Casablanca auction

Hammer Time

Just call me Robert Matzen, influencer. A person of influence. One of the influential.

It’s like this: the TCM Hollywood auction conducted by Bonhams New York on Monday included several Fireball-related items of Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and others in the storyline. These came from two sources: some were given by Clark Gable’s widow, Kay, to a World War II collector who consigned them to the auction. Others were consigned by the family of Otto Winkler and became available after the passing of Jill Winkler’s niece, Nazoma Ball, with whom I worked closely to understand and develop the characters of Otto and Jill. This group of material included a portrait of Clark Gable inscribed to Jill, several notes written by Carole Lombard to Jill or the Winklers, a handwritten postcard from Clark to Jill, and some personal candid photographs of Clark and Otto taken at the MGM studios.


Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The portrait that Clark Gable inscribed to Jill Winkler.

As readers of Fireball know, Otto Winkler was Clark Gable’s personal publicist at MGM. Gable entrusted Wink with the well-being of Carole Lombard, Clark’s wife, during the bond tour to Chicago and Indianapolis. Gable wasn’t close to many people and realized after the crash of Flight 3 and the passing of Lombard and Winkler that Otto had been his best friend in spirit and deed.

It was Otto who drove Clark and Carole to Arizona for their elopement at the end of March 1939 while Jill stayed back in Hollywood and pretended to be Carole for a day, driving Carole’s car and running Carole’s errands. After that the couples became pals, and along with Wink, Jill lived a storybook life with King of the Movies Clark Gable and his queen, Carole Lombard Gable. These were characters that had been all but lost to antiquity; few knew Otto Winkler from Adam or Jill from Eve. In fact, if I hadn’t been able to spend so much time with Jill’s niece, a woman who at age 93 also remembered Otto in life, I wouldn’t have been able to access these characters from the inside. The narrative of Fireball brought them to life once again and made their story so human and so important.

I was a phone bidder for the Bonhams auction on Monday and placed bids on five lots: the Gable-Winkler candids; the Lombard correspondences to the Winklers, the Clark-to-Jill candid, and the handwritten postcard. I also took a flyer and managed to place one bid on the worn 14k wedding band that—according to documentation from Kay Gable—was given to Clark by Carole. But bidding got out of hand mighty fast and hammered at an astonishing $40,000.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

A candid photo once owned by Otto Winkler shows Otto and Clark Gable at MGM in 1937.

Afterward, I sat there with new awareness of the impact of Fireball, because I had lost out in a furious wave of bidding on all the lots except the postcard from Clark to Jill, which was the most significant item and one that will factor into the revised edition of Fireball. The other items all went at prices that were, to me, beyond practical. I felt then, as the dust was settling after my involvement in the Bonhams auction, that Fireball had affected the value of the Winkler-related items. And that was a good feeling.

The auction was, for the most part, about what I expected. It is a rare bird who wants a costume worn by Lisa Gaye in 10 Thousand Bedrooms. But the items from Casablanca that I mentioned in my last column blew the roof off of Bonhams, as reported in the New York Times. The playscript Everybody Comes to Ricks, which was the basis for the Casablanca story and which I pooh-poohed for its pre-auction estimate of $40,000-80,000, hammered at $85,000 (take that, Mr. Influencer). The battered front doors to Rick’s Café Americain, rescued at some point from the Warner Bros. prop department, fetched $92,000 ($115,000 with buyer’s premium); the prop-department-created letters of transit hammered at $95,000 ($118,750). And Sam’s piano hammered at a smart $2.9 million—or $3,413,000 with add-ons. Also of note, Aragorn’s sword from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), hammered at $360,000, and the elaborate Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz (1939) hammered at $2.6 million, topping $3M with buyer’s premium. Watch out I don’t write a book about these pictures, or the values will go up still further. After all, I am an influencer.

Everybody Comes to Ricks–Even Today

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Rick and Ilsa during their mad fling in Paris; the only time he was ever truly happy?

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).

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Rick looks at Ilsa, who has just walked into his gin joint, as Capt. Renault and Victor Laszlo observe.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Barely legal, but not what Rick is after. Just-18 Annina will pay any price to get out of Casablanca.

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.
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Major Strasser and Capt. Renault observe the goings-on at Rick’s Café American, primarily the effect of newcomer Ilsa on previously impervious Rick.

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).

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

You bitch! Look what you’ve done to poor Rick.

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.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

“You ever plannin’ on going to bed?” asks Sam to Rick. “No!” he snaps.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Sam plays the famous piano as a moribund Rick looks on.