In 1976, I was completely unaware that the location of my introduction to Casablanca (1942) was a theatre with an instrumental role in the post WWII “cult of Casablanca” history of the film.

I was a freshman at Harvard College (in this era called Harvard-Radcliffe in its stutter-stepped morphing for the female students from Harvard-for-boys and Radcliffe-for-girls to a single sex institution).  I was already a deep and invested fan of great Hollywood musicals (oh say Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Garland) and dramas (Hepburn, Bergman, Davis, sigh) when I arrived on campus.  I knew I would be committing acts of  theatre even while studying other things in the liberal arts tradition.  And I knew I had massive gaps in my movie-going knowledge to fill — and this was pre-video, kids, so to be a film fan you actually had to as projected through actual projectors in actual theatres or in uncomfortable auditoriums on college campuses.  So I had films to see and to see again.  In auditoriums and in theatres.

So Casablanca.  Brattle Theatre, Cambridge Massachusetts. In a double bill with Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam (1972).  It was time.

The Brattle’s role in the resurgence of interest in Casablanca I gleaned from books and conversations about the independent film movement in general, and in books and documentaries focused specifically on our story of Rick and Ilsa and Free France and surging romance and politics.  I also learned from these sources and others that the movie itself was based on a stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s … a fact that the dramaturg in me just loves.  The movie script became its own creation but the stage play and the fact of the events at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 were the sparks that animated this exquisite cinematic creation.

More on the role of the Brattle in The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (previously published as Round Up the Usual Suspects), Arjean Harmetz, 2002, p. 344:

Humphrey Bogart died in January 1957.  The cult of Casablanca was born three months later.  If Cyrus Harvey, Jr. was not the father of the phenomenon, he was certainly the midwife.  In 1953, Harvey and Bryant Haliday had turned the Brattle Theatre across from Harvard University into an art cinema.  Harvey, who had spent much of his Fulbright scholarship year in Paris watching movies at Henri Langlois’s Cinematheque Francaise, programmed the Brattle with European classics and the early films of Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman, for whom Harvey and Haliday became the American distributors.

“At some point, we thought that we ought to bring in some of the American films that hadn’t been shown that much,” says Harvey.  “And my partner and I both thought that the Bogarts were vastly underrated.  I think Casablanca wa the first one we played.  It was my favorite. I thought that Bogart was probably the best American actor who ever lived.  And the picture caught on very rapidly.  The first time we played it, there was a wonderful reaction.  Then the second, third, fourth, and firth times it took off.  The audience began to chant the lines.  It was more than going  to the movies.  It was sort of partaking in a ritual.”

“Casablanca played at the Brattle for the first time on April 21, 1957.  It was so successful with Harvard students that it was held over for a second week.  Then the Bogart festivals began, with six or eight of his movies playing each semester during final-examination weeks.  The festivals would culminate with Casablanca.  It was at Harvard that the relevance of Casablanca to a generation that had no relationship to World War II became apparent.”

The Brattle Theatre was built for live stage productions and converted for use as a film theatre.  Perfect for the film and theatre fan seated in those seats that long ago evening.  I appreciated the luscious black and white cinematography of the film itself.  I forgave the beating of the drums for war in response to the events of December 1941 which coincided with the beginning of work on this film.  And I revel in the words that ring to this day.  I do not now nor did I then chant the words with the actors (like Rocky Horror Picture Show, my goodness), but I smile quietly in anticipation of some, tear up at others, feel righteously patriotic elsewhere.  In so many ways, so many scenes, so many interactions.  And some of my favorites come within the first 20 minutes of the film and involve just the boys.

Scene: Europeans in the city square, observing a new set of arrests.  Our speaker is being “helpful” while at the same time picking the pocket of the man to whom he offers these words of advice. [“vultures”]

“I beg of you, Monsieur, watch yourself. Be on guard. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere, everywhere.”

Scene: Rick and Captain Renault, Prefect of Casablanca.  Outside the cafe. [“i was misinformed”]

RENAULT: I have often speculated on 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.

RENAULT: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

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

RENAULT: Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

RICK: I was misinformed.

Scene: Rick is introduced to a table of German officers. [“certain sections of new york”]

STRASSER: (to Rick) Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?Unofficially, of course.

RICK: Make it official, if you like.

STRASSER: What is your nationality?

RICK: (pokerfaced) I’m a drunkard.

RENAULT: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.

RICK: I was born in New York City if that’ll help you any.

STRASSER: I understand you came here from Paris at the time of the occupation.

RICK: There seems to be no secret about that.

STRASSER: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?

RICK: It’s not particularly my beloved Paris.

HEINZE: Can you imagine us in London?

RICK: When you get there, ask me.

RENAULT: Ho, diplomatist!

STRASSER: How about New York?

RICK: Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.


Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Casablanca (1942).

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 1, 2009)

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