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.