Musical Patriotism and Nostalgia in CASABLANCA (1942)


Poster - Casablanca_13

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

The other day on Groupon they featured an offer to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra play along with CASABLANCA (1942) and I sincerely regret not jumping at this chance to give myself the best Valentine’s Day gift imaginable! As we know, CASABLANCA is on every top 100 movie list out there and lines from the script are quoted ad nauseam. The first time I saw CASABLANCA, I was inclined to agree with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s initial assessment of the film – that the dialogue was ridiculous and the situations were unbelievable. However, the Pittsburgh Symphony has the right idea – the musicality of CASABLANCA is truly remarkable, and does much to transform this film from a monotonous propaganda melodrama to a spine-tingling patriot piece. 

Performed in synchronicity with the film by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Casablanca becomes a brand-new movie-going experience as live musicians transform Steiner’s monophonic score into a stereophonic valentine. In addition to the snuggle-ready centerpiece, “As Time Goes By,” the score raises hairs with rousing anthems such as “La Marseillaise,” menacing motifs, and the sweeping finale that underscores Rick and Ilsa’s iconic final scene. And while the movie has long been available for home viewing, it’s not easy to fit the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in your living room. (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

The first thing the public associate with CASABLANCA is the song “As Time Goes By.” Playwright Murray Burnett was inspired to write “Everbyody Comes to Rick’s” (later renamed CASABLANCA) while on vacation in the south of France, where he heard a black pianist perform the song in a cafe to a mixed audience of Nazis, French, and refugees. Songwriter Herman Hupfeld had debuted the song on Broadway in the early 1930s, but it didn’t became a musical sensation until after the release of CASABLANCA. The original 1931 Rudy Vallee version of the song stayed at the top of the Hit Parade for 21 weeks after the film came out, but since the song was not an original for the movie, it couldn’t be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song (The Making of Casablanca, 253).

Dooley Wilson, who played the pianist Sam, was actually a drummer and didn’t know how to play piano. Shooting the above scene proved difficult because the music had not been recorded in time for shooting. A second pianist, Elliot Carper, played the music within site of Wilson so Wilson could mime his hand movements (128). According to an inter-office memo at Warner Brother’s, the production team considered using a female singers to play the Sam character. Possibles included Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and the multi-talented singer/pianist Hazel Scott.

humphrey bogart & dooley wilson - casablanca 1943

Sam’s piano sold for more than $600,000 at a New York auction in December 2012

The scene of CASABLANCA that inspires the most patriotic feeling is the musical feud between the Nazi’s and those loyal to France. Producer Hal Wallis was insistent that musical director Max Steiner achieve the right sound for the scene:

“On the Marseilles (sic), when it is played in the Cafe, don’t do it as if it was played by this small orchestra. Do it with a full scoring orchestra and get some body to it.” (260)

The swelling of Rick’s small cafe orchestra into a full ensemble is gradual but dramatically very effective. The choice of song proved a stumbling block that was not easily overcome. The Nazi anthem was “Die Fahne Hoch” (The Flag on High) or “Horst-Wessel-lied” (the name of the composer), but the copywrite was owned by a German company and would therefor have prevented CASABLANCA being shown in all neutral countries, including most of South America among others.  “Horst-Wessel” and “Deutchland Uber Alles” were the only songs approved by the Nazis – it would have been distinctly against Nazi principles to sing “Die Wacht am Rhine” (Watch on the Rhine). Hal Wallis advised director Michael Curtiz not to use Watch on the Rhine for this reason, but Curtiz liked the dramatic value of the song and chose to keep it, despite the inaccuracy of its use in this way (169).

The Marseillaise/Watch on the Rhine duel is made all the more poignant when one learns that many of the actors in the film, extras and main players alike, had traveled to America from Europe in order to escape the Nazi war machine. In fact most of the Nazis in the film are portrayed by German Jews, most notably Conrad Veidt (Maj. Strasser) who, though not Jewish himself, was married to a Jewish woman and actively opposed the Nazi regime in both his public and private life.

When it comes to the classic film canon, it is true that we need to look beyond CASABLANCA to seek out the truly remarkable movies made during Hollywood’s golden age. However, Michael Curtiz’s CASABLANCA certainly deserves its acclaim, if only for its exceptional use of music and song to illicit emotion from a war-weary audience. It also deserves its Oscar nomination for Best Music, in addition to its nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Humphrey Bogart), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Claude Raines), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and its three Academy Awards wins –  Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay. I am inclined to agree with the great film critic Bosley Crowther when he says:

“Some of the significant incidents, too, are affecting – such as that in which the passionate Czech patriot rouses the customers in Rick’s cafe to drown out a chorus of Nazis by singing the Marseillaise, or any moment in which Dooley Wilson is remembering past popular songs in a hushed room.”

“[Warners] have so combined sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue that the result is a highly entertaining and even inspiring film.”

“In short, we will say that “Casablanca” is one of the year’s most exciting and trenchant films. It certainly won’t make Vichy happy – but that’s just another point for it.”

(New York Times Film Reviews: The Classic Films of Humphrey Bogart)

This post is written in conjunction with the 31 Days of Oscars Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.


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