Of my three very favorite movies, Casablanca is the most memorable of my group experiences. The Wizard of Oz was a sitting-around-the-TV family experience, and It’s a Wonderful Life was a solitary Christmas-Eve-alone experience, but I saw Casablanca in the Todd Wehr Hall lecture room at Ripon College with more than 100 other students who had never seen it before, this being the early 1970s when seeing a movie from 1942 was a rare and exotic thing.
So there we all were, absorbed in Rick and Ilsa’s love story, and at the edge of our seat knowing that Captain Renault had called Major Strasser to alert him what was going down at the airport, and Rick had just shot Major Strasser and Renault’s minions had just driven up and were awaiting instructions.
Louie announced the obvious: “Major Strasser has been shot!” and we held our breaths. The camera flashes back and forth to Rick and to Ilsa and back to Louie, and –
To this day I won’t say what the next line is, because I hope that one day you who have not seen the movie can experience it for yourself. It’s one of the most cathartic lines ever, one of the most perfect lines ever crafted – having been set up skillfully by references earlier in the film – such a great line that the phrase has entered common usage, and there’s even a movie called, well, you know.
I just wish you could see it the way I did, in a theater jammed with scores of people who were seeing it for the first time, because part of the punch of Captain Renault’s order to his men is the audience reaction. Our cheer was so explosive that it rings in my memory to this day, such a stupendous exhalation of relief that tears come to my eyes as I type this almost a half-century later.
The miracle of Casablanca is that it was an assembly-line project. If you research its lineage, you’ll find this was not a piece of art that someone shaped slowly and lovingly. In a matter of weeks, just the right cast and crew just happened to merge with just the right script at just the right time to create big magic.
It’s like the Beatles of 1964 threw together an album that turned out to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – not just something great but one of the greatest of all time. You’d expect to hear that everyone worked on Casablanca for months and months if not years to make it as perfect as it is.
It’s full of memorable and quotable lines from the opening scene to the final “beautiful friendship,” and none as memorable as the line I’m coyly withholding here. I’ll always remember that cheer, and I’ll always love Casablanca.