Welcome Home, Exes, and Other Random Thoughts

Scatter-shooting while thinking about sports columnist Blackie Sherrod and the great articles he used to write for the Dallas Times Herald

Welcome back to all the Haskell, Mattson, Weinert, and Rochester exes! We are glad you are here and hope you enjoy your visit. No doubt you will notice some new things, here in Haskell and elsewhere – there are several new businesses on the square and around the community, and others that have moved from their familiar locations to new sites (including the Haskell Star offices, now at 112 North Avenue E, and in with the DCOH and the Chamber!). From the football game to the street dance, to the various programs and class activities, we extend best wishes for a safe and enjoyable time with classmates, family and friends. We also pause and remember all those we have lost to Covid and other causes since the last homecoming.

Speaking of football – I love hearing and singing the National Anthem before the start of the games and wish more folks would sing out. I know it’s not an easy tune to carry, but I for one love those lyrics and the true story they tell: how Francis Scott Key was being held on a British warship after negotiating the release of a doctor who had been captured. The Brits were engaged in a fierce naval bombardment of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore, in preparation for invasion, and Mr. Key was being held on the enemy ship and was literally up and down all night. He was watching by “the rocket’s red glare,” to see if the American flag was still flying over the fort, or if enemy forces had captured it.

By the next morning, at “dawn’s early light,” of course, it became apparent that the fort still held firm – and our flag still flew. Our daughter Brittany lives in Baltimore, and a couple of years ago, we got to visit Fort McHenry. I know we are all proud and thankful to be Americans, so let me encourage us ALL to sing those patriotic words – even if we’re not the best vocalists.

Here’s a tip of my cap to my friend Steve Allen Goen from Wichita Falls. Steve is an authority on Texas railroads and their history; he’s also an author and photographer with several books to his credit. Many of his books are beautiful “coffee table”-style collections of gorgeous color photos of different railroads around Texas. He has just released the third in a new series about railroad passenger trains – and this one will be about the Burlington Route, including the Fort Worth & Denver and the Wichita Valley railroads that served Haskell. And he tells me one chapter in this newest book will be about the Doodlebug that operated between Wichita Falls and Abilene.

I have spoken with folks from the Friends of the Haskell County Library, and they may be able to host an “author’s book-signing” later this year, so Steve could come and sell copies of his new book. Watch this space for more details.

For my birthday, my family took me to a showing of No Time to Die, the new James Bond film. I have enjoyed actor Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. He says this will be his final appearance as the British agent, and if so, it was pretty good.

Maybe that’s an idea for a future column – rating the various Bond movies and the different actors who have portrayed author Ian Fleming’s suave agent. You can start a pretty good argument among fans of the series, wrangling over Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan or perhaps Daniel Craig, as their favorite actor-spy.

I have written before about how much I enjoy sitting on my back porch, watching and listening to all the birds as they fill the trees. It’s still something that I love to do, and especially watching the different species of avian friends who come and go with the changing seasons. Now we have new guests – monarch butterflies. These travelers are making their semi-annual visit to our area, and I love to see them as they fly around. It seems especially appropriate with the colors of the fall season, and this close to Halloween, for them to appear in their orange-and-black markings! And thank You, Lord, for the beauty in all of Your creation.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid




The Warner Brothers classic Casablanca is showing this weekend at the Paramount Theatre in Abilene.

Kathy and I are celebrating our anniversary this week – 43 years, to be exact. She suggested that we mark the occasion by visiting one of our favorite places, the Paramount Theatre in Abilene, to watch one of our favorite movies, Casablanca.

Originally built in 1930, the Paramount is a beautiful example of the nostalgic “atmospheric” movie theatre. If you have been there, you know it was built in an era when movie-going was meant to be a grand experience that transported you to another time and place. The theatre’s main auditorium space was designed to re-create a Spanish / Moorish courtyard at night, complete with projected clouds passing over a neon-lit night sky fitted with twinkling stars.

In 1987, the hall was saved from the wrecking ball through the donation of a generous benefactor, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and fully restored. It now boasts a state-of-the-art projection and sound system. Certainly, there are many wonderfully restored theaters around the area – Stamford’s Grand Theatre is a great place to watch a movie – but there’s just something special about the Paramount.

So when you combine that location with my favorite movie, agreeing to her suggestion was a no-brainer. Why do I enjoy that movie so much?

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had an intense but brief love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former lover escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim her?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), for Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and for brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

My favorite thing in this movie might just be the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

That is, until one transformational moment when he makes the decision to take a stand. Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval, and he nods his head. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing as one, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were displaced Europeans; several really had been imprisoned by the Nazis; others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, who would win the war was still very much in doubt, so the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is quite real. And later, when Lazlo tells Rick, “Welcome back to the fight; this time, I know our side will win,” it was an outcome that, in 1942, was still very much up for grabs.

So, Friday night, Kathy and I will get some popcorn and a Diet Coke and find our seats in that plush, gorgeous theatre. One more time we watch Rick and Ilsa; we will listen to Sam “play it again,” and we will root for the good guys in their fight against the Nazis.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

Movies x5, The Sequel

Regular readers of these columns may remember that back in October, I did an article entitled, “The Movies Times Five.” It’s a little game I play with friends of mine who are movie fans, where someone throws out a category, and you have to come up with five good movies in that category. We’ve looked at favorite John Wayne, good war pictures, best Christmas movies, etc.

Are you a movie fan? And especially, are you a fan of the classics? You can play along. And by the way, I heard the other day that with Abilene’s COVID hospitalization rate coming down, the Paramount Theatre was planning to re-open; their first showing is scheduled for this weekend, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Not one of my favorites, but hey, to each his or her own!)

FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Courtroom movies deal with life-and-death issues, and always, the search for truth. No wonder they remain such a vehicle for great storytelling! Two other favorites: Inherit the Wind and A Few Good Men.

  • 5. Anatomy of a Murder. Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott face off in a murder trial of an Army officer. Lee Remick somehow manages to be both gorgeous and innocent at the same time.
  • 4. The Caine Mutiny. There has never been a mutiny on board a US Navy vessel. This movie plays, “What if?” Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, and Van Johnson sta
  • 3.  To Kill a Mockingbird. All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 2. Twelve Angry Men. Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.
  • 1. The Verdict. Paul Newman’s greatest performance, ever. A washed-up, alcoholic, ambulance-chaser has one final chance to do the right thing. James Mason and Jack Warden co-star.

FAVORITE ROBERT REDFORD MOVIES – My wife has had a thing for Redford since before I ever knew her. I really wanted to NOT like the guy, just out of spite, but I have to confess, I’m a fan. Honorable Mentions: The Natural and The Great Waldo Pepper.

  • 5. All the President’s Men. Redford is often at his best when he is co-starring with someone good; Dustin Hoffman more than rises to the occasion. Don’t miss the late Hal Holbrook as Woodward’s secret informer, Deep Throat.
  • 4. The Sting. One of two “buddy” pictures he made with Paul Newman (see #3 on this list for the other). Two con men try to get their revenge on a gangster who murdered a friend of theirs.
  • 3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A very special movie for several reasons: It was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our very first date; also, I’m a big fan of Katherine Ross.
  • 2. The Electric Horseman. Gorgeous scenery of a cowboy trying to “un-screw up his life.” With Jane Fonda and co-starring Willie Nelson, who also supplies several songs for the soundtrack.
  • 1. Three Days of the Condor. He’s a book-reading analyst for the CIA. That’s all he does: read books. Then one day while he’s at lunch, someone murders all of his co-workers. He tries to figure out how to stay alive. And is there anyone he can trust? Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow co-star.

FIVE COMEDIES – Let’s lighten up and have some fun. LOTS of honorable mentions for this category, but especially don’t miss Tootsie, Arsenic & Old Lace, and Bringing Up Baby.

  • 5.  Harvey. Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary friend. Who’s really the crazy one here?
  • 4.  Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks makes fun of westerns, as well as everything else.
  • 3.  Some Like It Hot. Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis witness a mob hit. Things get a little weird.
  • 2.  What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in a classic farce about mixed-up luggage.
  • 1.  It Happened One Night. Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. She’s a spoiled heiress. He’s a hard-boiled newspaper man. Time for Joshua to blow his trumpet.

As a preview of coming attractions, in future columns we will look at favorite baseball movies, Bogart’s best, Film Noir, and more. And until then, as Siskel & Ebert used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.

Christmas at the Movies

I was excited when I learned that the theme for this year’s Haskell Chamber of Commerce Christmas parade was going to be “Christmas Movies.” Because I love movies. And I love Christmas! So naturally, I love Christmas movies. (By the way, the parade this year is scheduled for Saturday, December 12, leaving from the Civic Center at 6:30 pm, and following the usual route.)

Now, I don’t want to start any arguments about whether a particular film should or should not be included in the Christmas movie list – I’ll leave that up to you, gentle reader. If you want to include Die Hard or Home Alone on your list, that’s perfectly fine and entirely up to you. And with that disclaimer, in alphabetical order, here are some personal Christmas movie favorites.

A Christmas Carol (Made for TV, 1984) “Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of this story I am going to relate.” So begins my favorite version of this familiar story by Charles Dickens. It is a British-American production, released to theaters in Great Britain, and on television here. George C. Scott plays the miserly, lonely Ebenezer Scrooge, with David Warner as his faithful employee, Bob Cratchit; and Roger Rees, as the good-hearted nephew, Fred Holywell. Scott does a masterful job of making Scrooge into a believable bad guy, so that the audience is genuinely happy for him after he is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, and the three Christmas spirits, and experiences a change of heart.

Holiday Affair (1949) This is probably the least well known of any of these films, but I just love this little movie. It stars Robert Mitchum and a very young Janet Leigh (only 22 at the time), who plays a war widow with a young son. She is already engaged to one man, but when she meets Mitchum, she can’t deny the attraction she feels. Robert Mitchum is sensational in a break from his usual film noir tough guy roles. It’s a terrific story with a strong supporting cast; look for a young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) as an exasperated police lieutenant trying to sort things out at one point.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) If “Holiday Affair” is one of the least-known Christmas movies, this may be one of the best known. Jimmy Stewart stars in this classic tale of an ordinary man who discovers the difference his life has made in the lives of so many others. It was the first movie he made after coming back from World War II, and he and director Frank Capra wanted it to be a good one. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, and Gloria Grahame are just a few of the others who help make this a movie for the ages. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Attaboy, Clarence.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and an 8-year-old Natalie Wood star in this whimsical fantasy about an old gentleman who is hired to be a department store Santa; the only problem is, he thinks he is the real Kris Kringle. The scene where Santa meets a young orphan from Holland who can’t speak English, and he begins to converse with her in perfect Dutch, is wonderful, as is the movie’s climactic courtroom scene.

White Christmas (1954) This may be our family’s favorite Christmas movie. And yes, I know that it’s basically a remake of “Holiday Inn,” but I like this version better. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play war buddies who have become show business producers, when they meet a sister act featuring Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. My personal favorite moment is when Bing sings to Rosemary, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings.” Screen veterans Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes co-star.

Finally, I realize that there are a LOT of really good – and some very popular – Christmas movies that are not on this list. I’m not saying my list contains the finest holiday movies ever made; they just happen to be my personal picks. I had to make some hard choices to cut it down to only five, so if I have omitted your favorite, I’m sorry. Polar Express. A Christmas Story. Elf. The Shop Around the Corner. Christmas in Connecticut. There are LOTS more to pick from.

If you want to read more about any of these, I’d suggest Christmas in the Movies – 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, published by the Turner Classic Movies channel. And no, they’re not paying me to say this, but it’s a great look at some terrific holiday films, and I highly recommend it for any movie fan on your Christmas gift list.

Save me some popcorn.

The Movies, Times Five

I love classic movies. I DON’T like much of what has been coming out of Hollywood lately. Not because of the content, although that is certainly bad enough.

No, my complaint is that most moviemakers seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story. Thirty-seven explosions in search of a plot does NOT make a good movie, in my opinion. Computer graphics are no substitute for character development, and special effects cannot take the place of, you know, a good story. I don’t think I’m just being an old curmudgeon. I don’t hate technology in movies – I just think I deserve more than that for my $10 or $12.

Actually, I like playing a little game with other movie fans. Here’s how it goes: pick a category of movie and list your five favorites from that category. Drama. Action / Adventure. Horror. Comedy. So here are some categories of movies, and five of my favorites of each category – the movies times five, get it?

FIVE WAR MOVIES – So-called “war” movies are sometimes accused of glorifying violence, but I think a good one has just the opposite effect, showing the waste and futility.  Here are five good ones.

5.  Gettysburg. Jeff Daniels shines as the professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who receives the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.

4.  The Enemy Below. Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens are amazing as the American and German captains opposing each other.  Who – or what – is the real enemy?

3.  Saving Private Ryan. I always wondered what it would be like to be behind a landing craft door when it dropped open.  It ain’t pretty.

2.  Twelve O’Clock High. Gregory Peck as a good man struggling under the burden of what he must do to push his men and accomplish the mission.

1.  The Guns of Navarone. Another great Gregory Peck role, with another fine cast.  David Niven is terrific.

FIVE JOHN WAYNE MOVIES – John Wayne is, and always will be, known for his Westerns.  But I think he was often at his best when he took that persona and translated it into other kinds of movie storytelling.  Honorable mention: Hellfighters.

5.  The Shootist. The Duke’s last movie, playing an aging gunfighter who just wants to die in peace.  All actors should go out so well.

4.  True Grit. Come see a one-eyed fat man.

3.  The High and the Mighty. John Wayne is a pilot on a doomed airliner.

2.  Fort Apache. Watching him work with Henry Fonda is SUCH a treat.

1.  The Quiet Man. Sean Thornton, home from America, to forget his troubles.

FIVE ALL-TIME FAVORITES – These are my TOP FIVE.

5.  The Shawshank Redemption. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are a treat to watch. NOT family friendly.

4.  Tender Mercies. Talk about redemption: at the end of the movie, when Robert Duvall is throwing the football with his stepson, you have the answer to the question, “Why?”

3.  The Quiet Man. John Ford and company at their best, along with stunning Irish scenery.

2.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Newman and Redford. A sentimental favorite because it was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our first date.

1.  Casablanca. Is it a war movie?  Is it a romance?  Is it a character picture?  Yes, all of that, and more.  Bogart.  Bergman.  For all sorts of reasons, everybody comes to Rick’s.

So, those are some of my favorites. What are yours? And please pass the popcorn.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former love escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim his lost love?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.

First – here’s the original trailer for the film.

So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.

The Movie’s Backstory

Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.

The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.

The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.

Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.

Sparkling Dialogue

Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.

Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –

 Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Sparkling!

Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rick’s Redemption

Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.

I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.

Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.

And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.

The Movies, 5 x 5

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me, that I love the movies. I like movie soundtracks. I love throwing out movie quotes at appropriate moments, sometimes just to see if anyone will catch it. And frankly my dear, I DON’T like much of what has been coming out of Hollywood lately. Not because of the content, although that is certainly bad enough.

No, my complaint is that most directors, producers and screenwriters seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story visually. Twenty-seven explosions in search of a plot does NOT make a good movie, in my opinion. CGI is no substitute for genuine character development, and SPFX cannot take the place of a good, you know, story.

I write this, knowing that I have friends in the movie business, both writers and actors. And truthfully, I don’t object to good visual effects – in fact, I love them. I think the “Star Trek” reboot movies are a good example – especially this most recent film, “Into Darkness.” I thought it had a really good story that was really well told, and for once, the effects – including the 3D – actually ADDED to the movie’s effectiveness. I saw it in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D shot of the Enterprise rising up out of the clouds was simply gorgeous.

And this from a diehard fan of the original Trek TV show, who really wanted NOT to like what these young whippersnappers were doing with my franchise.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m just being an old curmudgeon, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” sort of guy. I don’t hate technology in movies. I just think I have a right to expect more than that for my $12.

I got to spend some time with my brother David and his family last week, and we got on the subject of favorites movies. Actually, I like playing a little game with other movie fans. Here’s how it goes: you pick a category of movie, and list your five favorites from that category. Drama. Action / Adventure. Horror. Comedy.

Yes, I know it’s nerdy. And geeky. What can I say? I AM a nerd. And a geek. But you must like the movies too, or you wouldn’t still be reading at this point, right? So here’s how we’re going to play. I’m going to pick five categories of films, then tell you my five favorites in that category – 5 x 5, get it?

You are welcome to disagree, debate about which movies should have been listed, wonder how I could be so dense as to have left off one of your favorites from a given list, or whatever. That’s part of the fun here. And I’m not saying these are necessarily the best movies of these categories ever made, just my favorites.  If you really want to get into it, you can always sign up at IMDb.com, and create your own lists that you can post.  It’s showtime, folks! (Quick: what movie is that line from?)

FIVE ALL-TIME FAVORITES –  These are my favorite movies.  They are not all necessarily “great” films, but all them continue to touch me deeply.  Here’s a link to the complete list of my Top 25 favorites.

  • 5.  The Shawshank Redemption.  This movie meets one of my criteria for “favorite,” which is that I watch it any time it comes on TV.  Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are a treat.
  • 4.  Tender Mercies.  Talk about redemption: at the end of the movie, when Robert Duvall is throwing the football with his stepson, you have the answer to the question, “Why?”  Incredible movie.
  • 3.  The Quiet Man.  The John Ford Company Players at their best, along with stunning Irish scenery.
  • 2.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  A sentimental favorite because it was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our first date.  Then 30+ years later, we went to see it at the Paramount on our anniversary.
  • 1.  Casablanca.  Is it a war movie?  Is it a romance?  Is it a character picture?  Yes, all of that, and more.  Bogart.  Bergman.  For all sorts of reasons, everybody comes to Rick’s.

FIVE FAVORITE WAR MOVIES – So-called “war” movies are sometimes accused of glorifying violence, but I think a good one has just the opposite effect, showing the waste and futility.  Here are five good ones.

  • 5.  Gettysburg.  Jeff Daniels shines as the speech professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who receives the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.
  • 4.  The Enemy Below.  Robert Mitchum and Curd Jurgens are amazing as the American and German captains opposing each other.  Who – or what – is the real enemy?
  • 3.  Saving Private Ryan.  I always wondered what it would be like to be behind a landing craft door when it dropped open.  It ain’t pretty.
  • 2.  Twelve O’Clock High.  Gregory Peck as a good man struggling under the burden what he must do to push his men and accomplish the mission.
  • 1.  The Guns of Navarone.  Another great Gregory Peck role, with another fine cast.  David Niven is terrific.

FIVE FAVORITE JOHN WAYNE MOVIES –  John Wayne is, and always will be, known for his Westerns.  But I think he was often at his best when he took that persona and translated it into other kinds of movie storytelling.  Honorable mention: Hellfighters.

  • 5.  The Shootist.  The Duke’s last movie, playing an aging gunfighter who just wants to die in peace.  All actors should go out so well.
  • 4.  True Grit.  Come see a one-eyed fat man.
  • 3.  The High and the Mighty.  John Wayne is a pilot on a doomed airliner.
  • 2.  Fort Apache.  Watching him work with Henry Fonda was always a treat.
  • 1.  The Quiet Man.  Sean Thornton, home from America, to forget his troubles.

FIVE FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Trials naturally lend themselves to good movie making.  Life and death, freedom and imprisonment, right and wrong.  Another of the great ones (even though it’s not on this list): Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

  • 5.  The Caine Mutiny.  Humphrey Bogart is great; Jose Ferrer is superb.  Fred McMurray is agreeably spineless and slimy.
  • 4.  The Verdict.  This was Paul Newman’s greatest role, in my opinion, as an alcoholic ambulance-chaser looking for redemption.
  • 3.  A Few Good Men.  Aaron Sorkin writes, and Tom and Demi go up against Jack.  You can’t handle the truth.
  • 2.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 1.  Twelve Angry Men.  Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.

FIVE FAVORITE BASEBALL MOVIES –  I think it’s fair to say that there have been more great baseball pictures, than all other categories of sports movies combined.  This summer’s 42 is also really, really good.

  • 5.  The Sandlot.  Friends and summers and growing up.  And James Earl Jones ain’t bad.
  • 4.  A League of Their Own.  You know it as well as I do: There’s no crying in baseball.
  • 3.  Field of Dreams.  So many memorable lines and moments.  “No, I mean, what do you want?”  “Oh.  A dog and a beer.”
  • 2.  The Natural.  Yes, it’s cheesy and melodramatic at times.  It’s still wonderful watching Redford knock the cover off the ball.  There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.
  • 1.  Bull Durham.  Okay, this movie has some of the dirtiest language ever put on celluloid, and I really can’t recommend it for that reason.  But it captures the joy of the game and essence of baseball in a way few others have ever matched.  The rose goes in front, big guy.

There, see how easy that was? So now, get your Siskel & Ebert on, and come up with some lists of your own. And please pass the popcorn.

A Movie of Immense Power

Not that it needs anything from me, but I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

It is a movie of immense power.

First of all, a couple of notes.  This is NOT a movie for people who go to the show to see special effects, or to see stuff blown up.  There’s an actual story here.  Second, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, save yourself the $8 and stay home.  If you didn’t like “The West Wing” on TV, you almost certainly won’t like “Lincoln.”

But: if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to go see this.

Here’s the story: It is January, 1865.  The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected.  Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment.  The amendment has passed the Senate, but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly-divided House.

They say there two things you never want to watch: one is how sausage is made, and the other is how legislation gets passed.  Make an exception in this case.

Daniel Day Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch, and he is surrounded by incredible talent – Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, just to name a few.  When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders,  “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.  I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes …”

It’s an actual quote, as cited by John B. Alley, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, ed., Rice, 1886 ed., p 585-6.

And then there’s Sally Field.  The fact is, Mary Todd Lincoln had battled mental illness for much of her life, and when their middle son died, she never fully recovered from the loss.  The scene in the privacy of their bedroom, when she and Mr. Lincoln have a screaming fight, is in my opinion, one of the most powerful ever put on film.  Watching her and Daniel Day Lewis go at each other is like watching Frazier and Ali trading punches.

And I don’t have time to tell you how amazing Tommie Lee Jones is here.

I love the way Spielberg structured the storytelling here.  The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors.  “Lincoln” is a gem.