What do you do when you accidently run into an ex? Rick never thought he’d have to answer that question but then he heard it. The song. Their song. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world,” his ex girlfriend had walked into his.
This of course, is one of the famous scenes from the 1942 film, Casablanca, a film that is part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concerts taking place June 12-14. But the popularity of Casablanca isn’t just confined to Baltimore. In 1998, it was voted as the number two best film within the last 100 years in America (losing out only to Citizen Kane). So, just what is it about Casablanca, a film over half a century old, that continues to resonate with audiences today?
It’s probably no surprise that music is often used to help people in times of heartache. In fact, Spotify counts two of their top 16 most popular playlists of 2013 as mixes for people with broken hearts. This might help explain why a film released before most of its current audience was born has continued to win fans and accolades. Regardless of age, the film helps viewers cope with heartache the same way those playlists on Spotify do.
How? Well, Casablanca, at its core is about really, really tough breakups. And Casablanca’s breakups, set against the background of World War II, are epic in their scale.
Although it counts over 20 songs on its soundtrack, there are really two that comprise the hearts of the love stories in the film: “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem and “As Time Goes By,” made famous by Dooley Wilson’s performance in the film.
The first speaks to Ilsa and Rick’s heartache. The second is sung by the teary-eyed refugees in Rick’s cafe, forced to leave their homeland when the Germans invade. Trapped between their beloved, lost countries and the isolationism they face from neutral countries unwilling to offer assistance.
The score, helmed by the famous Max Steiner, and led by the two songs is perhaps the ultimate “breakup mix” chronicling not only Rick and Ilsa breakup, but also the breakups of nations, allies and families as WWII raged across Europe. But with heartache comes hope and the music in the film also speaks to the healing that can occur after a traumatic event. As the American Music Therapy Association has shown listening to music can help hasten healing with grief and bereavement.
Perhaps this is why songs like “Knock on Wood,” which encouraged audience participation, were added to the film. The filmmakers wanted audiences to directly engage with the story by engaging with the music. War had broken out of Europe’s borders and into the bays of the U.S. and so the filmmakers echoed this sentiment through music; breaking the proverbial fourth wall to the audience.
Sam, I thought I told you never to play-... (Rick Blaine, Casablanca, 1942)
Of course, you have to be open to actually listening for music to have any effect. Starting with the first couple of notes of “As Time Goes By” we begin to see that change occur in Rick, a change that eventually leads him to telling Ilsa,
We’ll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night. (Rick Blaine, Casablanca, 1942)
Since appearing in the film “As Time Goes By,” the famously forbidden song that Sam played has continued to garner accolades including the number two spot on AFI’s “100 Years...100 Songs,” chronicling the top 100 songs in American cinema in 2004. Not bad for a song written and borrowed from another play and already over a decade old by the time American audiences heard it on the silver screen.
RICK: Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.
VICTOR LASZLO: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die. (Casablanca, 1942)
In the world of Ilsa and Rick, love really was a battlefield and Casablanca capitalizes on being both a love story and a war story, all at the same time. In fact, the original filmmakers have attributed its success to being able to walk that line. That’s not to say this is an easy line to walk. Anyone who has battled a broken heart can recognize coping mechanisms and there’s plenty of drinking, gambling and poor judgement to delight in, in the film.
I’m saying this because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going...I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. (Rick Blaine, Casablanca, 1942)
Casablanca isn't about the guy getting the girl as the screen fades to black. It’s about people — flaws and all — trying to do the best they can under intense heartaches and some of the toughest circumstances the last two centuries have seen. And although ultimately the story of Casablanca finds its characters nobly putting aside their own agendas for the greater world agendas at hand, it doesn't mean they didn’t first give themselves a moment to hear a sad song, share a stolen kiss, or swig a strong cocktail before they take up the cause.
You can take advantage of these same pleasures by joining BSO and bartender Ginny Lawhorn for the next week at all the local gin joints with drinks inspired by the film. As Rick says, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”