A Tribute to the Most Enjoyable Movie Ever Made, and the TV Channel That Is a National Treasure for Airing It 125 Times in the Last 20 Years
I first fell in love with Ingrid Bergman when I was a young teenager and she was just 26 years old.
She still is.
My feelings for her have been rekindled each of the dozen or so times I've watched her as she first enters Rick's Café Américain and makes eye contact with Sam, at his piano.
The movie is "Casablanca," which remains the most enjoyable movie I've ever seen. I first came to it on TV, which is how most baby boomers came to fall in love with the movies. When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, old movies from the 1940s in particular were TV staples.
From the nightly "Million Dollar Movie" on RKO's Channel 9 to the weekly "Fabulous 52" on KNXT Channel 2 to the daily Ben Hunter Movie Matinee on KTTV Channel 11, to name but three, it was a cornucopia of cinema.
While there were commercials galore, and who knows what was edited out of the movies to make them fit the time slots, one thing remained true: On our box-shaped Admiral and Philco black-and-white TV sets, the 4:3 ratio of the picture was almost identical to the 1.33:1 ratio in which most black-and-white movies of the 30s and 40s had been shot.
Since so many of those movies emphasized talk over action, and were primarily made up of single-subject close-ups or frames of film with just two actors in them -- called two shots -- we felt we were getting a reasonable facsimile of seeing what the movies were like when they were projected on the big screen.
Don't get me wrong -- watching a movie on TV in one's living room, even back then, was certainly not the same as seeing a nitrate print of a wonderfully photographed black-and-white movie shimmering on a bigger-than-life canvas in a darkened theater with no distractions. But as a way to fall in love with movies we could not otherwise hope to see, it was a damn fine substitute.
And it still is. Today, April 14, 2014, is the 20th anniversary of the debut of Turner Classic Movies -- TCM -- on TV. And the network has remained true to its founding principles -- the showing, primarily, of old black-and-white American movies uncut and without commercial interruption.
In being true to this simple mission, TCM continues to be a public service practically unique among TV channels. Contained within the sounds and images from TCM that now flicker digitally into our homes and onto to our screens both big and small, both stationary and mobile, are both a history of our past and the keys to our future.
No movie illustrates this better than “Casablanca.”
“Casablanca,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1942, came out a decade before I was born, and I didn’t first see it until it was a little more than two decades old. It was a hit when it came out almost a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when America was fully engaged in World War II. And, as it happened, there were events in WWII happening in Casablanca around the time of the film’s release as well.
But what’s amazing is that both 20 years after “Casablanca’ came out -- when I first saw it -- and today, this contemporary World War II movie resonates in such a timeless fashion.
“Casablanca” has been repeatedly characterized as a “happy accident.” But I demur. I’ve read a lot about “Casablanca” over the years, and my conclusion is that the movie is better described this way: “Casablanca” was no more an accident than were most of the other movies made under the studio system. That’s basically how movie historian and reporter Aljean Harmetz described “Casablanca” in her 1992 book “Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of ‘Casablanca’ -- Bogart, Bergman, and World War II.”
“Casablanca” resonates because it’s excitingly, almost breathlessly filmed by director Michael Curtiz with a camera that seems to be on steroids; because the romance is so heartbreakingly played out; and because the movie, ultimately, appeals to the very best in each and every one of us.
All of this is done with performances that are letter-perfect from every single cast member and a script that is, arguably, the best movie script ever written.
And the glue that held all of this together was clearly the genius of Hal Wallis, the film’s producer, without whom the messy jigsaw puzzle pieces that were the pre-production and production of “Casablanca” would never have been put together in such a picture-perfect way.
If there is more chemistry on-screen between any two leading actors than the chemistry in “Casablanca” between Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, then 42, I haven’t seen it.
In her 1980 autobiography “Ingrid Bergman: My Story,” the Swedish-born actress surprisingly wrote this about “Casablanca”: “I’d hardly got to know Humphrey Bogart at all. Oh, I’d kissed him, but I didn’t know him. He was polite, naturally, but I always felt there was a distance; he was behind a wall. I was intimidated by him. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ [starring Bogart] was playing in Hollywood at the time and I used to go and see it quite often during the shooting of ‘Casablanca’ because I got to know him a little better through that picture.”
What I love about that is here we find Bergman saying that she’s falling in love with Bogart the same way all the rest of us did -- through one of his great film performances. She was falling for the same celluloid Bogie that we did.
Furthermore, as it turns out, the nobility of Rick Blaine was part of the essence of Bogart as well, according to an article written by Alistair Cooke for the Atlantic Monthly in May 1957, four months after Bogart died: “From all [Bogart] was determined to keep his secret: the rather shameful secret, in the realistic world we inhabit, of being a gallant man and an idealist.”
Among the many wonderful insights in Aljean Harmetz’s book about the making of “Casablanca” are those about the script. First, she notes that many of the memorable lines that ended up in the final film were actually in the unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison that “Casablanca” was based upon.
She also deciphers, as best she can, what was written by the identical-twin Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, and what was written by Howard Koch. Because all three were employed as studio writers by Warner Bros., it wasn’t a case, like today, where one writer -- or writing team -- works on a script and then they wave it goodbye as some other writer revises it.
Writes Harmetz in her book about the making of “Casablanca”: “Each subsequent [version] of the script became leaner and sharper, more economical, the scenes rearranged for greater dramatic effect and the speeches polished and clipped. Within the confines of a studio that both Koch and Julie Epstein describe as ‘a family,’ Koch rewrote the Epsteins to give the movie more weight and significance, and the Epsteins then rewrote Koch to erase his most ponderous symbols and earnestness.”
In one specific example of this process, writes Harmetz, Koch “deepened Rick’s character and underlined the political tensions in subtle ways. For example Koch makes the man Rick bars from his gambling room -- who was an English cad in the original play -- into a representative of the Deutschebank.” Furthermore, Harmetz notes that “if Koch layered the politics rather heavily … the Epsteins would remove those speeches. … With delicate balance, Koch managed to hold down the gags, while the Epsteins managed to cut the preaching.”
One more reason “Casablanca” works so well is both the dialogue given to, and the performance of, Claude Rains, who plays Captain Louis Renault.
Renault is the classic foil with whom we in the audience so identify. Without Renault I’m pretty sure “Casablanca” would not be the endearing classic it became.
I said at the top of this piece that “Casablanca” is the most enjoyable movie I’ve ever seen. I also like how the late movie critic Roger Ebert once described how so many of us feel about it:
"Casablanca" is The Movie.
There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time. But when it comes right down to the movies we treasure the most, when we are -- let us imagine -- confiding the secrets of our heart to someone we think we may be able to trust, the conversation sooner or later comes around to the same seven words:
"I really love 'Casablanca'."
"I do too."
This is a movie that has transcended the ordinary categories. It has outlived the Bogart cult, survived the revival circuit, shrugged off those who would deface it with colorization, leaped across time to win audiences who were born decades after it was made. Sooner or later, usually before they are 21, everyone sees "Casablanca." And then it becomes their favorite movie.
It is The Movie.
Today, Monday, April 14, 2014, at 5 p.m Eastern Time (2 p.m. PT), as part of its 20th anniversary celebration, TCM will present “Casablanca” for the 126th time on its air. It's just one of 8,719 feature movies that TCM tells me they have shown uncut and without commercials since the channel debuted in 1994.
From all of us movie buffs to everyone at TCM, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
It’s been a beautiful relationship, indeed.
[Besides being a big fan of "Casablanca," Chuck Ross also used the script of the movie as the basis for one of the most famous experiments in the history of Hollywood. Please click here to read that piece.]