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'Casablanca' Has a Word for White House Waffling

February 04, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Casablanca," one of our sturdiest cultural institutions, has even entered politics. Some pundits are accusing President Clinton of pulling a "Claude Rains" for supposedly equivocating on campaign promises.

You know, when Rains, as corrupt but lovable police chief Renault, strolls into Rick's Club Americaine and professes amazement that gambling is going on? Washington wags say Clinton is using the same act to claim he didn't know how big the deficit really is, giving him an out to ask for more time to deal with it.

Maybe politicians can now pull "Bogarts" as well, adopting a world-weary resignation at how bad things are and what little they can do about it. An "Ingrid" could be helpful when describing wistfully romantic indecision over which suitor to choose, that looming lobbyist or that microscopic constituent.

Anyway, our capital aside, "Casablanca" is big and apparently getting bigger. Time continues to inflate the legend. Last year, the movie celebrated its 50th anniversary with trumpets blaring and the issue of a newly minted print. That version will screen tonight as part of the Saddleback College/Edwards Cinemas classics series.

The question has always been: Is "Casablanca" a great film? That particular superlative makes me uncomfortable, but just about anyone can agree it's a greatly entertaining film. A friend of mine recently bemoaned the quality of current Hollywood releases by bringing it up: "You look at 'Casablanca' and there's so much there; it's so satisfying," she all but panted. "You look at most of the stuff today, and it leaves you empty."

"Casablanca" is a picture that fills some simple needs: good for snuggling, super for wooing; tells some decent morals about doing the right thing; gets you thinking about romance, fighting bad guys, and travel, especially to exotic places where the drinks are strong, the music sad and everybody speaks his mind.

Who cares that "Casablanca" received mixed reviews in 1942? Or that it's a mini-miracle it was finished in the first place?

The start was inauspicious, with a top studio executive sending producer Hal Wallis a memo that read: "I don't believe the story or the characters. The basic relations are messy. Its big moment is sheer hokum. And this guy Rick is two parts Hemingway, one part Fitzgerald and a dash of cafe Christ."

That naysayer ignored, director Michael Curtiz stepped onto the Warner Bros. Burbank sound stage in late May, 1942, with two-thirds of a screenplay in hand. The studio bosses said never mind, get on with it, time is money, we'll work something out. Part of the fable, apocryphal or otherwise, is that Ingrid Bergman was told to "play it in the middle" when it came to whom she really loved, Bogart or Paul Henreid. Nobody, certainly not the stable of writers, knew how the movie would end.

Bogart and Bergman didn't even like the story, which was based on an unproduced play with the silly title "Everybody Comes to Rick's." Bogart couldn't stand the white suit he had to wear. Bergman was nervous about working for Warner, considered a real crank-'em-out studio. Paul Henreid hated the goody-goody role he was assigned; he was almost suspended because of it.

Ah, a little conflict for everybody. There was a smidgen of scandal, too. Word circulated that Bergman and Bogart, generating such dewy rapport on the set, were having a blazing affair off it. Bergman was especially incensed and disputed the rumor throughout her lifetime.

And what about that most famous of movie songs, "As Time Goes By"? Max Steiner hated his composition and campaigned to remove it from the film. The haunting tune was saved by a haircut. Bergman had already gone through a drastic make-over for her next film, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and the scenes featuring Rick, Sam, Ilsa and "As Time Goes By" couldn't be re-shot.

Enough anecdote; let's get back to the political angle. There are dozens of good lines in "Casablanca," and a favorite is delivered by Rains. "Round up the usual suspects!" he shouts at one point. Now, doesn't that have a nice congressional ring?

What: Michael Curtiz's "Casablanca."

When: Thursday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m.

Where: Edwards Crown Valley cinema, 26862 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo.

Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to Crown Valley Parkway and head east. The theater is in the Mission Viejo Mall.

Wherewithal: $5 and $6.50.

Where to call: (714) 582-4656.

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