Play it Sam!---The key role of songs in “Casablanca”.

by Ian Whitcomb


       “Everybody comes to Rick’s”. Anybody who knows classic cinema recognizes that as the title of the unproduced play the film is based on. In 1941,the reader at Warner’s assigned to assess the play’s commercial appeal gave an enthusiastic thumbs –up: “Excellent melodrama: Colorful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum. A box office natural—for Bogart”.

       After much studio collaboration-assisted by a host of clever writers and a hands-on producer-- a movie emerged that is a polished diamond-the perfect example of the studio system at its finest—and timely, for the Allies were making headway in North Africa. All the elements meshed neatly, crowned by a new improved Humphrey Bogart, as Rick, the wounded loner with built-in cynicism but who in the end reveals himself to be a committed idealist, a selfless hero: he lets Ingrid Bergman, the apple-cheeked love of his life fly to freedom, with her noble Resistance husband, just after shooting the Nazi trying to prevent their escape. Of course we all know she still loves Rick- True sacrifice at a time of war.

“Casablanca’’ made Bogart a romantic star and cleaned up at the box office. It won An Academy Award. But for all its exotic locale it was made on the studio lot in Burbank, and it’s a rare creature: a war movie with no battle scenes yet teeming with   high ideals and sentiments, as well as a healthy heap dose of good old-fashioned sentimentality. Something for every taste. Stirring stuff, peppered with good snappy humor nothing artsy-crafty. A genre product covering every field-except horse opera and musicals. 

       But wait!  The “Casablanca” melodrama pie is studded with music—from the weighty and portentous European-based Sturm und Drang of  max Steiner’s massive orchestral score, with much doffing of the hat to national anthems, to the light dance music  and song purveyed at  Rick’s american café. A case  could be made that the  love sparks between Bogart and Bergman are  fired up  by “As time goes By”, the lovers’ very own personal  message number—for indeed  the film would be impoverished without this simple 6 note device -riddled old-fashioned ballad  reminding us that in this modern world of third dimension there will always be the timeless eternities such a kiss still being a kiss and a sigh a sigh. The fundamentals. “Casablanca’ without the song would be an empty thing, like ‘The Third Man’  without the zither.

       Composer Max Steiner initially wanted  to do without “As time goes by’, even though it was deeply-imbedded in  the original play. He found the tune be “Square ‘,and, understandably,  felt that  he, a real composer, could craft a superior song—and reap the royalties.

       But he was persuaded, nay ordered, to change his mind. The orchestrator ,Hugo Friedhofer, was most musically persuasive: Go beyond the coldness of the printed notes, relax into the melody- “Max, think of it this way—“ and he sang the tune very broadly with triplet phrasing. “ He kind of thought about it and that’s the way it came out. But it’s a good tune, let’s face it. And it’s the kind of phrasing that jazzmen fall into naturally”. 

       Steiner’s final score weaves and develops quotes from the tune, in such a blatant Neo-Wagnerian leitmotif style, that we are transported from the deadening world of  corrupt officials and nasty Nazis in North Africa to the blossom-filled  Paris of our lovers.. The sweet smell  of missed  chances, of regrets for the way things might have worked out. We are willingly submerged in a delightful lake of pure  nostalgia in a way  that only carefully managed and  controlled music can conjure. Strange how potent cheap  music can be!

       “As time Goes By” had not  been written as low-class Tin Pan Alley music. Herman Hupfeld, its creator, had composed it for

a Broadway Show called “Everybody’s Welcome” in 1931. Hupfeld, a reclusive bachelor known to his friends as “doh’, had contributed  songs to many shows, including his two big hits “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba” and ”Let’s put out the lights and go to sleep”.

        Frances Williams had introduced “As Time Goes by”’ in “Everybody’s welcome” and there were several recordings including one by the big crooner of the day, Rudy Vallee , who credited his friend Hupfeld, and included the verse in which uncertainties of the modern world are brought up, paving the way for the  chorus where the timelessness of  moonlight and kisses is  stressed.

There’s no doubt the music is strong and durable: melody lines are memorable and in the bridge a diminished chord underlines the possible  drama in store for  future lovers ( It’s used under “Jealousy and hate”). Plus: “A kiss is still a kiss” goes from a minor sixth chord to a dominant major 7th in a most unusual ( if not unique) way.

       Murray Burnett, who co-wrote the play on which the film is based was so mesmerized by the song  as a college student that his repeated playing of the record caused his friends to threaten violence.  Powerful stuff –it had to be an essential in the play.

       Curiously the full song is never performed in the film- just  settling for  conjuring an atmosphere of intense yearning, of pure nostalgia. Dooley Wilson ,the black  pianist entertainer (and Rick’s loyal confidante Sam), had to rely on his  warm personality in the café scenes because he couldn’t play piano. Instead Elliot Carpenter sidelined the real thing near the  camera.

       Producer Hal Wallis had commissioned songs from Warner staff writers  Jack Scholl and  veteran Alleyman M.K Jerome. It was hoped that their “Knock on wood”  might become a hit.  In this case the ebullient Wilson is allowed to sing the entire number, with the band singing along.

Another community sing along  is the memorable scene where German soldiers  roaring out “The Watch on the Rhine’ are wiped out by a  chorus of would-be Free French citizens,  supported by the Dooley Wilson  band ( augmented by the full Warner studio orchestra, rendering “La Marseillaise’, conducted by resistance leader Victor Lazlo.

       Like all the songs this is  a prime example of music employed as an integral force to move the story along, to underline he action and play on emotions. Sam plays “Speak To Me of love” as Bergman and her husband enter the cafe. This is pop with a purpose, not just pleasant diversion. Likewise Sam plays ”Love for sale” as the flirty and  corrupt prefect of Police introduces himself to the  couple. Not a cue opportunity is missed as vintage pop  is made to work its passage, proving its role on the soundtrack. Max Steiner took up this idea in his score, thickening it with song quotes.

       Indeed there’s a veritable roll call of classic songs amiably, but  with a point  to  make, skittering through the story.  When early on, Sam sings “It Had To Be You”,  Bergman,  Rick’s old flame llsa, is about to enter his cafe with her husband, Rick feels betrayed and Sam sings, “With All your faults I Love you still”. Sam knows there’s trouble ahead for his beloved boss.

       Other songs providing spice and flavor include, “I’m Just Wild about Harry, “Baby Face” and  “If I could be With You”, proving how songs, juxtaposed correctly, can  provide a sort or romantic irony. This had been illustrated in a brutalistic manner  in the 1930s gangster picture “the Public Enemy” when the trussed-up corpse of James Cagney is delivered to his mother just a she’s plumping up pillows for his safe return: a sentimental  waltz,” I’m Forever blowing Bubbles’, is grinding away on the soundtrack. “Casablanca’ takes up the same idea of musical juxtaposition and irony but subtly and with everlasting resonance.

       Truly the movie, probably Hollywood’s finest product, is grand romantic—and timely--melodrama wrapped warmly in relevant song!



Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
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