Casablanca. That classic love story between a grumpy expat and a woman who thought her husband was dead. Why do they show it every Christmas? It takes place in the middle of an African summer, not to mention the middle of World War II. Anyway, during this year’s viewing you may want to pay closer attention to the music score, arranged by the one and only Max Steiner (Gone With The Wind, King Kong, probably every pre-1950 Hollywood picture). This man was a heavyweight if there ever was one: his Godfather was Richard Strauss, he was educated by Mahler and he scored over a hundred movies, gaining Oscar nominations for 24 of them.
The way films were rushed back in the forties, it is unsurprisng to know that most, if not all of the incidental cues in Casablanca were reworkings of two existing pieces that actually play a part in the plot. One of them was the French National Anthem, heard as frequently in the movie as it would have been when the real Casablanca was occupied by France. Lazy as it seems, this composition is used to represent the Allies, while the opening snippet of the German National Anthem is played whenever the Nazis are on-screen.
The second composition was, of course, As Time Goes By. The pianist Sam plays it twice in the movie, but it also lingers during other key scenes between Bogie and Bergman, often in an orchestral form. This, coupled with the use of national anthems, is what really helps all the scenes in Casablanca lock together. It was a fast and cheap solution in 1942, but let’s face it, the whole film was. That doesn’t make it any less brilliant. The music serves its simple purpose charmingly, which is to reinforce to the audience the themes of good versus evil, and more importantly, love.
So, did Steiner actually write any original music for this film? The answer to that question is ‘very little’. His genius, however, does not need justification. But what he delivers with his arrangements of the pieces in this film, as well as the craft in their very selection, is something that contributes massively to the warm, rich empathy we all feel when we watch Casablanca. It is surely the first instance of a pair of lovers taking ownership of a tune, calling it “their song”.
And even beyond As Time Goes By, there are a number of other classic American songs in the movie that subtly caress the viewer, taking all the love you’ve ever known and yanking it out of you, so that you can see and hear it reflected back in the characters, whose own emotions are unashamedly exaggerated for this purpose. The national anthems make us feel like patriots, regardless of which countries they belong to. Every sound in the film resonates with people, and it is particularly impressive that this holds true over 60 years later amongst people who may have never experienced a war.
I think that’s what brought this movie onto my good-music-radar. It’s an eclectic film in that it blends melodrama with comedy, suspense and action on a war back-drop, and the choice of music reflects each of these elements very well. There’s nothing too soppy about it, although that’s not to say that it won’t make some people tearful.
As ever, I’m sure Casablanca will return this year as one of Christmas’s oldest clichés, but listen to the score this time. ‘You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it again, Sam.’