Screenings: Casablanca

casablanca

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.

2 thoughts on “Screenings: Casablanca

  1. I was there with you that evening (in fact, I was probably running the projector) and you are absolutely right–it was a thrilling experience! I had seen bits and pieces of “Casablanca” here and there on TV, but never the full movie until that night. Sooo much better on film, and with an audience: truly the way it was meant to be experienced. I often try to imagine how much more intense it would be to see it when it was released in 1942 in the middle of World War II. (The Blu-ray version, by the way, is exquisite!)

    I had a similar experience watching “North by Northwest” in a theater recently. I had seen the film many times, have the DVD, etc. BUT–such a refreshing delight to see it with an audience! The gasps (and a few screams) as the wheel of Cary Grant’s car dangles in mid-air over the cliff. And the laughter! You forget over time, just how funny that film truly is!

    Your fellow moviegoers sitting in the dark with you are a big part of the ultimate movie experience. Such as the end of “Carrie”–her friend is placing flowers on what appears to be her grave as sad, lilting music plays. Suddenly a hand reaches up out of the dirt and grabs her. Now, understand, O Best Beloved, this was the very first time something like this ever appeared in film, with NO musical cue before it happened (and long before it became a trite standard of horror films). I can testify under oath there was not one person in that theater that did not jump at least an inch out of their seats!

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  2. Ah yes, the last scene in “Carrie.” Kind of the opposite of the Casablanca moment, a whole theater screaming in surprise and alarm. And North by Northwest WOULD be a hoot with a crowd. We have wonderful toys that can bring a big screen and big sound into our living rooms, but there’s still nothing quite like a big audience.

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