During the summer of 1938 a New York school teacher spends his three-month break visiting distressed friends in Vienna. He has stopovers in a few European cities along the way. These experiences, augmented by a keen eye and a vivid imagination, inspire him to write a play. The play is not published; it is not produced. And yet, the play’s story would soon go on to inspire, captivate, and enthrall millions of entertainment seekers almost immediately, and well into the future.
Thanks to Netflix, we’ve been already able to watch a fair fraction of the movies acclaimed this year (2012) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – this, within only a few months after the Academy’s big awards ceremony. So far our reaction has been: Yawn – a big fat Yawn. Yes, there is some evidence of good acting, with occasional clever writing. But really, there is nothing to recommend.
The biggest disappointments are (if it’s not too late to save you considerable time): The totally forgettable “The Descendants”, ”Hugo”,” Midnight in Paris”, “The Bridesmaids” and the almost memorable “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” It’s not unlike what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: “There isn’t any there, there.” [Disclosure: “The Artist” just became available and is nearing the top of our queue].
This justifies, yet again, why we’ve been turning more of our “couch leisure entertainment time” to European-produced TV shows and movies. There is much more enjoyment, meaning, risk and diversion – both just plain fun and also intellectual diversion.
Take for example one of our favorite actors, Bruno Ganz, from Switzerland. Ganz is an established successful actor, with a long career of dynamic performances in challenging roles. Most Americans barely know him, if at all, since his movies are all filmed in foreign languages: German (various dialects, including Swiss German — Schwiizertüütsch) and Italian. At age 63 he, along with many other actors, took a crazy chance and risked their careers and reputations to make a terrifying movie about despicable people during a horrific time in history.
Hardly anyone doesn’t know about The Downfall (Der Untergang), with Ganz as Adolf Hitler during the final days of the Third Reich. Sadly, our era’s familiarity is mostly accidental. Even comical. There are almost infinite parodies to be found on YouTube and across the internet of the critical scene wherein Hitler reacts to being informed that there are no armies left to defend Berlin. Ganz brilliantly portrayed the man who is maniacally delusional, emotionally unstable and violent. And ultimately, suicidal.
Decades before Ganz, other actors had more personal reasons for making such “statement” movies. Here I’ll touch on two: Conrad Veidt and Laszlo Löwenstein. And we’ll peek at the unpublished and unproduced play that brought them together, while imprinting them both forever on the cinema psyche.
Veidt (pronounced like “fight”) was born in 1893, in Kaiser’s Germany, in Berlin. He became interested in theatre and acting while away on the eastern front in World War I, when he received a letter from his girlfriend saying she had taken up an interest in acting. Veidt became very ill at the front, returned home, and took up acting – originally as a way to contribute to the war effort by performing for troops.
That relationship quickly dissolved, but soon after the war Veidt’s career took off in the silent movie era. He was bold and brave from the beginning: in 1919 he played an openly homosexual character in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others)
Veidt ground out a couple dozen movies in the 1920s (including Germany’s first “talkie” in 1929), as he worked through a couple of marriages. In the early ‘30s he finally met the love of his life: Lily Prager, a Jew. He courted and married her. Then came 1933. Hitler rose to the German Chancellorship as Der Führer. Veidt and his new bride fled to England.
He continued making movies, and eventually moved to the US to make movies in Hollywood, where he found himself typecast as a German on account of his accented English. He passed away suddenly of a heart attack, aged only 50 – without knowing that the last major movie he ever appeared in would go on to win the Academy’s Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay.
Laszlo Löwenstein (pronounced like LOO-ven-sh-tine) was born in 1904, in Rózsahegy, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, moving at a young age with his widowed father to Vienna, which he considered his hometown. Born and raised Jewish, he began acting while quite young. His career blossomed: he was frighteningly effective as the first serial murderer ever portrayed in cinema in an early talkie, usually called simply “M”, released in Germany in 1931 (Actual full name: “M – Eine Stadt sucht einem Mörder”: “M – A City Looks for a Murderer”). Löwenstein began to draw a lot of attention.
[one reason I liked the movie is that whistling — one of my favorite little hobbies and skills — plays a key roll in finding the murderer]
In 1933 Löwenstein also fled from Germany, for the same reasons as Veidt and thousands of others, ending up first in London. Here, his talents, creepy looks, success in sinister roles such as in M, and odd accent attracted the attention of producer Alfred Hitchcock. Although this connection got him a few roles, he moved on in the mid-‘30s, thereafter making a successful Hollywood career of second-tier roles, mostly playing sinister villain-type roles.
Middle age brought on severe gallbladder problems, and Löwenstein eventually became addicted to morphine, as he struggled to find a balance between pain and awareness. Eventually, complications led to a stroke, and he too died relatively young, aged only 59.
Murray Bennett was a vo-tech (vocational/technical alternative high school) teacher from New York when he took his 1938 summer vacation to travel to Vienna to visit and help Jewish relatives in Vienna. Austria had just been annexed into the Third Reich only a few months before. His experiences in Europe, traveling to and from Vienna, through cosmopolitan and vibrant cities like Paris and Marseilles, led him to write a play based on the sights, sounds and feelings he experienced. He worked with cohort Joan Alison on the script.
A quick synopsis of the three-part play reveals colorful, cynical people living in difficult times; a play about people who get overwelmed by history, and try desperately to balance between doing the best thing for their own self-interest on one hand, and just plain doing the right thing on the other. Its action is centered on a night club — called a café — with a casino and live music. Bennett called the play: “Everybody comes to Rick’s.”
After a few years of failure trying to sell the script for theatre production, Bennett was eventually able to get a movie company, Warner Brothers, to buy the script for $20,000, almost exactly 70 years ago from this writing (*1st draft 2012*), in early 1942. This was shortly after war had come to the US in the form of the bomber troika at Pearl Harbor: dive bombers, torpedo bombers and high altitude bombers. Warner was eager for a cosmopolitan script in an exotic setting that could be re-crafted into a war theme. A plot with a positive allied-friendly story line.
Recruitment of actors began almost immediately. Filming of the movie, set exotically in Vichy-France-controlled Saharan Morocco, followed very soon thereafter. In fact, the screenplay was not yet complete when filming began. Much of the script was written – or made up – a day or less before shooting. But the plot remained largely the same, which can be re-summarized as:
· Man and beautiful woman with a mysterious past meet, and fall in love;
· Man loses beautiful woman in the tumult of unfolding history that steamrolls their lives, and due to an unexpected arrival from the woman’s past;
· Man grows crusty and cynical, becoming purely self-interest driven and “sticks his neck out for nobody”;
· Beyond all odds, they find each other again;
· Through personal growth, self-discovery and new sensitivities to the world, the man turns out to be not so cynical and selfish after all; … and,
· Man gives up the beautiful woman for the good of mankind;
· An unlikely and “beautiful” friendship begins.
Such a movie could not be complete without villains, and two convincing villains are required for “Rick’s”. One was a slimy parasite, who by nefarious crimes — probably including murder — comes into possession of important valuable documents. When the couriers of the documents turn up dead – and the documents turn up missing – police are instructed to “round up the usual suspects.”
The other convincing villain is a Nazi officer – a refined man of culture and high society; a man who is not concerned so much with the missing documents, but rather with ensuring that Nazi resistance fighters don’t go free. In the end, the heretofore cynical protagonist, Rick, turns heroic. He gives the woman the freedom she needs to help fight oppression – and then shoots the evil Nazi officer, Major Strasser, in cold blood. Police are instructed, once again, to “round up the usual suspects.”
Strasser, deliciously evil, was played exquisitely by Conrad Veidt; his German manner and accent coming into perfect play. The slimy character, Signor Ugarte, was played by Laszlo Löwenstein, had since changed his name to a much more American screen-friendly name: Peter Lorre.
Of course, the hero of the story – the selfish cynic who proclaims throughout the movie “I stick my neck out for nobody” and at the end of the story sticks his neck out for little more than “a hill of beans” in order to make a statement against fascism – is Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.
For the movie the title was changed to Casablanca, which premiered in November 1942, with its nationwide release delayed until January, 1943. Thus it was withheld for Academy recognition until 1944, whereupon it won Best Picture, with Jack Benny as emcee.
Casablanca is consistently rated among the best 10 motion pictures ever, usually among the top three.
As with many great films, the real heroes of the story were not the characters played by the glamorous actors — Ingrid Berman’s natural beauty, Bogart’s rugged good looks, and Claude Raines’ personality that almost stole the show completely — but rather the actors who played the non-headline roles. Actors who had fled the terror of Nazidom, and through their acting in support roles, were able to make a token strike back at the evil that had pervaded their homeland.
Much too late for the would-be playrights Bennet and Alison, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” was eventually produced in 1991, fifty years after its writing, receiving fair-to-poor reviews. It’s just hard to match up with a historic five-star movie.
Remember when movies meant something? Remember when you actually went to the movies? You went “there”? And there was a there, there?
I wonder what generations hence will say about Hollywood’s current millennial films. Probably: YAWN.
Joe Girard © 2012, 2017
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Ping me to get on distribution list
 So anxious was Warner to get the movie made, that Casablanca has one of the most blatant and significantly historically inaccurate plot holes in the history of successful films. The supposed missing documents were two “Letters of Transit”, signed by General de Gaulle, that permitted its holders free passage out of Vichy territories like Morocco.
In fact, there were not only no such things as such “Letters of Transit” – especially blank Letters, for that matter, for anyone to use – de Gaulle had no standing with Nazi-friendly Vichy France, having fled France almost immediately after the June, 1940 Armistice. Thereupon he helped found and then lead the Free French Forces, which were quite technically in an open and declared state of war with Vichy at the time.
 Almost exactly coinciding with Casablanca’s premier, the actual city of Casablanca was captured by Allied Forces as a part of Operation Torch, under General Eisenhower. Most French military stationed there put up no resistance and subsequently joined the Allies, fighting with the Free French against Vichy and Nazi Germany.