Monday, May 29, 2006


The pall of Sunset Boulevard continues to haunt us from the peripheries of the silver screen.

by Nick Zegarac

"An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark—that is critical genius!"
- Billy Wilder

In retrospect, Billy Wilder’s 1950 film masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard serves as a bridge for audiences’ interpretation of that mythical Mecca in motion pictures; between those heady glamour days of golden Hollywood and the corrupt cynical shell of its current incarnation. To some extent, the film capital of the world has always been a flamboyant repository for forgotten daydreams and refurbished nightmares.

The very nature of the business of making movies is firmly predicated on generating a perpetual popularity contest through the perennial exploitation of people. Stars are worth money because they attract an audience. However, when the prevailing wind of fickle adoration shifts, stars become has-beens overnight, or – as the character of Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard refers to them – “the waxworks.”

Apart from its importance as a work of art then, Sunset Boulevard is a film generously peppered in Hollywood folklore and verisimilitude. From its cameo performances by forgotten silent stars, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and Buster Keaton, to its almost unobtrusive insertion of directorial giant Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself, and actually on the set of his own production of Samson and Delilah) as Norma’s Janus-faced confident, the film abounds in bittersweet reflections made all the more relevant with each passing year. DeMille (right) was not particularly keen on lending his participation.

In fact, he only agreed to be in the film for $10,000 and a new Cadillac – a fee doubled to $20,000 after Wilder asked DeMille for a close up. “I have ten commandments too” Wilder would later muse, “The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut.”

DeMille did, however, lend his own air of authenticity to his brief appearance. Upon meeting Norma Desmond at the door of Stage 18 he greets the actress with “Hello, young fella” – a term of endearment DeMille used often with Gloria Swanson during her heady days on the Paramount backlot.

Though much of the story is executed on carefully constructed sets inside Paramount soundstages, Billy Wilder effective use of several key locations throughout Hollywood - including the famed Schwab’s Drug Store – firmly establish the tale as ‘a story about Hollywood’.

Even the Isotta-Fraschini antique car that doubles as Norma’s limousine comes with an interesting back story. The car had once belonged to socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce; a present from lover, automobile magnate Walter Chrysler. At a 1929 cost of $50,000 (worth half a million today) the car was the most expensive luxury automobile made for many years to come. Only six currently exist in the United States, including the one used in the film (on display in Las Vegas). In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder’s screenplay makes reference to the fact that the automobile is desired for ‘some Bing Crosby picture’ – a subtle snub to ‘der Bingle’ who had once crossed Wilder’s path by rewriting some of his dialogue on The Emperor Waltz (1948).

“If you're going to tell people the truth, be funny or they'll kill you.” - Billy Wilder

Through his directorial prowess, his sardonic wit and his use in structure of the classic Hollywood narrative, Billy Wilder’s interpretation of both the town and the industry in which he toiled remains one of the most scathing indictments on that dream-like façade behind which lurks a more decrepit sardonic wonderland.

Reportedly, after pre-screening the film for a group of his contemporaries, Wilder was besot by the full wrath of then MGM President Louie B. Mayer who admonished the director’s hutsba at casting an unflattering light on the industry with “You bastard! How could you do that?!?” Reflecting on the minor confrontation years later, Wilder would muse, “If there’s anything I hate more than being taken seriously, it’s being taken too seriously.”

Indeed, L.B. Mayer had missed that point. Wilder had no misgivings about presenting his embittered take on the land of make-believe to the world at large. Wilder was, after all, the sole survivor in his family after Adolph Hitler’s ethnic cleansing.

He was a hardened refugee imbued with a clairvoyance that, even at an early age, probably precluded his initial thoughts of become a lawyer. Instead, Wilder took up as a reporter for a Viennese tabloid newspaper in Berlin. Employing his quick shot, no holds barred style, Wilder graduated from journalism to script writing at UFA Studios in 1929. If it were not for Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Wilder might never have emigrated - first to Paris and then the U.S.

Speaking no English upon his arrival in Hollywood, Wilder made a quick study of the language, in part due to his friendship with actor Peter Lorre with whom he shared an apartment. A chance meeting with writer Charles Brackett began a friendship in 1938 that soon blossomed into a lucrative writing partnership responsible for Garbo’s comedic Ninotchka(1939) and Barbara Stanwyck’s electrifying, Ball of Fire (1941). By 1942, Brackett had become a producer and Wilder began directing. Wilder’s first big success as a director was the now classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1943), but it was his Oscar win for The Lost Weekend (1945) that paved the way for Sunset Boulevard – a film that no studio prior to his win had wanted to make.

As originally scripted, Sunset Boulevard was to have opened with a scene shot in the Los Angeles county morgue. The body of screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is wheeled in on a stretcher and shortly thereafter begins an inner dialogue with the other corpses. The sequence was meant to explain how Joe has come to his untimely end. However, reportedly this intro was quietly laughed off the screen during a sneak preview, forcing Wilder to re-conceive the start of his film with the now famous shot of Joe’s body floating face down in the swimming pool of forgotten has-been, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

As it exists in the film today, the pool sequence proved something of quiet dilemma for Wilder and his technicians to figure out. The pool itself was constructed by the Paramount film crew on the property of an abandon estate built by William Jenkin in 1924 for a then unheard of sum of $250,000. At the time Sunset Boulevard began filming, the home belonged to Jean Getty, the widow of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. The house and grounds were located – not in the 10000 block of Sunset Blvd. as the film proclaims, but - on the 3800 block of Wilshire where a gas station currently stands.

As no proper plumbing existed, the pool built by Paramount’s craftsmen was never fully functional. However, Wilder had wanted to show Joe’s body from an underwater perspective. After considerable experimentation, it was discovered that if the water was maintained at forty degrees a mirror could be laid at the bottom of the pool into which Wilder and his crew could photograph the action from top side at the edge with minimal distortion.

Today, it seems quite impossible to consider anyone but William Holden and Gloria Swanson as the washed up writer and forgotten diva respectively. But at the time pre-production began, Mae West was among the first offered the role of Norma Desmond. West’s penchant for rewriting her own dialogue precluded Wilder from accepting her in the part. Pola Negri was next considered until Wilder realized her Polish accent was too thick. Even America’s sweetheart of the silent era, Mary Pickford was briefly considered, before an inspired afternoon tea in the garden of director George Cukor provided the ideal choice in casting. It is Cukor who must get credit for recommending Swanson to Wilder, a role that will forever be associated with the actress’s name.

Born in Chicago on March 27, 1897, Gloria May Josephine Svensson had been one of Hollywood’s biggest silent stars. Certainly, she was the highest paid by the mid-1920s. It has been rumored, for example, that Swanson spent a lavish eight million dollars throughout the decade at a time when bread was three cents a loaf. Throughout the early years of the film industry, she appeared in an unprecedented string of mega hits.

However, Swanson’s penchant for collecting and divorcing husbands, and her not so private affair with Joseph Kennedy (father of future President JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy) proved her quiet undoing. After 1929’s disastrous premiere of Queen Kelly (a film that Kennedy financed), Swanson’s popularity in motion pictures severely dipped. Though she made the transition from silent films to sound without much consternation, it was clear that the type of entertainment Swanson had been most closely associated with had fallen out of fashion.

By the end of the 1930s, Swanson – like her on camera diva, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard had become a forgotten relic in Hollywood. However, unlike Norma, Gloria Swanson was far from desperate to make her comeback. During her absence from the screen, Swanson had made a stunning success of both a career on the stage, and, as entrepreneur of a lucrative cosmetic company. Indeed, when she was first contacted by Wilder for the film, Swanson’s assumption was that she had been chosen to play a bit part - not the lead.

By all accounts, William Holden was a far more risqué bit of casting. William Franklin Beedle Jr., the son of a wealthy industrial chemist, who had shot to screen prominence in 1939’s Golden Boy, had since been relegated to playing second string congenial youth bit parts in films that neither advanced nor enhanced his reputation. However, Billy Wilder had been interested in Holden almost from the beginning of planning his film.

Though the part of Joe Gillis had originally been offered to, and accepted by, Montgomery Clift (a choice Clift later regretted and withdrew from just weeks before principle photography began), Holden’s casting in Sunset Boulevard proved the much needed boost in his career. From 1950 onward, Holden’s reputation in Hollywood solidly developed into one of filmdom’s most prominent and readily accessible super stars.

The last bit of inspired casting derived from Billy Wilder’s choice of former director, Eric Von Stroheim to play Norma Desmond’s chauffeur, Max. Indeed, despite his absence behind the camera for nearly thirty years, Stroheim the actor remained a formidable force to be reckoned with on the set. Throughout his life, Eric Von Stroheim had carried that air of self importance and fictional aristocracy that belied his modest physical deportment and impoverished heritage.

Temperamental – at times, to the point of violence, particularly during his zenith in the 1920s, Stroheim had built a name and a reputation for himself within the industry as something of a brilliant ogre. So long as his films made money, his particular brand of boorishness was tolerated by the studio heads. But then there came the two great artistic missteps that dismantled his directorial career; 1924’s Greed (which was extravagant to the point of absurdity and greatly paired down by the powers that be at MGM) and 1929’s Queen Kelly (for which Gloria Swanson’s admonishment of his manic working style effectively ruined Von Stroheim’s reputation).

Musing over the folly that had confined him to supporting roles in other director’s movies, Stroheim said, “If you live in France and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film, fifty years ago, and nothing ever since, you are still recognized as an artist and honored accordingly.

In Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production in the last three months, you're forgotten, no matter what you have achieved before this. It is that terrific, unfortunately necessary, egotism in the makeup of the people who make the cinema. It is the continuous endeavor for recognition, that continuous struggle for survival and supremacy, among the newcomers, that relegates the old-timers to the ash-can.”

Although the filming of Sunset Boulevard progressed without much incident, one minor debacle did occur on the set while Billy Wilder was busy filming the balcony love scene between Joe and staff reader, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).

As Olson later recalled, William Holden’s wife (Artis, nee Brenda Marshall) was on the set during the shoot. Just prior to setting up his first take, Wilder had explained to his two actors that he intended on using their passionate embrace as a dissolve into the next shot, hence the embrace would need to last longer than it actually should in order to cover the span of the match between these two scenes. However, when Olson and Holden locked lips for what seemed an uncomfortable eternity, jealously got the better of Artis Holden who interrupted the shoot by shouting, “Cut! Damn it! Cut!”

Although the world outside of Hollywood embraced Sunset Boulevard upon its premiere, (a swelter of publicity that has since incrementally grown) today, the characterizations in it seem far more poignantly tragic and less grandiose or over-the-top flamboyant than they did in 1950. Norma Desmond is no longer a creature of unique spiraling dementia, but a catch-all for the rabid sad fading façade inherent in all dethroned Hollywood queens.

Indeed, Hollywood accepted Wilder’s masterwork only up to a point. It was, for example, nominated as Best Picture at the Oscars but lost the award to Joseph L. Mankewiecz’s All About Eve – a scathing indictment of the New York stage. Hollywood’s awkwardness at self-reflection had, by 1950 been balanced by its overcoming of insecurities decrying the peccadilloes of Broadway – a haughty rebuke that the Great White Way had once reserved exclusively for the film industry.

“I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them. I just have a very rational idea as to who we're dealing with, and that we're not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we're making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people.”

In retrospect, Billy Wilder had the last laugh – for since its premiere, Sunset Boulevard has proven itself to be a genuinely potent snapshot of an era that continues to fascinate – and perhaps exist – behind the closed doors of the studios. Apart from its surface sheen which remains glamorous film making at the height of the studio system, today’s audiences more readily respond to that strange blend of the film’s nasty, heartless and fraudulent undercarriage coated in that elegant shell.

@2006 (all rights reserved).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Casablanca remains an eternal touchstone of the American Cinema

by Nick Zegarac

“True yesterday, true today, true tomorrow. That’s my definition of a classic.”Murray Burnett, playwright of ‘Everybody Comes To Rick’s.’

In 1982, writer and devil’s advocate Chuck Ross decided to conduct a minor experiment as to why Hollywood just didn’t seem to be making the kinds of films they used to. Retyping verbatim the script to Casablanca under its’ original title; ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’, Ross shopped the property to 217 agencies. Of the 85 who actually read and responded, 38 rejected his submission outright and only 3 thought it would make a good film. Perhaps there’s no accounting for taste – especially if you have none.

Time has indeed ‘gone by’ since the debut of one of the most beloved and enduring masterpieces in American cinema; sixty-four years to be exact. In that interim, Casablanca (1943) has transcended the boundaries of mere filmic entertainment to become an imbedded cultural touchstone – not only of the twentieth century, but for all time. The film’s renewed interest is as perennial as the season’s change, and, time has only served to enrich its verisimilitude in war time patriotism, dangerous intrigue and the immediacy of star-crossed lovers caught in a maelstrom of desperation and chaos.

But at the time the film was being made – who among the artisans involved in its craftsmanship knew that what they were involved in was destined to become cinema magic; certainly not Jack L. Warner, then head of Warner Brothers – who regarded the film as merely one in a pipeline of fifty for the pending year of slated projects. Definitely not Ingrid Bergman; uneasy on two fronts; first – because Humphrey Bogart’s then jealous wife, Mayo Methot had erroneously perceived an affair between her husband and the luminous Swedish import; and second, because until the very final moments of shooting, it was undecided who Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund, would be going off with; saloon keeper, Rick (Bogart) or freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

If it were not for the minor foresight of studio reader, Stephen Karnot, ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ might have never been made. Initially, Karnot submitted a glowing 22 page synopsis of the un-produced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allen to V.P in charge of production, Hal B. Wallis, stating,

“Excellent melodrama. Colorful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum. A box-office natural – for (Humphrey) Bogart or (James) Cagney, or (George) Raft in out-of-the-usual roles, and perhaps, Mary Astor.”

Hal B.Wallis (right) mirrored Karnot’s enthusiasm. Perhaps it was his salesmanship savvy that instantly took a shine to it. Wallis was, by 1942 a self-made man whose early career as a traveling salesman had put him in contact with Sam Warner – one of the Warner Brothers. Installed in the studio’s publicity department, outside of three months Wallis was running the show. When Sam died, Wallis was promoted by Jack Warner to full fledged producer – in effect inheriting the mantel of gritty crime serials and frothy Busby Berkeley musicals from Darryl F. Zanuck – who had departed the Warner backlot to co-found 20th Century Fox.

On January 12, 1942, Warner Brothers paid the most ever for an un-produced property - $20,000 for the rights to make the film. Wallis also solicited a litany of popular opinion from his contemporaries on the backlot to help bolster interest in his pet project. Of these solicitations, only Jerry Wald’s suggestion that the script be tailored along the lines of another movie, Algiers (1938) was eventually incorporated. Writer, Robert Buckner’s opinion proved the most cynical, even going so far as to label the story’s protagonist “two parts Hemingway, one part Scott Fitzgerald, and a dash of café Christ.”

For his part, the author of the play, Murray Burnett had penned ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ while touring Europe with his wife. While in the south of France, Burnett and his small party of friends attended Kat Ferrat, a nightclub where a black man warbled pop songs of the day at a piano. In a moment of inspiration Burnett confided, “wouldn’t this be a great setting for a film?”

So it was, and Wallis set about the arduous task of casting the film from Warner’s roster of contract talent. Confusion remains over the initial choices in casting. As screen writers Julius and Philip Epstein began hammering out the snappy dialogue between the principles, an article appeared in the January’s Hollywood Reporter that clearly states Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan and Dennis Morgan as Casablanca’s headliners. Possibly, Wallis was under the gun to announce a cast – any cast - for his pending project. However, in years to follow, Ronald Reagan would deny that he was ever consulted or even approached to star in Casablanca. There also seems to be little doubt that Ingrid Bergman was Wallis first choice for the pivotal role of Ilsa Lund from the start.

Stephan Karnot’s initial recommendation of Humphrey Bogart for the lead left something to be desired – at least, in the minds of Warner executives – since the actor had yet to be cast as a romantic lead. To date, Humphrey DeForest Bogart’s screen image had been that of a derelict or criminal doomed to assassination before the final reel; variations on the Duke Mantee character he had made his own in The Petrified Forest (1934). After a bit of coaxing in the front office, Wallis secured Bogart’s participation on the project – rechristened Casablanca to evoke a sense of the sensual far off mystery that had made Algiers (a 1938 similarly based film costarring Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer) such a resounding success.

Wallis also pursued a campaign to secure Ingrid Bergman’s participation. Bergman, who had made a stunning success of David O. Selznick’s English remake of Intermezzo (1936) and had also been exploited to great effect as the subdued but sluttish barmaid, Champagne Ivy in MGM’s remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) was currently riding a crest of overwhelming popularity.

owever, she was also under an iron clad contract to Selznick. To set his wheels in motion, Wallis finagled a meeting between the Epstein Brothers and Selznick at the Selznick Studio. As Julius Epstein later recalled, during the entire first half of their meeting, Selznick seemed more preoccupied with a bowl of soup than in their taut dramatics being unfolded for his benefit. Eventually, however Selznick agreed to the loan out of Bergman, leaving Wallis to pursue the third lead in Casablanca from Warner’s roster of contract players.

Enter Paul George Julius von Henreid – the Viennese leading man currently cast opposite Warner mega-star, Bette Davis in Now Voyager. Henreid had entered the Hollywood mélange at a time when suave European Lotharios were all the rage amongst film fans. He was a protégée of agent, Lew Wasserman and an RKO contract player of some merit, whose reputation grew incrementally with each subsequent film in which he appeared. By 1942, Henreid was, if not on the same level in terms of popularity as his current costar Bette Davis, then in a far more secure place professionally than Humphrey Bogart. Hence, when initially petitioned for the third billed role of freedom fighter Victor Laszlo by Hal Wallis, Henreid politely declined the offer until Wallis agreed to costar billing and a reworking of Henreid’s part.

The backdrop of secondary characters in the film would be fleshed out by Warner’s top contract players including the formidable Sidney Greenstreet as the unscrupulous Signor Ferrari, loveable S.Z. Sakall as Karl, the waiter, and the inimitable Claude Rains as womanizing police prefect, Captain Louie Renault.

Of these, Rains represents a bizarre anomaly within the film community; a character actor who most readily appeared in supporting parts in almost every major Warner film of that period, but who also occasionally transcended his moniker as a ‘character actor’ to star in leading roles, most notably in Universal’s The Invisible Man (1933) and that studio’s pending remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943).

To direct Casablanca, Hal Wallis assigned resident workhorse, Michael Curtiz (right). The Hungarian born zeitgeist was a man of many great ideas but very few patience. Irascible but dynamic, Curtiz had been chiefly responsible for some of the studio’s most successful and enduring films. He had helped mold the rough hewn talent of Errol Flynn from his first venture, Captain Blood (1935) to the actor’s greatest success, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Indeed, Curtiz was the busiest man on the Warner backlot. However, on Casablanca his penchant for threadbare tolerance was tested on more than one occasion.

By all accounts, Casablanca was a project mired in perpetual chaotic planning. The Epstein brothers (right)had barely finished the first half of their screenplay when they were called away to work on Frank Capra’s wartime patriotic documentary series, Why We Fight. Dividing their time between these projects and Casablanca greatly slowed the pace of their output.

To compensate for their absence, Hal Wallis hired resident screenwriter Howard Koch to help fill in the blanks. However, upon further consideration of the script, Wallis also turned to Casey Robinson to bolster the romantic elements of the story which had been truncated thus far in favor of the anti-Nazi propaganda angle. Robinson’s great contribution to Casablanca was its Paris flashback sequence. In the brief span of fifteen minutes, Robinson managed to summate the emotional depth of an intimate relationship on the verge of total eclipse. The flashback also features one of the film’s best remembered lines; Bogart’s tenderly affectionate, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Perhaps, in part, due to Mayo Methot’s constant jealous scrutiny, Humphrey Bogart avoided any personal contact with his leading lady either in between takes or off the set throughout the entire shoot. Distraught over her inability to better understand the man she is supposed to be in love with, Ingrid Bergman screened The Maltese Falcon (1941) as research. Of her professional working relationship with Bogart, Bergman would later comment, “I kissed him, but I never knew him.” While this sort of backstage ambivalence may have seemed awkward, on camera it managed to generate sparks of turgid animosity that effectively translated to frustrated romantic love.

Of the film’s pivotal romantic climax, in which Ilsa confronts Rick in his upstairs apartment – demanding the letters of transit at gunpoint, only to be reduced into a passionate embrace - the Epstein brothers were confronted by the Breen Censorship Code and asked to remove any reference that would imply Rick and Ilsa had spent the night together. To appease this request, the Epstein’s inserted a brief shot of a light atop the airport tower rotating in the foggy night, hence establishing a passage of time sufficient enough for audiences to draw their own conclusion about what had transpired between the two ex-lovers.

Casey Robinson’s treatment of Rick and Ilsa’s love affair was further fleshed out by resident composer Max Steiner’s lush and evocative scoring. Like Michael Curtiz, Max Steiner was a talent and a commodity relentlessly pursued within the Hollywood community.

Initially, Murray Burnett had written his choices of music for the film in the margins of his screenplay. These included ‘As Time Goes By,’ a 1931 song that had little impact on the hit parade of its day. In scoring Casablanca, Steiner interpolated refrains of ‘As Time Goes By’ throughout the film even though he had been told that the song might be excised from the final cut. However, the deftness with which Steiner managed to make the underscoring of the song central to the film’s overall dramatic and romantic themes ensured that ‘As Time Goes By’ would remain in tact.

CASABLANCA: a legacy of enduring mass appeal

by Nick Zegarac

What is often overlooked in most historical recanting of 'As Time Goes By' enduring success is the instantly recognizable vocal rendition by Dooley Wilson. Born Arthur Wilson, the black actor had first made his splash as ‘Little Joe’ in the Broadway version of Cabin in the Sky. Initially, Hal Wallis had toyed with the idea of recasting the character of Sam as a woman. At various intervals Lena Horne, Hazel Scott and Ella Fitzgerald were considered for the part. Eventually, it was decided to keep Murray Burnett’s characterization of Sam status quo, allowing Dooley Wilson to create one of the most memorable and ground-breaking film performances for a black actor of this vintage.

In an age where dim-witted mammies, infrequently visible maids, or blindly loyal butlers populated the cinema landscape and remained the cloistered norm for African American actors on the big screen, Dooley Wilson’s Sam is a revisionist take that expands these limited boundaries. It is, for example, Sam who defies Ilsa Lund upon her reappearance at Rick’s Café Americain: “Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You bad luck to him.”

It is Sam who confronts Rick’s bitter insolence during one night of drunken pity with a bit of his own.

Sam: You going to bed?
Rick: No.
Sam: Ain’t you never going to bed?
Rick: No!
Sam: Then I ain’t sleepy neither!

And, it is Sam who manages in the final moments of the Paris flashback to convince Rick to save himself from being captured by the Nazis by forcibly placing them both on the last train leaving the city.

Throughout the shoot, cast and crew alike shared their concerns that no suitable ending to the film existed. As principle photography moved toward the climactic moment this concern grew to near hysteria. At one point, Ingrid Bergman made daily trips to the Epstein’s office to inquire about the finale. She was politely told, “when we know, you’ll know.”

Indeed, the Epstein’s did not know what to make of the last act of Casablanca until, in a moment of mutual inspiration, they conceived the finale in which Rick renounces his romantic claim on Ilsa and sends her to America on the arm of husband, Victor. Julius Epstein would later recall, “We both turned to one another and simultaneously said, ‘Round up the usual suspects’.”

This ending to Casablanca is one of the most prolific and inspired in cinema history. In short order it adequately resolves the lover’s triangle with a morality message, in effect saying that there are human essentials and ideals worth making sacrifices for. The rejection of Ilsa by Rick is in keeping with Rick’s stoic and noble stance on life, and, Ilsa’s acceptance suggests that her love for Victor has always been stronger than the romance shared with Rick.

The finale also asserts Rick’s nobility as a freedom fighter that has only been hinted at in minor dialogue about his blockade running. Rick’s assassination of Major Heinrich Strasser and its cover-up by Capt. Renault ideally caps off the suspense and action – reconciling Rick and Louie’s playfully adversarial relationship with “Louie, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The line – memorable and emblematic in the history of American films, was reportedly penned by Hal Wallis and inserted into the finished film a month after the final edit had already been made.

Interoffice memos of the period suggest that at one point Wallis briefly contemplated the idea of recalling the cast to shoot an epilogue featuring Rick and Louie aboard an Allied destroyer. However, for various reasons – not the least of which was Ingrid Bergman being unavailable for retakes, this tack-on ending was never filmed.

Casablanca debuted on November 26, 1942 at New York’s Hollywood Theater as part of an honorary engagement for the Free French. Its Los Angeles premiere on January 23, 1943 officially launched Casablanca’s general syndication. The film, at once timely and timeless, was an immediate sensation, prompting Warner publicity to suggest that a sequel might be in order. However, those plans were quashed by David O. Selznick. Fancying himself the custodian of Ingrid Bergman’s immense popularity, Selznick did not see any reason why one of America’s top talents should appear in a ‘sequel’ to anything.

Perhaps, owing to the fact that all truly great art is multifaceted, the prospect of accurately rating any artifact based on its artistic integrity seems moot at best. Despite what must have seemed like insurmountable difficulties on the set throughout the shoot, Casablanca’s afterlife since has proven just as prolific and enthralling as the film itself.

In 1955 the American Broadcast Corporation (ABC) premiered its own version of Casablanca; a flashy exercise in 50s iconography set in the then present. But the magic of the original eluded the TV series. It lasted only one season.

In 1977, the American Film Institute listed Casablanca as its #3 choice of all time great films, after Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane, but a British poll from 1983 placed Casablanca at #1. That same year, Warner television took another stab at transcending the film’s popularity as a series. Again, the intangible excitement that permeated the film was totally absent from the series.

In 1988, media mogul and heir apparent to the bulk of the Warner/MGM and RKO film libraries; Ted Turner infuriated film purists and most of Hollywood with his debut of a colorized Casablanca on his cable network. Despite the outrage, home video sales were favorable and copies of Casablanca in color can still be found in bargain bins and on the internet for resale. But perhaps Casablanca’s most notable achievement of the decade was its 1989 acquisition into the National Film Registry as one of the original 25 motion pictures identified for restoration and preservation for all time.

Time has indeed gone by. But the incandescent appeal of Casablanca remains eternal, and, as time continues to go by, everybody comes back to Rick’s – for nostalgia, and for the intangible longings inherent in the perennial romantic in all of us. Sam…play it again.

@2006 (all rights reserved).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

MAX STEINER – setting the mood with the Dean of American Film Music

“Every man is a history of the world to himself”
– Max Steiner

Though many may not immediately recognize the name Max Steiner he is imbedded in the collective cultural celebration of classic Hollywood – as indelibly unique as the directorial prowess of Hitchcock or adept at stirring the emotional finesse as the terpsichorean proficiencies of Fred Astaire.

Even today, the contributions of film score composers remains an almost forgotten and most regularly overlooked enigma in the process of creating screen art. But in Steiner’s time the contributions of many of his contemporaries was practically invisible. If, as composer Max Steiner suggests, an entire world history exists in every man, then his personal history in score and song has been the most glorious romanticized adventure we are ever likely to know.

Born Maximillian Raoul Walter Steiner in Vienna, Austria on May 10, 1888, Steiner came by his craft with all the rich endowments of that ancient flower: high European artistry in musical composition, and with an affluent background in theatrical endeavors.

Both his grandfather and father favored the theatrical arts. Steiner’s father, Gabor actually became a lucrative producer of operettas. As a child, Max Steiner was immersed in composition studies at Vienna's famed Hochschule Music Academy. In fact, he completed his four year program in little over a year – a prolific efficiency that would serve him well once installed in Hollywood.

By the age of 16 Steiner had already composed an original operetta, The Beautiful Greek Girl. Ironically, Gabor’s lack of enthusiasm in the son’s project led Max to negotiate a lucrative deal with his father’s competitor. He conducted the show’s opening night performance. The show ran for a solid year. It was the beginning of greatness.

In four short years, Steiner would be critically hailed as a musical genius. Feeling that his future would best be served by a move, Steiner traveled to London England, but soon became dissatisfied with his decision. He immigrated to New York where he quickly became one of the top orchestral arrangers on Broadway, working for the elite; Victor Herbert, the Schuberts and Florenz Ziegfeld. Steiner also conducted original productions for Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.


“There is nothing more effective in motion picture music than sudden changes in mood cleverly handled, providing, of course, they are consistent with the story”
Max Steiner

By 1929, his popularity on the Great White Way had garnered the attentions of Hollywood. William LeBaron, then head of production at RKO, hired Steiner as musical supervisor on the film version of Rio Rita. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Steiner remained at RKO for the next seven years contributing fanfares and musical cues for some of the studio’s top melodramas, comedies and musicals. He also inherited an early personal success after Jerome Kern turned down the opportunity to write the score for Cimarron (1931). Though he received no screen credit for his efforts, Steiner’s music was celebrated by musicologists.

However, it should be pointed out that Cimarron represented a departure for Steiner and not the norm. During this tenure at RKO Steiner wrote mostly main and end title music for features while his contemporary Alfred Newman had already scored Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) and was then experimenting with dramatic music for Samuel Goldwyn's Street Scene (1931).

In 1932 RKO experienced a minor corporate shakeup. Passionate and power driven future mogul in the making, David O. Selznick was now in charge of production. Impatient to alter the chemistry of the studio’s film output, Selznick’s first move was to employ Steiner’s musical prowess for several dramatic sequences in Gregory LaCava’s Symphony of Six Million (1932).

However, film scoring was a concept new to most of his executive board who thought it extravagant and wasteful to employ a composer for such a lengthy endeavor. To help bolster his stance on the project, Selznick had Steiner provide a sample score for the first reel – a scene where actor Gregory Ratoff’s character undergoes an unsuccessful operation. His decision and Steiner’s stealth as a composer easily made believers from those same set of skeptics. Steiner went on to score the rest of Symphony of Six Million and was shortly thereafter assigned to King Vidor's Bird of Paradise (1932, right); the first full score Steiner actually wrote, earning him the moniker of ‘Dean of Film Music’.

Steiner’s great gift to the new medium derived from his ability to incorporate traditional melodies with his own unique and original compositions. That seamless blending, coupled with Steiner’s infusion of the leitmotif (a Wagnerian principle in composition, whereby multiple characters are given their own distinct theme that is played whenever they enter a scene) created the hallmark for Steiner’s innovative and endearing film scores of this vintage. Steiner’s first run of this latter concept emerged triumphant with a cue he wrote during Katharine Hepburn’s Hamlet soliloquy in Morning Glory (1933); an astute and intuitive cue that idyllically conveyed the pending solemn mood.

In contrast, Steiner’s buoyant cues for the 1933 version of Little Women, proved evocative strands centralized around the film’s key character of Josephine March (right), creating as it were a maypole of musical activity about which the rest of the score effervescently evolved. Steiner’s composition for Little Women proved so idyllic that when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remade the property in 1948, composer Adolph Deutsch’s contributions to that version were essentially limited in the creation of subtle variations on Steiner’s original material. One of Steiner’s longest and most enduring scores from the 1930s is King Kong (1933).

“This I wrote in two weeks,” Steiner would muse in an interview, “…the music recording cost around fifty thousand dollars…the studio attributed at least twenty-five percent of its success to the music.”

At 75 minutes, it remains as ambitious and all encompassing a masterwork as any from that period, with multiple themes and interwoven agitato sequences. Crucially, Steiner’s dense textuality leant an air of finite confirmation to the supernatural and a strangely sympathetic chord for the towering seventh wonder of the world. King Kong’s score is also noteworthy for the fact that it was one of those rare instances where film critics paused a moment in their reviews from that usual ignorance afforded composition to bestow their accolades on Steiner.

Perhaps wit and gifted pianist, Oscar Levant coined the brevity of the film’s score best when he wrote that “King Kong should have been billed as ‘Music by Max Steiner’ with accompanying pictures.”

Throughout the early to mid-1930s, Steiner continued to make immeasurable contributions to RKO’s film output with varying degrees of notoriety. He was involved in a supervisory capacity on several of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. He defined and sustained the air of dramatic tension so integral to The Most Dangerous Game (1932); generated a looming sense of melodramatic tragedy and empathy in What Price Hollywood? (1932), and effectively captured a genuine sense of sexual ambiguity to Katharine Hepburn’s gender-bending performance in Christopher Strong (1933).

Ever striving to expand the boundaries of film scoring, Steiner, the innovator’s musical scoring for Of Human Bondage (1934) developed a musical illustration of the club-footed Philip Carey (Leslie Howard). His contributions on John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934) – which had been ill received without musical scoring during a sneak preview - so effectively enhanced the overall sense of adventure that Steiner was honored with his first Oscar nomination. The following year, Steiner collaborated with Ford again, this time on the tale of Irish rebellion and betrayal; The Informer. Steiner’s musical blending of overt gregariousness, evocative pseudo-ethnic themes and intricately woven subconscious effects easily won him his first Academy Award.

“When a picture is finished and edited it is turned over to me,” Steiner explained, “I have the film put through a measuring machine and then a cue sheet created which gives me the exact time to the split second in which the action takes place and words are spoken. While these cue sheets are being made I being to work on themes for the different characters and scenes…I also try to digest what I have seen and try to plan the music for the picture. Once all my themes are set I am apt to discard them and compose others, because frequently, after I have worked on a picture for a little while my feelings towards it change.”

Today, Steiner’s cues for The Informer have won the dubious distinction of being most often scornfully referred to as ‘Mickey-Mousing’(a term describing the oft’ heavy handed way musical compositions should not directly accompany the literal action on the screen).

The final notable composition in Steiner’s RKO canon is The Three Musketeers (1935), an 80 minute symphonic masterpiece in which Steiner received sole musical credit. But in 1936 Steiner departed RKO at the behest of David O. Selznick(right), who had recently inaugurated his own studio - Selznick International Pictures. The decampment was a mixed blessing.

Although it allowed Steiner a lull in the hectic pacing he had endured, the move also meant that Steiner would frequently have to endure Selznick’s overzealousness to meddle in his work on a creative level. For someone with Steiner’s immense talent and speed for creating masterworks, this stalemate was, if not damaging, then perhaps more tiresome than the breakneck speed he had become accustom to at RKO.

After a promising start Selznick loaned Steiner to Warner Brothers for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) – a bold and garish composition that embodied the feisty pervasive cavalier attitude of Errol Flynn. The following year Steiner exercised his creative juices on a more subtle musical palette for the original A Star Is Born (1937). On this endeavor Steiner found Selznick’s involvement particularly meddlesome. After listening to Steiner’s compositions, Selznick began dropping cues and excising whole portions of scoring from other films to include in place of the work Steiner had committed to.

Seizing upon Steiner’s immediate dissatisfaction with Selznick, Jack L. Warner bought out Steiner’s contract under the condition that he would score one picture per annum for his old nemesis.


“There are no rules and won’t be as long as music continues to assume more and more importance in pictures and the development of sound continues to make such rapid strides.” Max Steiner

The thirty-year association between Max Steiner and Warner Brothers is perhaps the greatest marriage between artist and dream factory ever put on film. Beginning with his memorably defined fanfare for the famous Warner Shield in 1937 (first played before the main titles of Tovarich) Steiner’s reputation as a composer grew exponentially in leaps and bounds.

In defacto, Steiner became the ‘Warner sound’ during its most lucrative tenure. Applied at the speed of a race horse, Steiner’s compositions veered in tone and temperament from the gritty pulsating timber applied to Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), to the sprawling vast embracement of the old west, so indelibly ingrained in his score for Dodge City (1939) and the emotionally charged leitmotif Steiner scored for one of Bette Davis’ best loved and most fondly remembered weepy, Dark Victory (1939).

Yet, while the speed and variety of the Warner slate of projects, and the relative freedom afforded his creative process bode well with Steiner’s own work ethic, of all his noteworthy achievements at that studio thus far, arguably the greatest effort was put forth during this early Warner tenure came upon Steiner’s return to Selznick International for Gone With The Wind (1939); a watershed composition brimming in hearty memorable themes, intricately designed and complimentary leitmotifs, and, Steiner’s own affinity for melodic waltzes and marches.

Despite the fact that some of the lesser musical cues were written by Heinz Roemheld and Adolph Deutsch to meet Selznick’s Christmas deadline world premiere, at 190 minutes Steiner’s compositions for Gone With The Wind are undeniably his lengthiest. Amazingly, Steiner also managed to compose all of the cues for Selznick’s other pending film project of that year – a remake of the Swedish film Intermezzo (1939) also starring Leslie Howard and in which debuted one of the most radiate and talented of soon-to-be American film stars – Ingrid Bergman.

It is one of Hollywood’s great ironies that from a film so richly entrenched in Academy Award history, that Max Steiner did not receive the Oscar for his efforts on Gone With The Wind. Despite the films’ most instantly recognizable main title set to the now immortal Tara’s theme, the Oscar went to Herbert Stothart for MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (a forgivable loss).

In truth, Steiner’s theme for Tara was a musical offshoot of something he had previously composed in 1938 for a little seen and easily forgotten melodrama entitled, Crime School. Perhaps lacking in the foresight to recognize Tara’s staying power, Steiner also employed a variation on it in They Made Me A Criminal (1939). But perhaps the greatest of irony between Steiner and the Academy came five years later, when Steiner won the Oscar for his compositions on David O. Selznick’s wartime masterpiece, Since You Went Away (1944) – a film in which no other participant took home the gold statuette.

In between these two Selznick hallmarks, Steiner became comfortably entrenched at Warner Brothers where he continued to deliver magic with an impressive speed and regularity behind the scenes for a diverse cavalcade of films; The Letter (1940), Dive Bomber (1941), Sergeant York (1941), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Casablanca (1942), Now Voyager (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945) among many others. In the mid-1950s Steiner's unbelievable output quietly receded to a trickle, in part due to his quiet divorce from Warner Brothers that made him a freelance agent by 1954.

For nearly six years, Steiner limited himself to writing compositions for one or two pictures a year. But in 1958 he returned to Warner Brothers to score their traditional feature films and also do a bit of work in the then new medium of television.

However, many were surprised to learn that by the end of the decade Hollywood’s most prolific composer was financially ruined – thanks to Steiner’s penchant for doling out cases of brandy and cigarettes and his affinity for exercising retail therapy with the plastic. Total bankruptcy was averted when Steiner's theme song for A Summer Place (1959) became an unqualified hit, selling in excess of a million copies.

To date, only two other ‘songs’ that Steiner had written were as popular: It Can't Be Wrong from Now Voyager (1942) and As Long As I Live from Saratoga Trunk (1945). However, Warner Brothers – not Steiner – owned the rights to both of these songs. As a result, Steiner had been paid one flat fee for the entire score to both films without the benefit of royalties from repurposing both songs (which the studio liberally did in other films and its Looney Tunes cartoons). But for Theme From A Summer Place, Steiner negotiated a royalty deal that made him very rich, despite the fact that the Percy Faith recording led many to deduce that Faith, not Steiner had actually written the piece.

“Our profession is not always ‘a bed of roses’ and looks much easier to the layman than it really is,” Steiner once commented, “The work is hard and exacting and when the dreaded release date is upon us, sleep is a thing unknown.”

Still, there is little to doubt that Steiner relished that continued deadline frenzy which brought out the best in his compositions. He continued to score films until a spat with director/producer William Conrad on Two On A Guillotine (1965) effectively ended his tenure by choice.

By now Steiner was lucrative and successful enough to choose for himself and what he chose was retirement from the film industry. Steiner’s suspicions that he was no longer a composer of either great esteem or in great demand were erroneously confirmed a year later when he interviewed for a pending project on George Custer and was obtusely asked whether he had ever scored a western. Blinded by glaucoma in his final years, Steiner passed away peacefully on December 28, 1971.

A decade later, in July of 1980, Brigham Young University hosted an evening of film scores by Steiner to resounding applause. But more importantly, the event introduced a whole new generation to Steiner’s immeasurable contribution to American motion pictures.

Hence, while the musical men of admiration in Steiner era were Mozart, Bach, Brahms and their like, today’s aspiring composers look toward Steiner (among other luminaries of his period) for inspiration. While names like Eric Korngold, Alfred Newman and Miklos Rosza undeniably belong in that echelon, arguably its ‘Dean’ remains Max Steiner.

@2006 (all rights reserved).