Immortal Films. "Casablanca" and the Afterlife of a Hollywood Classic

Klinger, Barbara
Anzahl Seiten
368 S.
$ 29.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Noah Isenberg, Department of Radio-Television-Film, The University of Texas at Austin

Arguably one of Classical Hollywood’s most cherished films of all time, “Casablanca” first reached audiences some eight decades ago. After its storied premiere at the Hollywood Theatre in Midtown Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day 1942 – during a nasty snowstorm, as fate would have it, with throngs of intrepid ticketholders snaking around the block – the movie immediately captured the hearts of viewers in the United States and, eventually, across the globe. It racked up numerous awards at the Oscars ceremony of 1944, honoring the slate of pictures that went into general release the year before, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, and it continues to this day to maintain a coveted place in the upper echelons of favored movie rankings and polls.

Even more important for its staying power, however, are the film’s eminently quotable lines of dialogue, among the most cited in motion-picture history (“Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”, “We’ll always have Paris”) and of course the iconic scenes featuring its remarkably talented ensemble cast: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid, Dooley Wilson, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre. Audiences returned to “Casablanca” (the fittingly titled stage play on which it’s based, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, rings true) with staggering frequency, initially while the film remained in circulation, later when it became a mainstay in repertory theaters, and finally when it found its way onto television (it has received more televised broadcasts than any other movie), on video cassette, Laser disc, DVD, and of course now on streaming platforms (Turner Classic Movies, a popular platform for watching old Hollywood movies in the United States, may as well be called the “Casablanca” channel, given how often they feature it in their regular programming).

It’s the film’s exceptional afterlife, its seeming “immortality,” that is the chief focus of Barbara Klinger’s illuminating study, “Immortal Films: ‘Casablanca’ and the Afterlife of a Hollywood Classic”, which tracks the spectacularly long legs that the film has maintained over the decades. She divides her thoroughly researched, information-packed book into five chapters and an epilogue: starting with the various radio adaptations that “Casablanca” spawned in the 1940s and 50s and moving from there to the film’s rerelease in 1949 and the subsequent repertory screenings, coinciding with the early days of American cinephilia, which bestowed upon the film its cult status; she then explores the realm of broadcast television in the second half of the twentieth century and devotes a separate chapter to the simultaneous circulation of highly popular and widely purchased VHS video cassettes, finally offering an epilogue on the place of “Casablanca” in the age of streaming.

To set the tone for her book, Klinger offers a poignant epigraph, one of three that she includes, from a veteran reporter in the “Boston Globe” in the form of a posthumous note to Humphrey Bogart written in 1983: “Hey, Bogie [... ] Your Casablanca opened in 1942 and never really closed. They may respect Citizen Kane, but it’s Casablanca they love. Every day it’s playing somewhere, from the Brattle in Cambridge [...] to a television screen at 2 in the morning in a motel in St. Petersburg” (p. vii). The Brattle Theatre, near the edge of the Harvard campus, became known as a kind of epicenter for the “Casablanca” mania sparked in the 1960s; the theater launched a Bogart festival soon after the actor’s death, in 1957, and that tradition, with “Casablanca” as the festival’s centerpiece, continued for decades. Writing in the pages of the university’s daily newspaper the “Harvard Crimson” in 1963, a student-journalist observed of the beloved “Casablanca” screenings, “a Bogart evening at the Brattle during exam period with a packed, unruly, and howling partisan crowd is an experience that no Harvard undergraduate should miss.” (p. 89). Very few did.

Klinger is at her best when she engages her research – supplemented by a rich array of visual materials she provides, including two highly instructive appendixes charting the key dates for the exhibition and circulation of “Casablanca” – in conversation with other film theorists and scholars. To be sure, this is very much an academic study aimed at an academic readership, and her approach reflects those very aims. “By studying the diachronic flow of movies over different exhibition channels,” writes Klinger, early on in the book, “I hope to expose the changing industrial, technological, aesthetic, and cultural forces involved in a film’s biography, raising questions about how these forces contribute to its shifting value and how, ultimately, their impact defines cinema itself as an enduring medium” (p. 2). Using “Casablanca” as her test case, Klinger seeks to advance an argument with broader implications for the study of film.

In general, she is successful. Her wide-ranging investigation, amassing a considerable amount of source material from disparate archives and libraries, leaves few stones unturned. But along the way there is the occasional misstep. For instance, Klinger’s revisionist interpretation of Sam (Dooley Wilson) as a character in “a racial silo” (p. 67) emphasizing “the stereotypical happy subservience of his minstrel role and his narrative marginalization” (p. 231), is, as she herself notes, out sync with the historical record, especially the Black press. At the time of its release, Black critics extolled the putative gains made for the community in a figure like Sam — not a Pullman porter, not a shoeshine boy – who serves, in their estimation, as a harbinger of further advances and more nuanced, more developed Black characters. The film’s screenwriters, Howard Koch and the Epstein twins, Philip and Julius, were unflinching in their liberal politics and their irreverence, espousing an integrationist storyline at a time when America was deeply segregated along racial lines.

In the wake of its eightieth anniversary, “Casablanca” shows few if any signs of decline. In fact, it continues to be the go-to movie, a love letter from Old Hollywood, forever featured in glitzy celebrations (Klinger notes the 75th-anniversary Valentine’s Day gala at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and indeed that was just one of many such gatherings around the globe). The “beautiful friendship” forged between Captain Renault (Rains) and Rick (Bogart) on the fog-drenched tarmac in the final minutes of the film continues to invite old and new friends to return to Rick’s Café Américain for just one more French 75, maybe a spin at the roulette wheel, a little taste of nostalgia no doubt and of seemingly bottomless movie love.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Mehr zum Buch
Inhalte und Rezensionen
Weitere Informationen
Sprache der Publikation
Sprache der Rezension