This weekend, it was my honor to introduce the 1942 Warner Brothers masterpiece Casablanca as part of the LA Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats series of great movies shown in great old movie palaces. Here's the speech I gave.
I want to introduce Casablanca today by starting at the end of the movie. The very end, when Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart are walking toward the runway, almost arm in arm, splashing water with every footstep. Bogart says a line that wasn’t even in the original screenplay; Hal Wallis supposedly came up with it after filming was done and Bogart recorded it.
Bogart, as Rick, says, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
... And we can easily imagine Rick and Louie as partners in the Underground, sabotaging the Nazis in various adventures together that may or may not make them a few francs. It would have made a fun sequel. That’s probably what Bogart and Wallis meant by the beautiful friendship. But for us, the beautiful friendship is with the movie.
When I was asked to speak today, of course I accepted. And then I panicked. What could I possibly say that you haven’t heard before. Yes, it’s true that most of us have seen this movie many times before and are going to hear all the lines again. And we like hearing those lines again and again. But I’m not one of the principal writers, like Julius or Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, Murray Bennet or Joan Alison. So, I asked my listeners for help. I asked them to write a few words about their beautiful friendship with the movie. And they came through.
Patricia Thomas wrote about the first time she saw it.
I don’t remember when, but I was young and it probably was on TV. But when Rick locks eyes with Ilsa in the café that first time, my heart skipped a beat, and has every time since.
Kevin McCollister wrote:
The entire scene with the Bulgarian bride, from "... and if she kept this bad thing locked away in her heart..." to Rick telling her "He's just a lucky guy." Even now it chokes me up.
This, by the way, was a plotline that was written to get past the censors. It was the most confusing part of the movie for me as a kid, and I’m still not exactly sure whether she did that bad thing or not.
Pamela Wilson wrote:
I learned the lyrics of La Marseillaise long before I could speak French, all because of the incredible melodic standoff between Victor Laszlo and the Nazi bastards. I get goosebumps just thinking about that scene.
This scene has an extra layer because it also shows Yvonne, who was hanging with the Nazis, coming to her senses and realizing she is French, after all. The woman who played her, Madeleine LeBeau, is the last surviving cast member.
J.G. wrote to me:
Casablanca is one of the very few movies I can see over and over again. It's one the best romantic movies ever made. Although several endings were considered for the movie, the one that was decided upon has become the classic ending of a motion picture. I've never seen the movie on the big screen, but it doesn't matter, the primary impact is the story. I'm a romantic at heart and the ending always leaves me misty eyed and in need of a deep breath to bring me back down to earth. It's hard to relate to Casablanca's storyline if one has never traveled, especially to Paris, and has had a romantic interlude during a time of war. In my case, that was the war in Vietnam.
I'd seen it on TV, but back when I lived in Baltimore they showed it at a gorgeous restored Art Deco movie theater as part of their 50th anniversary retrospective. (They also showed Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, and other cinematic classics.) I was struck by the abundance of humor in what is, of course, a dark story. I never think of Casablanca as being funny, but there are some wonderfully funny moments that are far more obvious when you're watching on the big screen.
Isn’t it wonderful how big an impact the venue makes on us, how it really makes a difference seeing a movie in an old movie palace? I had thought To Have and Have Not had some funny lines, but when I saw it on the big screen, with a packed house (I think it was a date; it didn’t work out), I can still hear the audience howl when Bacall says “Just put your lips together and blow.” It’s just so outrageous. Then, after she leaves the room, they laugh even harder at the look on Bogart ‘s face.
Laura Gharazeddine writes:
Casablanca thrilled me- formed a picture I had of an exotic North Africa. I fell in love with Rick- even though I was a girl, I wanted to be Rick! Adventurer and lover, with that same sense of humor. *Sigh* I STILL want to be Rick! I knew when the movie started that this was something very very special. And even now, all those years later, and all the miles later, I still thrill when it comes on and I feel, "This is special". One of the few movies that is really, from almost every point of view-writing, casting, art-EVERYTHING, quite perfect.
For me, I was disappointed when I first saw Casablanca when I was a teenager. I knew the movie’s reputation. It was supposed to be the best movie ever. But then, it seemed overly melodramatic. Hey, give me a break, I was 18. I preferred To Have and Have Not, which I thought was funnier, moved faster, and featured Lauren Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael singing. Ingrid Bergman bugged me, too. I wanted her to speak up! But then, over the years, I grew up. I lost my parents. I lost loves. I came out. I got divorced. I went to Africa. I made some dubious choices, some devious choices, and some good choices. I learned some history. I fell back in love. I went to Paris. I went back to Paris. Now, I prefer Casablanca, which is miles deeper than To Have and Have Not. I can watch it over and over.
This is not to say that all the kids here today won’t get the movie. They look like nice, smart kids. They’ll get it. But I was a know-it-all. So, like I said, it took a while for it to sink in. If there are any 18-year old know-it-all’s in the audience, let me save you some time. In every instance in which you might compare things in your life to things that happen in the movie, in every single instance, the movie gets it right.
Here are the lessons in Casablanca:
- Fight the bad guys.
- Drink champagne in Paris.
- Have friends of different races.
- Always keep a dry raincoat handy in a waterproof bag, off camera.
- Learn a song you can sing in public.
- And if you buy a popular bar, don’t fire the staff.
I started today talking about the line “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," the line that comes at the end of the movie. It’s right that that line comes at the end, because your beautiful friendship with Casablanca doesn’t really start until the end of the movie.
Until you walk out of the theatre with your friend or your date saying “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Until, this afternoon, when over champagne, or martinis, or Shirley Temples, you say “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
The beautiful friendship doesn’t begin until you see it the next time, and see all the things you didn’t see before because you were still worrying about the letters of transit, and, wait a minute, why would Nazis honor anything signed by general Charles deGaulle? You let that go and you think about your own lost and found love, about your friends, about doing the right thing. That’s when, as you watch Casablanca again and again, the friendship gets more and more beautiful.