Like most of the (as they were called back then) pre-48 studio films, Casablanca hit local television in the late 50s and early 1960s. This Warner Brothers package was leased to the local New York station Channel 5. Since back then Channel 5 wasn’t associated with a network (it is now part of the Fox Network) it could run old films during prime time as well as in the morning and “Late” show. So, it was on channel 5 that I first saw CASABLANCA mixed in with at least 10 Commercial breaks.
(It marvels me now how I could watch much less concentrate on a film with so many interruptions. That was surely the great test for a diehard film buffs in those days. Today with pay-cable, streaming and home video, I haven’t watched a film with a commercial interruption in 20 years and look back on those as the dark ages of film viewing.)
In addition to commercials breaks, films were indiscriminately cut so that they might fit—at least during prime time as well as morning and afternoon showings—into two hour or even 90 minute time slots. Thus a pre-48 could lose anywhere from 5 to 20 or even as much 30 minutes of screen time. But, as it was the only venue one could see these movies outside of special screenings at MOMA, these TV stations had the ball so, to speak. So, I had to play the game their way and make the best of what today I can now look back at what was an intolerable situation.
So, these were the conditions under which I first viewed CASABLANCA. I must admit, when I first saw the film in the early 1960s I wasn’t particularly impressed. To me it seemed to be just another Warner brothers 40s movie with a powerhouse musical score by Max Steiner. I thought Bogart was OK, but this surely wasn’t the Maltese Falcon. I didn’t think that Bergman was all that good, not compared to her performance in FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL which was released just before CASABLANCA hit theaters. As for Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, compared to their brilliant work in the MALTESE FALCON, I thought them completely wasted in CASABLANCA. Not only did Conrad Veidt, so wonderful in the Thief of Bagdad, play a “Central Casting” Nazi Villain, I thought parts of the film downright “corny;” most especially the “The French National Anthem vs The Watch On The Rhine” scene. It made me cringe.
As for the business about the “transient Visas” this plot device was made fun of in a few 40’s comedies including a Bob Hope Bing Crosby “Road” movie. Nevertheless, for all its faults I found the film riveting and watched it every time it came on TV. (In those days the stations that leased these films were allowed two viewings per year.) So, when the film began gaining a vast following and suddenly called a classic, I was pretty much amazed since I considered it not much more than entertaining studio schlock.’
That pretty much remained my opinion until, while in college, I saw CASABLANCA in a movie theater on the big screen along with THE MALTESE FALCON on a double bill. I must tell you, it was revelation. On the little TV screen the film does not enjoy the immersive affect it has on the big screen. The story elements that I found awkward and the over-the-top narrative drive common to most Warner Brothers films of the period were still there but that no longer interested me. What did was Bogart.
Now having achieved a familiarity with foreign films and the great European Actors like Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marcello Mastroianni who acted with their eyes I was finally able to see what Bogart was doing. It is a great screen performances—the hard outer veneer concealing and protecting the soft gentle side of the man—and Bogart does it all with his eyes and without needing to “act.”
As for Bergman, on the big screen it was easy to see why she had been such a big star in the 40s. She is luminescent here with the character coming across as completely genuine. In addition, what really came as a surprise to me was Claude Rains. On the small screen I thought he was amusing but on the big screen all the wonderful touches he was giving his character were now visible and he shined. Watching him here and the choices he made with the character were a marvel to watch. Epstein Brothers wrote most of his dialogue. Great stuff. Great actor. You should read what Bette Davis says about him. She actually fell in love with him and Rain’s Daughter told a friend of mine that Davis would be inebriated outside the house begging for him to let her in. No way. This was a very sane man who did need all that drama that came with an affair with Bette Davis. Just ask William Wyler. He loved working with her but living with her; well that was another matter.
But it was the love story, and Bogart dealing with his pain about having lost it and now once again seeing the woman that was the love of his life. WOW! I was right up there with him and my identification with the character and his pain was so powerful that there were moments during that viewing there were tears in my eyes. It was quite an experience. Walking out of the theater I immediately realized that what I had just watched was an extraordinary achievement of the studio system—a factory utilizing a vast array of extremely talented contract employees in a narrative driven story designed to achieve both audience identification and capture viewers interest in an exciting “what happens next” melodrama.
Following that theater viewing I have seen the film many times—I bought the Laser, then the DVD and finally the Blu-ray releases so I could watch the film in a pristine print and on my big screen TV without having to endure commercials. Since TV stations don’t show many Studio Factory System films anymore and TCM—which is about the only place you can see them—pretty much has a lock on the Warner Brothers, MGM and RKO libraries as well as choices items from the Fox, Columbia, Universal and Paramount libraries, today there are film buffs out there who have never seen CASABLANCA or any of these “pre-48s” with a commercial. They should thank god!
And Of Course Max Steiner. What would the film be without him. He could write anything and it always remained his style. Look at his score for THE FOUNTAIN HEAD. Very modern. Very Steiner. The Classic Film Score series from the 70s created the ultimate recording. Absolute magic. First time I heard it I was knocked out! I mean my mouth dropped and I realized I was hearing the score as it was written and should have been heard all those years ago but technology wasn’t there to give it to us.
I could go on for quite a while about how the film was made. (By the way, it was Conrad Veidt, borrowed from MGM, who earned the highest salary and not Boggie. MGM drove hard bargains.) The terrible casting choices until the final cast were chosen, an ending not written until it was filmed, different writers writing different characters and actors—especially Bergman—believing they were making shlock. Let me just say that the story of the making of the film has become legend and there are a plethora of books out there on the subject you can purchase on Amazon and for those out of print eBay. Is CASABLANCA a great film? Well, it’s no 8½ or THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. What it is, is an example of popular film making at its best as well as a quintessential example of the Warner Brothers’ House style. From the first to last the version of CASABLANCA we have all come to love could only be made at Warner Brothers.
An interesting aside which I enjoyed learning about was what happened at the Academy Awards when the film was selected as best picture of 1943. When the name was announced Hal Wallis—who was not only the head of production at Warners but had also personally produced the film, skillfully guiding the it through the many pitfalls that could have sunk the production—got out of his seat to accept the award, he was shocked to see Jack Warner racing up to the stage. So, Warner and not Wallis accepted the award. Sitting back in his seat Wallace was incensed. Jack Warner had little to do with the making of the film but outrageous when it came to taking credit for other people’s work. This had happened before with Warner but this time Wallis had had it. He resigned from Warners, formed his own production company releasing through Paramount and made some of the most success films of the 1940s, 50s as well the 1960s. Truth be told Jack Warner was something of a scumbag. It was his older brother Harry, in New York, who really ran the company but left Jack to handle the day to day operations of the studio. And when Jack screwed that up and Harry flew in from New York and if you were on the Warner’s Lot, you might catch a glimpse of Harry wielding as led pipe chasing Jack ready to drop it on his brother’s back. If only Hal Wallis could have seen it. How happy it would have made him.