Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Casablanca (DVD)

In one of the documentary supplements included on the new two-disc version of Casablanca, screenwriter Julius Epstein–a dialogue specialist who, with his twin brother Philip, was credited with punching up the script's most elegant lines–talks about the film as just another widget on the factory line. At the height of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, studios like Warner Bros. churned out a movie a week, which means Casablanca, in Epstein's words, was merely "one in 50." In retrospect, perhaps the most widely beloved film ever made is also the most miraculous, a strange case where rounding up "the usual suspects" (contract players, a house director, a stable of writing talent) created a magical alchemy never to be repeated. With so many cooks in the kitchen, Casablanca represents the sort of Hollywood committee-think that's normally considered compromising and pernicious, prone to diluting strong personal visions into homogenous mush. But under the watchful eye of producer/ conductor Hal B. Wallis, Jack Warner's right-hand man, craftsmen were assembled like players in a symphony, sounding just the right notes of romance, patriotism, sacrifice, and escapist entertainment as America delved into WWII. Take away one element, and the whole thing might have fallen apart: For example, the studio initially announced it was casting Ronald Reagan in the lead role, though he was never seriously considered. In fact, much of the legend and lore surrounding Casablanca involves near-misses. MGM brass could have had Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's unproduced play Everybody Comes To Rick's for $5,000, but refused. (Warner later paid $20,000.) Wallis wanted Hedy Lemarr for the Ingrid Bergman role, and originally considered a woman for the pianist played by Dooley Wilson. And the studio wanted to replace the love theme "As Time Goes By" with another song, but Bergman had cut her hair for For Whom The Bell Tolls, making the necessary reshoots impossible. The perfect American hero for the time (a romantic under a cynical shell, an isolationist compelled into courageous action by an abiding sense of right and wrong), Humphrey Bogart stars as an expatriate saloon-owner in Morocco, a way station for wartime refugees. With so many looking to escape exotic limbo, exit visas are a prime commodity to black-market dealers like Peter Lorre, who leaves Bogart with two golden transit papers, authorized by de Gaulle himself. Though he tries to drown his emotions in booze, Bogart's long-dormant feelings for love and politics are aroused when Bergman, an old flame who stood him up in Paris, arrives with her husband Paul Henreid, a brave resistance leader who survived a German concentration camp. If Casablanca has a flaw, it's Henreid, who rivals the local Nazi officers for humorlessness, making him seem less heroic than flawed men like Bogart and the witty, double-dealing French police captain played so memorably by Claude Rains. But in a way, Henreid acts like the straight man in a comedy, functioning as a much-needed counterpoint to the world of volatile, conflicting emotions surrounding him. This fevered atmosphere is what makes Casablanca seem newly transporting every time it's viewed. As the crowning jewel in the Warner archive, the film has received the deluxe treatment, but nostalgia often gets the better of the supplements. Taken together, the two commentary tracks on the first disc complement each other nicely, with critic Roger Ebert providing a lucid and probing personal essay to deepen film historian Rudy Behlmer's meat-and-potatoes production notes. The second disc features a few intriguing odds and ends, most notably two deleted scenes, a radio production featuring all three lead actors, and a hilariously misbegotten 17-minute TV adaptation from 1955. But the majority of the promotional featurettes, with flowery Lauren Bacall narration and talking heads reminiscing over the "As Time Goes By" theme, speak to a "more is more" philosophy that's an epidemic among DVD producers. Sometimes extras like "Carrotblanca," an excruciating Bugs Bunny cartoon from the not-so-Golden Age of 1995, threaten to subtract from the legacy rather than add to it. But Casablanca is durable enough to withstand any homage.


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