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Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Long Awaited View of Casablanca

I'm just not sure where to begin.  I would go back to the beginning, but I can't say I really remember it.  I'd seen Casablanca on television several times in my early teens.  I can't be positive of the year.  What I do know for sure is that when I began to date my future wife, I was stunned that she had never seen it.  We set a date to spend the day watching Casablanca along with one of her favorite movies that I had never seen: My Fair Lady.  She was not very excited about Film Noir.  I was not excited about musicals.  We politely watched each other's movies.

As time went by, I sat our kids down to watch Casablanca.  They loved it, or so they said.  Peter Lorre was always a kid-pleaser.  As were the despicable Nazis.  Much of the humor went over their young heads.  But it was fun, and a few people were shot.

Since I was a teenager, I loved Humphrey Bogart.  At that point I had probably only seen him in a few movies (Casablanca, African Queen, We're No Angels, and Sahara), but that didn't matter.  I knew he was the man.  And unlike other stars of the Golden Age, like Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart, he was a legend from another time, not still alive and appearing on variety shows on TV and still making occasional appearances in new movies.  This gave him an iconic status along with Dean and Gable and Monroe.  Even when diet Coke inserted him into one of its commercials with high-tech smoke and mirrors, it couldn't diminish his status.
Despite his Olympian address, there was one little problem.  And little is the right word.  All we could ever see of him was on a little TV set.  Even the big TVs of the time were only around 30 inches.  And unless you lived in a big city where old movies might occasionally pop up, you just weren't going to see Bogart on the big screen.
I've been plotting ways to make that happen.  The last few years, I've teased my kids, asking them why they don't rent a theater for my birthday so we could see one of the great classics up on a thirty-foot-high screen.  Casablanca, Stalag 17, and Gone With the Wind were early considerations.  The year Jennifer and I were married, Gone With the Wind was shown for a fiftieth anniversary, but we missed seeing it.  So the question became, how many friends did I need to agree to come and see a movie if I spent five hundred dollars to rent a theater?
Along comes Turner Classic Movies.  To my surprise, they arranged for a classic to be shown in theaters nationwide.  It was West Side Story.  Fortunately, thanks to my wife, I have come to enjoy musicals since that long ago viewing of My Fair Lady.  And so I took one of my sons to WST, and we were simply awed by the spectacle of an early sixties musical on the big screen.  And then, on an average day, out of the clear blue, my daughter informed me that TCM announced it was going to present Casablanca.
We cleared our schedule, and marked the calendar.  After all those years, I was finally going to see the giants of Hollywood as they were meant to be seen; as they appeared when they ruled the world of entertainment.
Before taking the family for the night screening, I slipped into the matinee to watch it alone.  (Sadly, I was actually almost alone.  Only seven people were in the theater, which is an awful commentary on the viewing public of today.)  A friend of mine told me he had nearly cried when he saw the Warner Brother's logo come up at the beginning when he had a chance to see it in a theater some fifteen years ago.  I knew just what he meant.  I've been a passionate fan of classic movies for over thirty years, and I was only then getting a chance to see my favorite actor and one of my favorite films as they were meant to be seen.  Many of today's movies are filmed with the knowledge that they will be seen on TV.  Now, they are even taking into account that people will watch them on their iPhone.  But in 1942, they did not even think of movies being broadcast to TVs all over the country.  This was Casablanca as jack Warner and Hal Wallis had intended it to be.  Larger than life.
And so it was.  Bogart mesmerizes.  Peter Lorre cannot move, cannot speak, without overwhelming the viewer.  And because the Hayes Code would not allow the cheap thrills and laughs that can be had from crass language and loose morality, the writers were forced to craft and re-craft their scripts until every line was taut and clever and either funny or dramatic.  Say what you will about the censors of that day, but their refusal to allow sophomoric behavior strong-armed Hollywood into developing some of the best scripts ever written.
I will not give a full review of the movie here.  Perhaps that will come later.  But I do want to emphasize that all of the hype about this movie is well deserved.  Bogart and Bergman are magical together.  I've never seen actors dominate a screen like they did.  The world just seemed to pause as they held us spellbound.  It occurred to me that when people watched this in 1942, this had to be more than just magic for them.  Yes, they could see still pictures of celebrities, even large posters of them.  But there was no TV for most of the nation, no place they could see the actors move and speak and enchant except on that massive silver screen.  No wonder they were called movie palaces.  We cannot imagine what that was like.  But for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of it.  I hope my kids did too.
I am nearly the exact age that Bogart was when he filmed this movie.  He'd been acting for over twenty years by then.  And in just fifteen years he would die from cancer.  Though he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, he would not win that year.  He had to wait eight years to finally win one for his performance in The African Queen.  I have no idea how many years I'll have to wait to see him again on that big screen.  I hope it won't be long.  And I hope I'll be able to see Grant and Stewart, and Hepburn (both of them) and many more from that grand era.  My thanks to TCM for their effort to make this happen, and here's hoping they keep it up.

If you had a chance to see it, I would love to hear your comments on it.  Or, tell us what classic movie you would really love to see in the theater. 
Here's looking at you, Bogey.

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