Friday, June 30, 2023

Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca

Recently I was on a transatlantic flight: destination Morocco. The plane landed at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, the country’s largest and most international city. One of many choices on my plane’s seatback television screen was that golden oldie from 1942, Casablanca. It’s still revered, more than 80 years later, as one of the great screen romances of all time. The movie’s ability to combine a poignant love story with a World War II thriller is part of why it’s lasted so long. Among its many honors, it was in the first class of films accepted (in 1989) into the National Film Registry due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

The release history of Casablanca is a fascinating one. The film’s setting in a North African city that was then part of a French protectorate but also served as a gateway to far corners of the globe ensured there’d be plenty of on-screen friction between a  multitude of nationalities. Casablanca was released at the height of World War II, so of course the worst of the bad guys who frequent Rick’s Café are Nazi officers. They’re linked with functionaries of the French Vichy government who perform their duties under the heavy German thumb. That’s why in March 1943 the film was officially banned in Ireland, which sought to retain its wartime neutrality. Two years later, Casablanca was finally released in Ireland, after trims were made to romantic dialogue focusing on Rick and Ilsa’s Paris love affair.

 Of course German audiences would not see Casablanca until long after the war was over. A shortened and heavily edited version was released by Warner Bros. in West Germany in 1952.  Remarkably, this de-Nazified Casablanca changed Ilsa’s husband, Victor Lazlo, from a heroic Czech Resistance fighter who has escaped from a Nazi concentration camp  to a Norwegian atomic physicist who has broken out of jail. It was not until 1976 that German audiences could watch the film in its original version.

 Lovers of Casablanca always point to the dramatic intensity of the film’s supporting players, especially in the famous “duel of the anthems” sequence.  Nazi soldiers kicking back at Rick’s Café enthusiastically begin to sing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” but their voices are drowned out by the rest of the crowd’s heartfelt rendition of the Free French anthem, “La Marseillaise.” The closeups in this section are dramatic, partly because so many of the players—notably Madeleine LeBeau, Marcel Dalio, Peter Lorre, and Conrad Veidt—were themselves exiles and refugees. (Ironically, Jewish actors who had fled Europe during Hitler’s reign often found their careers depended upon playing Nazi roles in Hollywood.)

 The screenplay for Casablanca, based on an unproduced play, was the work of many hands, notably those of brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. The story goes that the Epsteins and others were busy writing even while the film was being shot. That’s why Ingrid Bergman, as Ilsa, honestly wasn’t clear on whether she’d be getting on a plane with her husband (Paul Henreid) or staying behind with onetime love Humphrey Bogart. She’s said to have faulted her own performance because she wasn’t sure as an actress which option her character would choose. But generations of moviegoers agree that her uncertainty was exactly right for this film.

 Casablanca was rushed onto movie screens to tie in with the real-life North African offensive that put the locale on the international map. How well does the film reflect the actual city? Not at all, because it was filmed on a Hollywood backlot. There’s a Rick’s Café in today’s Casablanca, but it’s strictly a tourist trap.

 Much has been written about the making of this film. I’ve used other sources, but want to cite here Noah Isenberg’s 2017 publication, We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie


Tuesday, June 27, 2023

"Jurassic Park” and “Carnosaur”: When Dinosaurs Galumph Down Memory Lane

Thirty years ago this month, the nation held its collective breath, wondering how Steven Spielberg would bring to the big screen Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, a  bestselling novel about dinosaurs running amok in the modern world. And what was I doing around that time? Along with other members of Roger Corman’s creative staff, I was patting myself on the back, overjoyed that we at Concorde-New Horizons had managed to scoop Spielberg. Not in terms of lavish production values, of course. Hardly endowed with Spielberg’s access to CGI technology. we had managed to come up with only a single tyrannosaurus. Roger decreed that it be eighteen feet tall, thus out-Spielberging Spielberg. But the ceiling of our rather make-shift Venice studio was only sixteen feet high, so the height requirement had to go.

 It all began while the Crichton novel (first published in 1990) was being transformed into a motion picture. Always quick to sense the national pulse, Roger set aside a project dramatizing the bloody L.A. civil uprising of 1992 in order to bring his own dinosaur movie to the screen. Our mandate: to get our film into theatres before Jurassic Park opened, thus luring in viewers who couldn’t wait a moment longer to watch rampaging dinosaurs First, of course, came the script. Roger purchased a novel by the Australian sci-fi novelist, John Brosnan. A man who knew how to make a buck, Brosnan had published back in 1984 a novel called Carnosaur, under the nom de plume Harry Adam Knight. I  read it in the line of duty, looking for plot ideas, but didn’t find them in the book’s turgid pages. We at Concorde noted that the initials of Harry Adam Knight could certainly stand for “hack.” This novel was hack-work, pure and simple. Without question, we needed to start from scratch. All we kept from Carnosaur was its title . . .  and maybe that chicken farm set-up.

 Roger hired a bright but spelling-challenged USC film school grad, Adam Simon, to write and direct our dinosaur movie. Perhaps influenced by the opening of Brosnan’s novel on a chicken farm, Adam concocted a story about a mad scientist, working for the mysterious Eunice Corporation, who manipulates chicken embryos into future dinosaurs, the better to undermine the human race. The plotline allowed for lots of gory footage, and we hired a big-name actor for the key role of Dr. Jane Tiptree. While in Jurassic Park young Laura Dern was running from dinosaurs, we had her mother, Diane Ladd, playing the scientist who stirs up all the chaos. I don’t know if Ladd was the first-ever female mad scientist in the movie world, but she was outstandingly creepy. It was largely thanks to her vivid performance that TV reviewer Gene Siskel gave our movie an enthusiastic thumbs-up. (His boob-tube buddy, Roger Ebert, called Carnosaur the worst film of 1993.)

 Carnosaur still leaves Adam Simon with a bitter taste in his mouth. When Roger asked Simon to write and shoot his quickie dinosaur epic, Simon took the difficult assignment because he was guaranteed a $3 million budget. Then, three weeks before photography commenced, the budget suddenly shrank to $850,000, a figure Simon is now convinced was part of Corman’s plan all along. To make matters worse, when Roger (on the strength of Carnosaur’s success in video stores) spoke to the Hollywood Reporter, he bragged he’d laid out $5 million.  A humiliated Simon felt Carnosaur looked particularly shoddy if judged by the industry’s 1993 expectations of what $5 million can buy. So Simon now regards Carnosaur as a cautionary tale for fledgling filmmakers everywhere.


Friday, June 23, 2023

The Eyes Have It: Bette Davis in “Dark Victory”

In 1974, two music industry veterans wrote a song called “Bette Davis Eyes.” Nine years later, the tune became a major hit for Kim Carnes, and the 73-year-old diva wrote a letter thanking everyone involved for making her “a part of  modern times.”  (She also noted that the song had won her new respect from her grandson.) Davis’s prominent eyes were indeed distinctive. When she was at the  height of her filmmaking powers, young movie fan (and future novelist) James Baldwin overcame his sense of his own ugliness when he recognized that he too had “Bette Davis eyes.”

 Which makes it all the more striking that “Dark Victory,” one of Davis’s most major screen triumphs, is about a woman who’s going blind. To be clear, she spends most of the movie with her sight intact, but the threat of blindness hangs over her throughout. What’s the problem? It’s one of those mysterious movie diseases that I suspect never show up in any medical textbook, but there’s a brain tumor involved somehow. Davis’s Judith Traherne is a socialite, headstrong and bold, who suffers a serious riding accident when her vision suddenly fails her as she tries to urge her horse over a fence. Despite her initial defiant resistance, she allows surgeon Frederick Steele to operate, and all seems well. But in fact the tumor remains present, and medical experts agree that she’ll soon succumb to blindness and die almost instantly thereafter.    

 The bulk of the film is devoted to various characters’ attempts to conceal from one another the fatal prognosis.  Out of love, Dr. Steele hides from Judy the deadly truth. Of course she discovers what’s going on, and tries to resist Steele’s marriage proposal, assuming it’s an act of pity. To me, one of the film’s most dramatic moments is the use of a match struck to light a cigarette:  Judy’s sudden awkwardness tells us that she’s experiencing double vision, a symptom of her neurological problem. But I also loved the late section of the film in which Judy—usually as tough and egocentric as only Bette Davis can be—is blissfully in love, reveling in a modest domestic life far from her previous haunts. In this part of the story she seems physically transformed, and her gaiety is infectious. But then, of course, life comes crashing in on her, leading to a heroic but weepy conclusion.

 Warner Bros. released Dark Victory (a stage hit for Tallulah Bankhead) in 1939, a year that’s often touted as the greatest in Hollywood history. Davis’s Oscar-nominated performance was upstaged by Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind, and other big films included Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, and The Wizard of Oz. Though Dark Victory won no prizes, Davis has called it her favorite performance. Co-starring with her was George Brent, a reliable but (to me) somewhat stolid actor who played alongside Davis in multiple films and was involved with her in a tumultuous two-year affair. But I was more intrigued by two featured players. None other than Humphrey Bogart plays Davis’s stablemaster, Michael O’Leary. He wrestles with an Irish accent but aces a scene in which he reveals his unrequited love for her. (I’m told there was once a final scene of him weeping after Judy’s demise, but test audiences would have none of that.) 

 Also aboard is a future U.S. president. Yes, Ronald Reagan is featured as a wealthy playboy He’s always around in the party scenes and apparently has a yen for Judy but knows that a serious-minded swain like Dr. Steele is more her type.