MY TOP SHELF -46

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

CASABLANCA

Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch

Special Hollywood Edition, 1992, rebound in half gold leather and purple boards.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Everyone has their favourite movie.  Until recently, most film buffs named Citizen Kane, although you might go a long way until you found someone other than a film buff who really likes that movie.  In the last few years, Citizen Kane has been tipped off that perch by other movies that few people have ever heard of.  But everyone – or at least everyone born before the Vietnam War – knows Casablanca.  And those same people just know that Casablanca is the best film ever – beyond any argument.

Rick is a bruised American refugee from reality.  He runs a nightclub in neutral Casablanca which is a seedy hub of corruption for people fleeing the Germans and Vichy France.  A beautiful woman emerges from a lovelorn past that Rick thought he had buried, and he must decide between her and taking sides in the war.  ‘Honour’ is not in Rick’s lexicon.  Well, the film was made during the war, and that may tell you how Hollywood, and this as Hollywood as it gets, resolves Rick’s dilemma.

Hal Wallis bought the rights to an as yet unproduced play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s.  He paid $20,000, a huge amount in January 1942, a record for a play that had not yet been produced.  Filming started on 25 May and concluded on 3 August, just over two months.  The whole film was shot in the studio, with film of Paris and one airport shot.  The costs came in at just over a million dollars, a little over budget.  Wallis wrote the immortal last line a month after shooting was completed, and the lead had to be brought back to dub it.  The film premiered in New York before the end of 1942, and met with moderate critical and box office receptions.

This was Humphrey Bogart’s first truly romantic role.  One critic said of Ingrid Bergman and Bogart that ‘she paints his face with her eyes.’  The director was careful to film from her preferred left side – often with a softening gauze filter and with ‘catch lights’ set up to make her eyes sparkle; the whole effect was designed to make her face seem ‘ineffably sad and tender and nostalgic’.  Well, they certainly got that right.  Wallis got Bergman from Selznick by swapping Olivia de Havilland – Hollywood was then a very feudal place.  Paul Henreid did not want his part (for which he demanded equal billing) – the lethal New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, said that ‘it set him as a stiff forever.’  Well, how many young men burnt their fingers and whatever else by spoiling an amorous moment by trying the two cigarette trick of Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager?

For many people, including me, the star of the show is Claude Rains, who gets the most outrageous lines and looks like the quintessence of the schmaltz that lies at the very heart of this film – although Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre will always have their followers, as will S Z Sackall as Carl.  If you look at the extended cast list on the Web, you will see very many people from out of town living in exile while the outcome of the war, and the whole future of Europe, hung in the balance.  Someone who was there when they shot the scene of the two anthems saw many of the actors shedding real tears.  (Three sisters of Carl were killed in concentration camps.)  Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, and it was anathema to Rick, but it is a large part of the fiber of the heart-strings of this film.

Casablanca regularly tops the polls of general audience favourites.  For nearly forty years, it has been the most frequently broadcast film on U S TV.  Many of the babyboomers keep going back like people go back to Hamlet and Tosca.  For them, the nostalgia only gets worse with time – it is like going back home to your mum and dad, when life seemed ever so less complicated.  But people who have only seen it on T V, and then, as often as not, in a lachrymose condition not uninduced by drink, have to see it on the big screen.  Even if you have seen it twenty times on the small screen, you will see it as if for the first time when you see it on the big screen.  There is, for example, the moment when Bogart looks around and sees that Bergman is coming back into his closed off life – and he has the look of white terror of a man staring into the void.  The only other time I have seen this on stage, or anywhere else, was when Luciano Pavarotti was performing in an open air concert in Central Park – as he steeled himself for his launch at a high C, he for one instant, showed this look of vacant white terror in his eyes.  You might wonder with this was, consciously or not, a set part of his stage performance.

Different people have different favourite lines.  Some of the most cited lines are:

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’

Round up the usual suspects.

We’ll always have Paris.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

A friend of mine, who is called the Phantom, cherishes this exchange between a Rick and a young ‘broad’ getting the brush off.

YVONNE

Where were you last night?

RICK

That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE

Will I see you tonight?

RICK

(matter-of-factly

I never make plans that far ahead.

Bogart gets the most wounding lines.

ILSA How nice. You remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris. RICK Not an easy day to forget. ILSA No. RICK I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

And:

Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells? My own favourites involve Claude Rains (Captain Renault), delivered with the consummate dead-pan timing of London’s West End theatre:RENAULT I have often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. Rick still looks in the direction of the airport. RICK It was a combination of all three. RENAULT And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca? RICK My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters. RENAULT Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert . RICK I was misinformed.

And after the singing of the Marseillaise, the Germans tell Renault to shut down Rick’s.

RICK How can you close me up? On what grounds? RENAULT I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! This display of nerve leaves Rick at a loss. The croupier comes out of the gambling room and up to Renault. He hands him a roll of bills. CROUPIER Your winnings, sir. RENAULT Oh. Thank you very much. He turns to the crowd again. RENAULT Everybody out at once !

The business of Hollywood can be simply stated.  It is to make money by making a movie that people will pay to see because they will be entertained by it.  It is hard to envisage any movie that has or will entertain as many people as Casablanca.  It won three Academy Awards, including best picture, best screenplay, and best director, but those awards mean little now.  It matters not if you say that here is a film of Hollywood luxuriating in its own emotionalism, or that this film represents the crudest form of manipulation or kitsch.  The film works, and it is just about shot perfect and word perfect and mood perfect.  Forget critical or historical analysis – Casablanca, like Bradman or Black Caviar, just happened.  Here’s looking at you, kid.

And then there are those hats……

 

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