Sunday, November 12, 2017

Black Is Beautiful in CASABLANCA

The Oscar-winning Hollywood classic celebrates a 75th anniversary this year.  It's returned to big screens for anniversary showings thanks to Fathom Events in conjunction with TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  CASABLANCA is a love story set against the tense backdrop of WW2 with Nazis devouring Europe.  We see bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, patriotism and true love.  We see all this while enjoying excellent performances and some of the most quoted lines of dialogue to come out of one movie.  Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains keep attracting new generations to this early 1940s Warner Brothers drama.
I've written about this before and I'll touch on it again because CASABLANCA is getting publicity thanks to its upcoming anniversary.  It was the focus of a segment on CBS SUNDAY MORNING and there's a new book out by author Noah Isenberg that I must purchase.  It's called WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA.  He covers the life, legend and afterlife of this beloved Hollywood movie.  He was included in the November 12th CBS SUNDAY news program feature in which we saw a current interview of Bogart's son, Paul Henreid's daughter and Claude Rains' daughter talking about their parents' classic film.  Isenberg seems like a pretty cool dude.
One of the other members of the famous cast, a performer who sings the song most closely associated with the love story, is Dooley Wilson as Rick Blaine's good friend, Sam.  Sam is the headliner in Rick's swanky nightclub/gambling joint.  African American actor/singer Dooley Wilson had Broadway credits on his resume.  He was Ethel Waters' leading man in the hit Broadway musical fable, CABIN IN THE SKY.  The property was purchased by MGM and made into a top MGM musical which marked Lena Horne's first Hollywood film role and Vincente Minnelli's 1943 debut as a film director. Wilson didn't recreate his Broadway role in the movie opposite Ethel Waters.  The role went to the popular Jack Benny radio show regular, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

A TV exec once asked me what classic films I would air during a Black History Month.  One of the movies I mentioned was CASABLANCA.  Let me tell you why.

CASABLANCA was released in December 1942.  This is just a few years after Hattie McDaniel made Hollywood history as the first black person nominated for an Oscar and the first to win.  Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing "Mammy," the all-wise house servant in 1939's Civil War epic, GONE WITH THE WIND.

In Hollywood at that time, black actors and actresses were usually in servant roles.  Mammies, maids, butlers, domestics, porters, cooks, field hands, stable boys and such.
Sam is a sophisticated black character.  He's not a second class citizen.  He's important to the two lead white characters.  Dooley Wilson has a key scene with each star, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Sam is Rick Blaine's friend and confidante.  He's Ilsa's friend.  He saw their romance blossom.  He was there at its abrupt end.  He knows their story.  He knows that their song is "As Time Goes By."  Also, Sam dresses like he's ready to be photographed for ESQUIRE Magazine.  He's lookin' sharp.
 In how many other Hollywood films of that era did the you see the black character sharing a bottle of champagne with not just one, but two white characters both of whom were the stars of the film?  THAT was major.
And another thing, notice the dialogue near the end when Rick has to sell his nightclub.  All the employees keep their jobs.  Including Sam, the star entertainer.  Rick negotiates to get Sam double what his previous salary was.
Again...THAT was major.  A white guy got a black guy a sizeable increase in salary.  I wish I had an agent like Rick in CASABLANCA.  Keep in mind this was an era when Hollywood was still giving us blackface musical numbers (1942's HOLIDAY INN, 1943's DIXIE, 1944's HERE COME THE WAVES). 1942's CASABLANCA gave us a bold, refreshing image of a black person in a 1940s Hollywood film.  There's a lot more to Dooley Wilson's Sam to consider.  We wouldn't see more of that kind of upscale image until the 1950s.

Until next time..."Here's looking at you, kid."

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