Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Screen Gems: Casablanca (1942)

It took some time but I have now finally seen Casablanca. I don't think any introduction or synopsis of one the most enduring classics needs to be put down here so, I'll just give you my thoughts on the film.

Casablanca had all the makings of a wonderful film, starting with an A-list cast, an exotic and dangerous setting, justifiable melodrama, witty dialogue, and sentimental heroism. All in all a very sophisticated and entertaining propaganda film that exploits American values like freedom, liberty and opportunity. Ironically, the script wasn’t even finished before production began and no one knew how the film would end. I especially enjoyed it because it had a great balance of melodrama and humor. I also enjoyed it because you could never get a good feel on the people in Casablanca, were they sincere or looking out for themselves? Rains turns out to be a pleasant surprise.
Casablanca features Bergman at her best. I have seen her in few films and have not truly appreciated her talent until now. She is able to transcend both screen and time with her struggle between Rick and Victor. Not to mention the wonderful lighting that highlighted her weeping eyes to her advantage. As for Bogart, this is a film that gave him a little more range, at least for me who has only seen him as the tough as nails character he always plays. Rains and Greenstreet elevate Casablanca to a new level with their wit and European charm, and it was refreshing to see Dooley Wilson on a somewhat level playing field with the other cast members, being portrayed as the witty and sensible entertainer.
Overall, I really did enjoy this film, I wasn’t bored for a minute of it and until the end I was rooting for Rick.

Side note:
While preparing to film a movie entitled A Night in Casablanca, the Marx brothers received a letter from Warner Bros. threatening legal action if they did not change the film’s title. Deeming the title to similar to the 1942 version of Casablanca. Never one to back down from a fight, Groucho Marx dispatched the following letter to the studio’s legal department:

Dear Warner Brothers,
Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.
It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.
I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.
You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye, and even before there had been other brothers—the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (This was originally “Brothers, Can You Spare a Dime?” but this was spreading a dime pretty thin, so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to the other one, and whittled it down to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”)
Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well it’s not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks—Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.
As for you, Harry, you probably sign your checks sure in the belief that you are the first Harry of all time and that all other Harrys are impostors. I can think of two Harrys that preceded you. There was Lighthouse Harry of Revolutionary fame and a Harry Appelbaum who lived on the corner of 93rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Unfortunately, Appelbaum wasn’t too well-known. The last I heard of him, he was selling neckties at Weber and Heilbroner.
Now about the Burbank studio. I believe this is what you brothers call your place. Old man Burbank is gone. Perhaps you remember him. He was a great man in a garden. His wife often said Luther had ten green thumbs. What a witty woman she must have been! Burbank was the wizard who crossed all those fruits and vegetables until he had the poor plants in such confused and jittery condition that they could never decide whether to enter the dining room on the meat platter or the dessert dish.
This is pure conjecture, of course, but who knows—perhaps Burbank’s survivors aren’t too happy with the fact that a plant that grinds out pictures on a quota settled in their town, appropriated Burbank’s name and uses it as a front for their films. It is even possible that the Burbank family is prouder of the potato produced by the old man than they are of the fact that your studio emerged “Casablanca” or even “Gold Diggers of 1931.”
This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to. I love Warners. Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers. It is even possible that I am doing you an injustice and that you, yourselves, know nothing about this dog-in-the-Wanger attitude. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that the heads of your legal department are unaware of this absurd dispute, for I am acquainted with many of them and they are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits and a love of their fellow man that out-Saroyans Saroyan.
I have a hunch that his attempt to prevent us from using the title is the brainchild of some ferret-faced shyster, serving a brief apprenticeship in your legal department. I know the type well—hot out of law school, hungry for success, and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion. This bar sinister probably needled your attorneys, most of whom are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits, etc., into attempting to enjoin us. Well, he won’t get away with it! We’ll fight him to the highest court! No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin, and we’ll remain friends till the last reel of “A Night in Casablanca” goes tumbling over the spool.

Groucho Marx

Unamused, Warner Brothers requested that the Marx Brothers at least outline the premise of their film which Groucho did. Needing more clarification to Groucho's hilarious explanation, Groucho sent another even more confusing one. Warner Brothers did not reply and A Night in Casablanca was released in 1946.

Dear Warners:

There isn’t much I can tell you about the story. In it I play a Doctor of Divinity who ministers to the natives and, as a sideline, hawks can openers and pea jackets to the savages along the gold Coast of Africa.
When I first meet Chico, he is working in a saloon, selling sponges to barflies who are unable to carry their liquor. Harpo is an Arabian caddie who lives in a small Grecian urn on the outskirts of the city.

Groucho Marx

Dear Brothers:

Since I last wrote you, I regret to say there have been some changes in the plot of our new picture, “A Night in Casablanca.” In the new version I play Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart. Harpo and Chico are itinerant rug peddlers who are weary of laying rugs and enter a monastery just for a lark. This is a good joke on them, as there hasn’t been a lark in the place for fifteen years.

Groucho Marx

Thanks to:
Dr. Macro for the wonderful screen stills.
Chilling Effects for the first Warners letter.
All Movie Talk for the subsequent Warners letters.

Tonight on TCM!
The Far Horizons (1955)
Romanticized version of Lewis and Clarks voyage of discovery through the American West.Cast: Fred MacMurray, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale Dir: Rudolph Maté


  1. Thanks for posting Groucho's hilarious letter. I'd never read that before.

    I've added your blog to my list. Let me followers be your followers, etc.

  2. Also, I just realized that I spelled Claude Rains name wrong about 25 times in my blog yesterday. How, I do suck!