Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Casablanca

Our favorite restaurant this year has been Café Chez Marie. It seems to have fallen to earth from the south of France along with a few other provincial houses nuzzled next to an office building just west of Century City. From the courtyard alone we can imagine being in Aix en Provence, without the jet lag. The French-Moroccan cuisine is presided over by Marie Saltzman, born in Casablanca.

Great chefs work intuitively in Casablanca though Bogey and Bergman cooked up their romance and intrigue on the screen making due with the back lot of Warner Brothers. The Epstein twins, Julius and Phillip, wrote the script by the seat of their pants handing the ensemble players their lines each morning. Round up the usual suspects, is said to have come to both brothers, simultaneously, at a traffic light on Wilshire and La Cienega on their way to the Burbank studio.

You have to love the way Hollywood studios each had their stable of actors at the ready to fit in almost anywhere, many of whom were refugees from Europe, Who could beat the team of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet along with S.Z. Sakall? Only three of the speaking parts belonged to American born actors. One of the minor roles was played by Leon Belasco, his 13th movie done that year. The scene at Rick’s place where everyone, except the German soldiers, breaks out singing La Marseillaise, is all the more poignant given that most of the voices came from a cast in exile including those playing Gestapo agents, many of whom were Jewish performers who fled Europe.

The film is a miraculous coming together of clichés, the sum of which exceeds the separate phrases. The result is a serendipitous work of art, the way chef Marie knows instinctively what herbs and spices to add to her couscous or coq au vin. It is a collaborative triumph of producer Hal Wallis, director Michael Curtiz, screenwriters and cast. Some of the best lines were either never said or not in the script. Play it again, Sam, is an improvement over, Play it Sam or Play it once Sam, for old times sake. Dooley Wilson, Sam, was actually a drummer who couldn’t play the piano. Here’s looking at you, kid, was a throw-in by Bogart from a poker game he was playing with Ingrid Bergman between takes. The final line, Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, was written by Wallis a month after and added in post-production.

The grandson of Phillip Epstein is Theo Epstein who revitalized the Boston Red Sox. Whether it was that old Epstein intuition or some unique vision that managed to break the Curse of the Bambino (the trading of Babe Ruth), we may never know. Today Epstein is saddled with the task of exhuming the Chicago Cubs from the crypt. They last won the World Series in 1908. Stayed tuned.

In the meantime the Dodgers are the recipients of one of Theo’s boldest and baddest moves in Boston. He acquired Carl Crawford in 2010 with a 7 year-142 million dollar contract. If he returns to form next year after recovering from season-ending surgery, I will thank Marie’s Café and Rick’s Café and all those Epsteins who have brought me a semblance of order in an otherwise random world. Now if only Obama can remain in the White House, Casablanca, another four years I’ll be looking at you, as time goes by.

Could it be that the choice of Casablanca as the name of the 1942 film had a subtext? Aside from sizzle of the stars and comic turns, the arc of the story was of a self-absorbed, cynical man who is grudgingly transformed to sacrifice his personal desire for the greater good. The final foggy scene, shot at Van Nuys airport, with midgets and a cardboard plane, has Bogart walking off with Claude Rains having saved each other and found their moral compass. It might also have been directed at the American people and the man in the White House leading up to our involvement, to move us from our private cafés into the Good War with our own letters of transit.

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