“What’s your favorite movie?” That simple question will produce a variety of responses which will probably, to some extent, depend on the age of the person answering the question. My answer is Casablanca which premiered in New York City on November 26, 1942, and first appeared in movie theaters across the United States on January 23, 1943. If, like me, you’re a Casablanca fan, you’ll enjoy Scott Tobias’ appreciation of the film that recently appeared in The Guardian. You can read it here.
If you explore the history of the film, you’ll be surprised that it ever became a classic. The story was borrowed from an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, its production was rushed in order to take advantage of current events, the script was changed many times during filming, and no one knew how the film would end until the last minute. Furthermore, the great movie music composer, Max Steiner, made the French national anthem and a seldom heard song from a mediocre 1931 Broadway show the most prominent (and indispensable) melodies in the movie. And finally, drummer Dooley Wilson, who portrayed the singing pianist Sam in the movie, couldn’t even play a piano. An off-camera musician actually played the piano while Wilson mimicked the hand movements of the real pianist.
As unlikely as it might seem, Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch). Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains were nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, but lost.
So how, you might ask, did Casablanca which was envisioned as a routine love story become a classic? My answer comes in two parts. First, the cast was truly stellar consisting of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Conrad Veidt. In this case when Warner Bros. put those seven actors together under director Michael Curtiz, we got movie magic.
Actually, you have to add one more ingredient to really get movie magic. That ingredient is the subtle but very effective use of a musical score to create a mood that enhances the actions taking place on the screen. In the case of Casablanca, Max Steiner did just that principally by adapting the French national anthem and “As Time Goes By” to invoke patriotism, and to bring out our romantic sides. Though he is credited as the composer of the musical score, one of the greatest movie composer who ever lived, used those two songs in various subtle ways rather than creating new music for the film. In fact, he considered “As Time Goes By” to be “the lousiest tune you can imagine,” and only included it in the score because Warner Bros. insisted that he do so.
Imagine that the composer of over 300 movie music scores, including those for Gone with the Wind; Now, Voyager; and King Kong was forced to use a song that he despised in Casablanca. Now, imagine Casablanca without the musical score that Steiner created. Perhaps you can, but I can’t. I contend that Steiner’s score was as necessary as the wonderful actors and director Michael Curtiz. Together these elements combined to lead to the creation of a film that will be revered forever. That’s movie magic!
By the way, as a result of the inclusion of “the lousiest tune you can imagine” in Casablanca, it became very popular and is ranked by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the second best movie music song of the 20th century. First place went to “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939).
At 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on the evening of December 6th Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will premier a documentary titled “Max Steiner: Maestro of Movie Music.” It will be followed by Casablanca; a re-airing of the Steiner documentary; Now, Voyager; and King Kong. You can read about the documentary here.
Steiner (1888 – 1971), and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957) were two of the most important composers in the history of movie music – early movie music or otherwise. Both composed in a symphonic style as has John Williams (born 1932). To learn about many of the indispensable movie music composers, I highly recommend that you read Music for the Movies by Tony Thomas. It contains chapters on 26 movie music composers and is very “readable.”