Wednesday, May 24, 2017

CASABLANCA at 75, Let the Celebrations Continue

Casablanca - winner of Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Screenplay (Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch) Oscars and possibly the film from Hollywood’s golden era that has aged better than any other “as time goes by” - turns 75 this year. Casablanca was honored at the 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival in April with a screening on the final night of the event at the TCL Chinese Theatre, that opulent icon of glamorous days gone by that is just now celebrating its 90th year.

This was an ideal way to close out TCMFF 2017; there is no movie that better qualifies as classic than Casablanca, and there is no movie palace still operating with more Hollywood history than the Chinese. The theater (always Grauman’s to me) remains resplendent with old-school glamour even as it has undergone modernization to include digital IMAX capacity. I have no doubt that the 931 other people who shared the screening with me that evening had anything less than a sublime experience.

And now, thanks to the San Francisco Symphony, comes another chance to celebrate Casablanca at 75 in a unique and exceptional setting. On Friday night, June 2, and Saturday night, June 3, the symphony will screen Casablanca onstage as the orchestra performs Max Steiner’s unforgettable score live.


As with nearly all the composers who would together establish the tradition of writing music for film once sound arrived in Hollywood, Max Steiner’s roots were in European classical music. Born in Vienna in 1888, he was a child prodigy. His godfather was Richard Strauss and he later studied under both Brahms and Mahler. Young Steiner went on to compose an operetta at age 16 and would be conducting at His Majesty’s Theater in England by age 17. He emigrated to New York in 1915 and, over the course of many years on Broadway and in the theater, worked with legends like Gershwin, Ziegfeld and Jerome Kern. He moved west in 1929 and stayed for the rest of his life, another 42 years.
Max Steiner
Max Steiner has been long regarded “the father of film music,” with an impressive list of 300 credits that includes the scores for King Kong (1933), A Star is Born (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Searchers (1956), and every significant film Bette Davis made through the height of her career, from Of Human Bondage (1934), Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940) to A Stolen Life (1946).  Of the 20 nominations he garnered over a span of 21 years, Steiner won Oscars for The Informer (1936), Now, Voyager (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944). Though he was also associated with RKO and David O. Selznick, it is with Warner Bros., the studio for which he worked for 30 years, that Max Steiner’s name became synonymous.

In his entry on Max Steiner for the International Film Music Critics Association, Paul Cote has written of Steiner’s contribution to Casablanca “…he was able to use his romantic disposition to lift otherwise bleak films out of the depths of misery. Nowhere was this more evident than in Casablanca, a seemingly cynical war drama that we nevertheless now regard as one of the most crowd-pleasing screen romances of all time. Much of the reason that we read the film as a bittersweet love story and not a jaded war drama comes from Steiner’s unrelentingly romantic score. With Casablanca, Steiner took the melody from the popular song “As Time Goes By” and transformed it into a love theme that virtually dominated the film. In fact, so forcefully did the love theme dominate the film that it shaped and continues to shape the way audiences remember Casablanca.” It was a 10-year-old song Steiner had never wanted in the first place, yet such was his skill that he not only used "As Time Goes By" to great effect in the film, but also gave the old tune new and everlasting life as an American standard.


I can’t imagine that anyone reading this post doesn’t know Casablanca inside and out, but just in case...
Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson in Casablanca
An amazing cast headed by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (with outstanding supporting turns from Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, S.Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson, Leonid Kinskey and Madeleine Lebeau, who just died last year at age 103) conjures a stirring tale of romance and international intrigue set in a mysterious and exotic locale. Set mostly at Rick’s, a jumpin’ “gin joint” in North Africa run by a world-weary American expatriate, the action takes place in December 1941, just as the U.S. enters World War II. Rick (Bogart), though a cynical sort, is obviously a noble character, but his nobility will be tested when the woman who broke his heart in Paris arrives in Casablanca with a man who turns out to be her resistance-leader/hero husband. Will Rick do the right thing when the time comes or will he do what is expedient? Will Rick and Ilsa (Bergman), who clearly love each other, disappear into the foggy Moroccan night together? And what will become of all the con men and schemers, refugees and expatriates, resistance fighters and Nazis scurrying through Rick’s and the alleyways of Casablanca? With the film's climax comes a series of surprises, the sweetest of which is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

In his 1992 50th anniversary review of Casablanca, Roger Ebert christened it “The Movie.” While he allowed that there might be better or more profound films, Ebert argued that Casablanca deserved its distinction as “The Movie” because it was, at age 50, so deeply treasured, a perennial favorite of film fans after so many years. And it is still, 25 years after Ebert's review, one of the most beloved movies of all time. Along with the categories for which it won – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay – “The Movie” was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor (Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Rains), Best B&W Cinematography (Arthur Edeson), Best Editing (Owen Marks) and Best Score (Max Steiner). 

Those who attend Casablanca at the San Francisco Symphony on June 2 and 3 will be watching the film minus its recorded score. That music will have been digitally scrubbed (or stripped) from the soundtrack so that the score can be performed live by the full symphony orchestra. For film lovers and film music lovers who live in or will be visiting the Bay Area, this is a one-of-a-kind, must-have experience!

For more information and to buy tickets for the San Francisco Symphony’s performances of Casablanca, click here.


  1. Sounds like it was a great experience of one of Hollywood's greatest films!

    1. Yes, and with a new friend. Many were made at TCMFF 2017.

  2. Certainly a great pairing of music and film. This happens to be my favorite movie, and you've paid a fine tribute to it here Lady Eve. Max Steiner was indeed a great composer, his music so evocative that Bette Davis said during the filming of "Dark Victory," "Either I'm going up those stairs or Max Steiner is going up those stairs, but not both of us." But in case you hadn't heard this yet, the front doors to Rick's Cafe Americain are up for sale at auction at Profiles in History. Redecorating soon?

    1. I can certainly understand why "Casablanca" is your favorite movie, Christian, it's perfect in every way. I've seen it more times than I could possibly count and I expect to see it many, many more times. I had heard that Bette Davis quote before, but it always brings a smile. It would almost be worth having a new home built just to house those doors...