I went to a movie recently at the Normal Theater, an idyllic Art Deco venue in the heart of Bloomington Normal, Illinois. It is smaller than the State but run by an equally dedicated group of volunteers. Each time I see a movie there, I remember why I love theaters; the experience is different than viewing it in my own home. I pay more attention to the details, the crowd applauds at the end of the film, and the characters are somehow bigger in my mind. In a theater, the movie monopolizes all of the senses. Cell phones are silenced, lights are dimmed, and for two hours, all you know is the movie on screen and perhaps the person sitting next to you with whom (if you love them) you share a tub of popcorn.
Ever since I was a small girl, classic film and the early movie going culture have fascinated me. I was raised on Ma and Pa Kettle instead of Nickelodeon, and my celebrity crushes in junior high were Wally Cleaver and the Fonz. I make movie references that only my sister would catch (though I miss just as many modern references), and the Hollywood figures I read about in my spare time are often as alive to me as the people I come into contact with each day. When people ask me why I love classic film, I can only say that I’m not sure how the fascination began, but the more I learn about film history, the more that love grows. Apart from its plot, each movie has its own creation story, and part of that occurs in the theaters where the films were first seen. For example, the State’s own Cosimo Rulli, district manager of Plitt theaters in the 1960s and ’70s, relates how going to see a war movie in South Bend changed his life:
It was a long story why I joined the Air Force. I was workin’ at the theater, and in the movie Strategic Air Command, James Stewart, he plays pilot. He was actually in the regular Air Force, Jimmy Stewart. He was a regular colonel for a while, and he flew those B-52s, you know. Anyway, they had a recruiter in the lobby. And he got me all excited, say, You should join! What do you want to do, you go to college? I say, Oh, I said, I don’t have enough money to go to college. He said, I can fix it up for you. The Air Force, they give you an education and everything. Next thing I know, I’m in Chicago taking a test. (Laughs.) That’s why I kind of joined, I got all excited and all the air command and all that. I had a good time, though. I had four years good time.
My single favorite part of a movie is its backstory. One of the age-old debates in psychology is whether we are a product of nature or nurture. John Locke, who believed we were born blank slates, would say that our experiences shape us; therefore, we are the product of our environment. The same basic principle applies to film: it is the product of the collected experiences of all the people involved in making it. A film is its artistic content and the story it tells, but beyond that, it is the lives of the actors, directors, set designers, and cameramen; the filming schedule that was not kept; the awards it almost won at the Oscars; and the cultural references that were born from it. Throw in elements like a world war or censorship, and the end product is even more complex. And although my generation of millenials often dismisses classic film as irrelevant or inferior, most movies were in some way cutting edge at the time of their production.
This Wednesday, on February 5th, Casablanca (1942) will be showing to kick of the Romance Classics series at the State. It won three Oscars at the time of its debut and has since been ranked among the best films of all time. Whether it is your first viewing or hundredth, the film is a must-see—especially on the big screen. And to enhance your viewing experience, here are a few snippets of the film’s wartime creation story (Warning! Contains spoilers):
On December 7th 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War. The next day a Warner Brothers reader began to evaluate the unproduced play “Everybody Comes To Rick’s” as a possible movie. It was perfect timing as studios raced to get patriotic pictures into production.
Howard Hawks had said in interviews that he was supposed to direct Casablanca (1942) and Michael Curtiz was supposed to direct Sergeant York (1941). The directors had lunch together, where Hawks said he didn’t know how to make this “musical comedy,” while Curtiz didn’t know anything about “those hill people.” They switched projects.
Many of the actors who played the Nazis were in fact German Jews who had escaped from Nazi Germany.
Because the film was made during WWII they were not allowed to film at an airport after dark for security reasons. Instead they used a sound stage with a small cardboard cutout airplane and forced perspective. To give the illusion that the plane was full-sized, they used little people to portray the crew preparing the plane for take-off.
Producer Hal B. Wallis nearly made the character Sam a female. Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald were considered for the role.
Warner Brothers claimed that people of 34 nationalities worked on the film.
No one knew right up until the filming of the last scene whether Ilsa would end up with Rick or Laszlo. During the course of the picture, when Ingrid Bergman asked director Michael Curtiz with which man her character was in love, she was told to “play it in between.”
Rulli, Cosimo. Interview by Erin Springer. “Cosimo Ruli Interview.” State Theater Oral History Project, Indiana University South Bend. South Bend, Indiana. 24 June 2013. Print.