At the 16th Academy Awards in 1944, Casablanca took home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Music Score. While I had never before seen the film, all my life I had heard about the film’s accolades, and even the famous lines that have become so ingrained in American culture, ranging from “We’ll always have Paris” to “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” I knew the synopsis walking into Strathmore’s Music Center last night, but nothing could have prepared me for the performance brought to us by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with the help of Conductor Emil de Cou, in collaboration with Director Michael Curtiz’s work on the classic film.
Casablanca began as a World War II film. According to Strathmore’s Applause Magazine, “This was a topical film, designed to appeal to wartime audiences and specifically to capitalize on the recent Allied invasion of North Africa,” and after seeing the film, I can see how Hollywood’s use of propaganda played a role. The story follows American expatriate and saloon owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) as he battles his inner conflict between being with the woman he loves (Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund), or sacrificing his own happiness for the Nazi resistance. The film carries the audience through the heartbreaking romance beginning with Ilsa and Rick’s short-lived affair in Paris, to meeting again in his saloon, and finally, he lets her go. Rick’s choosing the sacrifice would leave original audiences with the moral that helping the war effort is more important than any personal desires they may have. However, even 72 years after the time of production, Casablanca continues to touch modern day audiences, and has come a long way from a classic World War II propaganda film.
Strathmore projected the film onto a large screen above the stage in the Concert Hall. What made this differ from a typical movie theater screening however, was that the instrumental portions of the music were removed, and instead, the orchestra seated below the screen played them live. I had seen BSO screenings before at Strathmore, but even past experiences did not prepare me for the sensation of the film’s opening theme.
The original showing took place around the time of the Allied invasion of North Africa, and the opening credits of the film are shown in front of a map of Africa. Knowing the historical context and how Hollywood was trying to sway public opinion helps put the image in perspective, but the live orchestrations pushed the scene over the top.
The orchestra had been building in volume, which intensified the message as the film moved from opening credits into the prologue. At the beginning of the prologue, the volume was at its loudest, and the picture on the screen transformed from a zoomed-in view on Africa into an image of the globe as the narrator discussed how the onset of World War II forced Europeans to attempt an escape to America. Because the Lisbon port had been closed off, victims had to take a longer route through France, which led into Casablanca in Morocco. I can only imagine how this prologue may have felt for Americans watching the film during World War II, but the live orchestrations and the play on volume seemed to bring the scene to life.
Because the live music was so striking, it emphasized the scenes the carried political importance, such as the moment when the French and Germans clash in the saloon. Because Casablanca was a major port city for those trying to escape, German soldiers were everywhere, and in a key moment in the story, they begin to sing their national anthem. Viktor Laslo, the Czech resistance leader, steps up and encourages the band to join him in performing the French National Anthem. The live orchestra played the parts of both anthems at the same time, causing the two songs to collide. The political message was already strong, and conveyed the French displeasure for hosting the Germans; however, playing the music in full volume helped push the scene over the top. The intensity of the moment was so strong, I almost felt as if I was there experiencing the conflict first hand.
Not only did the orchestra help emphasize the wartime moments, but also the emotional. After Rick and Ilsa meet again in his saloon, Rick has a drunken flashback. This is the first moment the audience is invited to see past Rick’s tough and emotionless exterior, and the screen fills with a fog, and the orchestra picks up in volume. As the fog began to fade, the music slowed, and the audience witnessed the couple’s time in the streets of Paris. If I were viewing the film in a normal setting, the music may have gone unnoticed, but because of the live orchestration, I was able to recognize a repetition throughout the film.
Whenever Ilsa and Rick shared a romantic scene, the slower rhythm would repeat, and allude back to their time in Paris. Because of the repetition, the moment when Rick says “We will always have Paris” holds significantly more weight. The slower rhythm played again, and the gravity of scene in combination with the music almost brought me to tears.
It was in moments such as this that the orchestra seemed to work with Curtiz to emphasize the heartbreaking mood of the piece. The slower and romantic feel to their scenes sharply contrasted to quick staccato of the music whenever Ilsa and Lazlo, her husband, shared a scene. While Lazlo cared about her, the music revealed that no love could compare to that between Ilsa and Rick.
Last night’s performance was an event I will never forget. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought the work to life, and carried the film through the ups and downs of the heartbreaking romance. Based on the applause that erupted from the full house, I know I was not the only one who was moved.
Running Time: Almost two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.