To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the release of “Casablanca,” Turner Classic Movies arranged a screening of the film recently – a one night only event – at selected theaters across America.
I was only a lad when it premiered in 1942, and never got to see it on the big screen, although I’ve watched it on TV and DVD an embarrassing number of times. So off I went, accompanied by a movie buddy who’d actually never seen it at all.
Over the years, while “Citizen Kane” has come to be known as the Greatest American Film Ever Made, a legion of us Casablancophiles disagreed. To us, the accidental masterpiece starring Bogart and Bergman and Henreid saw the birth of the modern anti-hero coming to grips with a world of the purest Good versus the blackest Evil.
Tickets to this gala event were double the price of a normal film admission, and the single showing was preceded by a special featurette hosted by TCM’s Robert Osborne, explaining the significance of the evening to those few who might not know. Diane and I were early, of course, and as we sat in the cavernous venue, I had a vision of America forgetting this Best Picture Oscar Winner, and the film playing for just the lonely two of us.
I saw Bogie starting to kiss a glowing Ingrid Bergman, pausing to look out over the nearly empty audience, shaking his head sadly and saying, “Well, we’ll always have Paris.”
He was quickly followed by Claude Rains who tweaked his black mustache, proclaiming “I’m shocked … shocked at this tiny turnout!” And not to be outdone, Paul Henreid leaped from his chair and commanded the band to play La Marseillaise.
But no band struck up. There was only silence.
We sat there, alone in a vast auditorium, while the minutes ticked away and showtime drew near. How could I face my beloved friends on screen?
“Be right back,” sez I, and hurried out to the refreshment stand to hopefully drown my sorrow in a mammoth box of popcorn and a Diet Coke the size of Lake Erie.
And then a funny thing happened.
As I walked back to my seat, people began to arrive. Old people, mostly, who clung to dreams of the past as I did. But youngsters, too. Not youngsters sitting down and immediately turning on their annoying cell phones to tweet to the waiting world that they were miraculously at the movies, but quiet, pleasant young people. Almost as if they had entered a church.
They kept coming. By twos and threes, some hobbling, some in wheelchairs. By the time the short subject started, there were over 300 people in the audience. As the lights lowered, my ancient heart swelled with pride. Just imagine: all these Americans paying double the admission for a 70-year-old movie, full of actors long dead, and not a teenage vampire in sight.
“Casablanca” has been analyzed and picked apart line by line over the years, so I won’t bore you with my own humble critique. Needless to say, on the big screen it was absolutely glorious. The first moment Ingrid walks into Rick’s Cafe Americaine, and the screen fills with her wonderful face, I fell in love all over again.
As the superb and well—remembered cast moved through the complex but clearly-defined action of the plot, I realized once again how much more overwhelming any movie becomes when seen on the big screen. Accompanied by Greenstreet and Lorre and all the others, I was swept into a maelstrom of heroic acts and regrettable longings and dastardly evil.
And thank God, it ended just as I remembered.
As Rick and Louie walked off into the fog together, and Bogart delivered the final line of the film, the audience burst into loud and spontaneous applause.
There is still hope for western civilization.
Column by Carl Larsen