Show of hands—who here hasn’t seen Casablanca? If you’re a regular who’s been drawn to my columns by the explorations of old Hollywood, I know you have seen it, but if you stumbled upon Fireball and were surprised by the story and content and haven’t lived and breathed Hollywood’s Golden Era, then maybe you have not seen Casablanca and all I can say in that case is, invest 110 minutes. You won’t be sorry. In a nutshell, a multi-national cast of characters with competing interests meet up on the neutral soil of Casablanca, French Morocco, in the middle of World War II, at Rick’s Café Americain. Many of these people are seeking to flee North Africa for freedom from Nazi oppression and they wait, and wait. Letters of transit have been stolen from a murdered Nazi and these are carte blanche documents guaranteeing free passage out of Casablanca for any bearer.
On Monday November 24 Bonhams New York is auctioning off a collection of items related to Hollywood’s Golden Era. Included are a number with ties to Casablanca, most notably Sam’s piano, the one actor Dooley Wilson played when he performed As Time Goes By and other numbers in the film. The letters of transit were hidden in that piano, you know. For, oh, what, a million—three million?—you can buy Sam’s piano and hide stuff of your own inside it. Sam’s piano would be a pretty cool thing to possess, and I know just where I’d put it, in the great room by the fireplace. I’d invite my piano-playing friends over to try it out. But I’m not buying big stuff these days so I plan to stay out of Monday’s fray at Bonhams.
I think it’s possible the auction-house experts are crazy given the values placed on some of the Casablanca-related items to be offered on Monday. There’s the first script that reached Warner Bros. called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” along with the studio reader’s comments. That’s a unique item, all right, but would you pay $40,000–60,000 to own it? If the low-end estimate is $40K, does that mean bidding opens at $20K? I’ve been around Hollywood collectibles since high school, and scripts have never been that highly prized. Even when director or star notes from classic pictures are written in the margins, scripts haven’t gone as high as $40K that I’m aware of. I’ll be curious to see if this one meets reserve, especially since Warner Bros. bought the concept and then tinkered and rewrote, resulting in an endless stream of blue pages (last-minute revisions were always done on blue paper so all would be alerted to the new material—particularly the actors who had just memorized the old material).
How can the preliminary script command $40K and producer Henry Blanke’s production file only rate an estimate of $12–18K? I don’t get that one at all since the file includes Lenore Coffee’s suggestions for darkening the storyline by having Rick betray Victor and Ilsa. As noted in Errol & Olivia, Coffee was a brilliant script doctor employed by the various studios; she was doing a lot of work at Warner Bros. in the early 1940s. Censor Joe Breen’s Production Code criticisms are contained in the Blanke files too, and I’ve always wondered about two aspects of the final picture that survived the censor: 1) all the references to Capt. Renault’s trade of sex with young girls for police favors; and 2) 18-year-old bride Annina’s willingness, even eagerness, to make the sex trade with Renault and, by implication, with Rick. Perhaps the answers can be found in these documents; it seems to me that the salacious aspects of Casablanca must have really perked up first-run audiences at a time when other studios were offering up virginal product with the likes of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, and Deanna Durbin.
I wrote a column a few years ago on my late, lamented Errol & Olivia blog opining that Ilsa had never loved Rick and was using him and knew all along she’d stay with Victor. Recent viewings have made me second guess myself; the ambiguity of the characters and their motives is one of many qualities of Casablanca that keeps people coming back for more. Consider them for a moment…
- Rick Blaine, the cynic with a past who allowed himself to fall in love once, just once, with the mysterious Ilsa. Rick invested himself in the relationship and knew happiness—perhaps never was Rick truly happy except with Ilsa. But she dumped him. Dumped him cold. Dumped him in the rain. And forced him to go on with only memories of happiness and a determination never to stick his neck out again.
- Ilsa Lund, the icy closed book of a woman who gives herself to Rick when she believes her husband is dead. But he’s not dead, and this news is what causes her to dump Rick cold. In the rain.
- Victor Laszlo, husband of Ilsa and world-renowned devil to the German empire. He sports a dashing scar and an air of high competence. He knows his wife has had a fling with Rick, but Victor has got his sights set far higher than any affair of the flesh.
- Louis Renault, corrupt prefect of police but a man of great charm and, above all, utter pragmatism. We feel like we can trust Louis because he makes no bones about the fact that he is corrupt. He’s impossible not to like.
The sets are overrun with character actors, each with a few lines here and there. But all these actors are memorable; they all get a moment of great dialogue and they all become real. The wretched city of Casablanca is a character too, recreated modestly on the Warner backlot but teeming with “scum and villainy” (George Lucas would use Casablanca as the inspiration for his Mos Eisley spaceport 35 years later).
I’ve directed a picture or two in my life, and the introduction of the city of Casablanca as the setting for this morality play is jaw-dropping. Director Michael Curtiz establishes a pesthole packed with desperate humans in just a moment. It’s a hot, uncomfortable place overrun with predators and prey. Inside Rick’s the camera dollies in, dollies out, and the shots are static when they need to be, or close, or distant, each one perfect from a director who was always good and here, never better.
Oh, the dialogue. Ilsa comes back into Rick’s life after dumping him and she’s on the arm of a larger-than-life hero. What does Rick do? Late at night we find him inside his closed bar, drinking, alone, in the dark. Ilsa has walked back into his world and ripped the scab, a scab still fresh, right off of his soul. Sam comes in and finds Rick and knows what his boss is going through. Sam knows all about Rick and Ilsa—he was with Rick in the rain for the dumping. It’s clear that Sam is scared and worried.
“Boss, ain’t you going to bed?” he asks.
“Not right now,” grumbles Rick into his glass.
“Ain’t you planning on going to bed in the near future?”
“You ever planning on going to bed?”
“Good,” says Sam. “I ain’t sleepy either.”
African Americans at this time were, as a rule, used for comic relief, but Sam is a friend, an equal, and a character deeply drawn. But they all are in this picture. Well, except for Major Strasser, the hard-core Nazi and the guy we love to hate.
I wish Bonham’s and the consignors well in Monday’s auction. We will see soon enough if bidders are willing to shell out tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars for this hodgepodge of props, costumes, scripts, documents, and movie posters connected with classic film. I wonder if the letters of transit have expired—they might come in handy someday and one of them is for sale in this auction, at an estimated $100–150K. One thing seems clear—Casablanca has stood the test of time as well as any picture from the Golden Era, and shows no signs of slowing down. Because it is still so popular, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Sam’s piano on display at a Vegas casino sometime soon.