no acting credits in the excerpt presented here — but he looked and sounded an awful lot like Leon Ames and I suspect it was he) instead of staying in Casablanca and being vulnerable to being kidnapped, tortured and/or killed by the Russian (his nationality was unspecified but the name sounded Russian and in 1955 what other country would they have used as the symbol of absolute evil?) who was also after her. They were obviously aiming at the same kind of bittersweet ending that the film was already famous for, as well as a mood of overall intrigue similar to that cultivated by the early-TV show Dangerous Adventure (which Charles and I had recently watched an episode of on a VHS compilation of early TV) — and Casablanca the TV show at least benefited from the infrastructure of a major film studio and a director who duplicated some of Michael Curtiz’s famous tracking shots around the interior of Rick’s (including the “discovery” shot introducing him, described above), but overall the show was well below the intensity level of Dangerous Adventure and was a pretty depressing recycling job of one of Warners’ strongest properties, interesting as a curio but not much more. — 11/24/03


I ended up watching TCM’s showing of the 1942 classic Casablanca. There’s hardly anything that still needs to be said about this movie, except that it holds up beautifully and is one of the rare examples of a committee-written script (Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and an uncredited Casey Robinson — who wrote the love scenes and was entitled to credit but turned it down because at the time he was only taking credit for scripts he wrote entirely himself — he thereby did himself out of an Academy Award) that was actually being written “on the fly” turning into a superbly integrated film that expertly combined international intrigue, Allied war propaganda, romance and idealism. Ingrid Bergman complained throughout the shooting that she couldn’t act her part unless she knew which of the male leads, Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid, she’d end up with at the fadeout. The writers wouldn’t tell her because they hadn’t decided yet; indeed, Howard Koch claimed in his autobiography that they actually wrote two versions of the final scene, intending to shoot both and decide based on previews which one would end up in the released version — only when they shot the ending that’s in the film now, the magnificent, tearful send-off in which anti-Nazi activist Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) and his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) fly to America with the letters of transit and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) sacrifices the love of his life for the Allied cause, they finally knew that that was how the film had to end, so they didn’t bother to shoot the alternate ending. (It probably helped that keeping Bergman’s character with her husband was a good deal easier to get past the Production Code Administration than it would have been to pair her with Bogart — the only way the Code would have allowed Bogart and Bergman to leave Casablanca together would have been if Laszlo had been killed by the Nazis and, with his dying breath, had told Rick to leave for America and continue his work. As it was, the Code Administration raised questions about the Paris love affair between Rick and Ilsa, but eventually producer Hal Wallis talked them into passing it on the ground that she was only an inadvertent adulteress because at the time of the affair she had thought her husband was dead.)

Charles and I noticed a few things that had eluded us before, including a surprising Gay reference (when the lecherous Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, brings the Bulgarian couple to Rick’s with the idea of getting her to have sex with him in exchange for exit visas for both, Rick is told that Renault is there with a man and a woman and replies, “A man and a woman. Captain Renault is getting more broad-minded”) and also a quite interesting line in which Rick establishes the time of the story as early December, 1941 … just before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into World War II. The page has quite a lot of trivia about this film, including a few things I didn’t know — like that Humphrey Bogart was an avid chess player and the position of the pieces on the chessboard shown in his introduction shot was from an actual correspondence game he was playing with a friend — and seeing it again was a fun experience and made me admire all over again how much star charisma Bogart had even though he wasn’t exactly Mr. Attractive: in his best films he had all his clashing images — the juveniles he’d played on stage in the 1920’s, the gangsters he’d played in films in the 1930’s and the world-weary burned-out cases who regain their idealism he played in most of his star vehicles from The Maltese Falcon on — absolutely in synch and was able to combine them all into a devastating combination. When the casting for the film was being discussed and Hal Wallis told Jack Warner — with Ingrid Bergman, already set for the female lead, in his office — that he wanted Bogart for the male lead, Jack Warner said, “Who the hell would want to kiss Bogart?” Bergman said, “I would.” — 2/16/12

[1] — And this despite the well-known fact that the film was pieced together during shooting by at least four major writers — Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and (uncredited) Casey Robinson — and not until the last day of shooting did the writers definitively decide how the film was going to end, much to the irritation of Ingrid Bergman, who during the last week or so kept insisting that she had to know which man she’d end up with in order to play the scenes properly. Howard Koch said they actually wrote it both ways, intending to shoot two endings, preview both versions and see which one audiences liked best — but when they shot the first ending, the one we all know, they decided that was the way it had to end and they needn’t bother shooting the alternate ending in which Bergman would have ended up with Bogart after all.