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As Songs Go By:
ALL THE MUSIC OF CASABLANCA
Channel-surfing not long ago, I came upon my all-time favorite movie, Casablanca. Having seen — or perhaps the better word is absorbed — this film as many times as I have, I didn't think anything about it had escaped my attention. I was wrong.
As Sam (Dooley Wilson) started to play the old standard "Avalon" for Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) it occurred to me, for the first time, how many different songs were integrated into the picture that's so closely associated with only one, "As Time Goes By." In fact, songs by Cole Porter, Eubie Blake, Ray Noble, Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer, and other stalwarts dot the soundtrack. It's a tribute to the artful way they are used that they don't call attention to themselves but provide perfect, appropriate accompaniment to the action on-screen.
As I set out to learn more about the score, the only fact I remembered was that "As Time Goes By" wasn't written for the film. It was composed in 1931 by Tin Pan Alley songsmith Herman Hupfeld and introduced by Frances Williams in the Broadway musical Everybody's Welcome. Hupfeld, known to his show-business friends as Dodo, was primarily known for novelty songs like "Goopy Gear," which inspired a 1932 Merrie Melodies cartoon, and "When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba." Because Warners owned several major music publishers, including Chappell & Co., which published the song, there was no hurdle in acquiring the rights to Hupfeld's most enduring composition.
Examining a music cue sheet for Casablanca in the Warner Bros. Archives at USC, I discovered just how many other vintage popular tunes were interpolated into the score. The fact that so much action takes place in an American-style nightclub justifies the presence of such well-known numbers as "Crazy Rhythm," "The Very Thought of You," "Baby Face," "I'm Just Wild About Harry," "Heaven Can Wait," "Perfidia," "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)," and "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby." But how were all these songs, and song cues, chosen? I turned to a battery of film music experts for answers.
Soundtrack producer Ray Faiola explained, "With respect to the source cues [the songs heard in the background], their selection was based as much on their musical character as the idea they may have represented. It's more than likely that [Warner Bros. executive] Hal Wallis and [composer] Max Steiner conferred on which songs would be played at Rick's Café Americain. Steiner, a former Broadway musical director who worked with Ferde Grofé on the orchestration for 'Rhapsody in Blue,' had a very thorough knowledge of American popular music." Film historian Rudy Behlmer points out that the background songs often comment subtly on the action, as when Sam plays "Speak to Me of Love" when Ilsa and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) first walk into Rick's café. After they are approached by an underground agent, followed by Claude Rains' prefect of police, the piano segues to "Love for Sale."
To reinforce the international flavor of the nightclub, Latin-American singer Corinna Mura appears briefly as the other entertainer at Rick's, singing "Tango Delle Rose" while strumming a guitar. She later joins in the singing of "La Marseillaise," a major story point that is told musically. When a group of German soldiers sing "Die Wacht Am Rhein," Laszlo orders the orchestra to play "La Marseillaise," and the French anthem ultimately drowns out the Nazis. It is one of the strongest, most memorable scenes in the picture.
Behlmer reveals that the studio was unable to use its first choice, "Horst Vessel," because the song was controlled by a German publisher, but the substitution works like a charm. The clever counterpoint of these two contrasting songs was arranged by Steiner himself.
By this time, Max Steiner had composed original scores for more than 125 feature films, including King Kong and Gone With the Wind and was capable of doing a first-rate job scoring this movie. But the studio's head of production, Hal Wallis, had very specific ideas about every aspect of important films like this. Rudy Behlmer illustrated how incisive and brilliant Wallis was through his publication of extensive studio memos in the book Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951 (Viking, 1985). Here is what the executive wrote in his "cutting notes" for Reel 2 of Casablanca:
"Start the piano as Ilsa and Laszlo come in the door. You can stop the piano playing at the table with Ilsa when Renault brings Strasser over to the table. Then don't start the music again until Sam introduces the guitar player. When Ilsa calls Sam over to play, let that go on just as it is until the scene is interrupted by Renault coming back, saying, 'Oh, you have already met Rick.' Now, at that point, when Rick and Ilsa exchange glances, on the first of their close-ups, start an orchestration using 'As Time Goes By.' And score the scene. Let Steiner do this. And carry this until right through the Exterior until the lights go out."
Later in the same reel, Wallis noted, "On the Marseillaise, when it is played in the café, don't do it as though it was played by this small orchestra. Do it with a full scoring orchestra and get some body into it. You should score the piece where the Gendarmes break the door in and carry that right through to the dissolve to the Police Station."
Wallis knew what he wanted, but it was up to Steiner to make it all workmusically. Faiola assesses the results in Reel 2: "When Ilsa meets Sam and asks him to play 'some of the old ones,' Sam plays 'Avalon.' Next he plays 'As Time Goes By.' Then he sings 'As Time Goes By.' The song is interrupted and followed by an underscore cue beginning with a sustained chord that leads into 'As Time Goes By.' The progression of these multiple music elements has to make musical sense and the selection of the first element —'Avalon'— is critical to the sequence. The wistful nature of the melody, and the key in which it is played, makes the song as much a part of the 'scoring' as the thematic underscore cue that eventually follows.
"Other songs heard in the café do not reflect any particular tempo being played by the orchestra and could easily have been selected and recorded after the film was rough-edited and a desired musical character was required. But in each case, the key assignment of each song has to make some musical sense in relation to what may have followed or preceded it on the soundtrack. It doesn't have to be the same key, but it should at least be in a natural modulation."
"Of course," Faiola continues, "many of the melodies heard as source music — 'As Time Goes By,' 'La Marseillaise,' 'Die Wacht Am Rhein,' 'Das Lied der Deutschen' — are also interpolated by Steiner into the fabric of his underscore. Small snatches are played in minor key for dramatic effect or in major key such as 'La Marseillaise,' which serves as the End Title."
Sometimes, however, the context of a scene demanded an original composition. "When Sam plays 'a little somethin' of my own' it's actually a little something by Frank Perkins, one of the Warner orchestrator/composers," Faiola points out. "All of the above was pretty much standard practice by most of the music departments in Hollywood. Songs were never merely 'inserted.' In the same way that a score for a Broadway show has to hang together, so too does a picture score that includes both thematic underscoring and proactive source music."
Musicologist and soundtrack producer John Morgan agrees, and saysthat Steiner's attention to the "big picture," musically speaking, explains why his scores are so listenable when played or programmed on albums. "Even when cues are separated by long musical silence, Steiner was always aware of the key of a previous cue and really thought as scoring as one long piece of music that may or may not be connected."
Says Morgan, "I remember Steiner telling me, although not specifically for Casablanca, that he preferred doing the source music himself. His scores, including Casablanca, are filled with source cues that are part of the underscore where going from source to underscore or vice versa would be composed as one big complicated piece of music. He always felt all the music should somehow be interrelated and felt the primary composer should at least oversee all the music, if possible."
Steiner wasn't inflexible on this point. Says Morgan, "Of course there were the exceptions like [the Gershwin biopic] Rhapsody in Blue or The Glass Menagerie, where Ray Heindorf did the period arrangements. Steiner even started the trend at Warner Bros., where the film's composer wrote the original trailer music, rather than having a music editor put stuff together like most of the other studios did.
"It is not surprising to hear one of Steiner's themes from a previous film being played on the radio or in a nightclub setting [in a Warner Bros. picture]. Of course, this provided more ASCAP income for him as well as promoting his music," adds Morgan with a smile. "So maybe it wasn't only artistic considerations, but always appropriate. [It added a few shekels to the coffers of Warners' music publishing companies, as well. — Ed.] The two most obvious examples of which are 'It Can't Be Wrong' from Now Voyager played on a Victrola in Mildred Pierce and the theme from A Summer Place being played at a youngster's party in Parrish."
Above all, Steiner had no hesitation in "borrowing" from himself. The main title cue in Casablanca, which is meant to establish the setting of the film, is lifted (and orchestrally enhanced) from his score for the 1934 desert saga The Lost Patrol, made at RKO!
"As Time Goes By" was forced on Steiner, who would have preferred to write something original; the song was specifically mentioned in Murray Burnett's play Everybody Comes to Rick's. Steiner's longtime orchestrator, Hugo Friedhofer, recalled, in an oral history for the AFI, that "Steiner didn't have the feeling that 'As Time Goes By' would work in the orchestra at all, because he had a concept of it as being kind of a square tune, which requires translation from what's in the printed piano part to a more relaxed version. So, I say this with all modesty, I said, 'Max, think of it this way (singing 'As Time Goes By' but very broadly).' With triplet phrasing. He kind of thought about it, and that's the way it came out. But it's a good tune. Let's face it. And it's a kind of phrasing that jazzmen fall into naturally."
Steiner wasn't the only studio stalwart who was assigned to work on Casablanca. Two men who were under contract to Warners for years — and rarely celebrated for their work, to this very day — contributed one of the movie's featured songs, performed start to finish by Dooley Wilson, "Knock on Wood." Their names were Jack Scholl and M.K. Jerome.
Scholl had written short stories, sketches for Broadway shows (like 1934's short-lived Keep Moving), and lyrics with such collaborators as Louis Alter, Victor Schertzinger, and Eubie Blake before signing on at Warners. By the 1940s he was able to convince the powers that be to let him write and direct musical shorts, many of which featured songs he and his new partner, M.K. Jerome, wrote for the occasion. These ranged from band shorts with everyone from Spade Cooley to Desi Arnaz, as well as Nautical But Nice, Frontier Days, and a series of sing-along novelties.
M.K. Jerome was apparently born Moe (or Maurice) Kraus, but everyone who knew him called him Moe. Says pianist and popularmusic maven Peter Mintun, "He must have been a good pianist, because after he toured in vaudeville he became a staff pianist at the publishing house of Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, which published his 'Jazz Baby' (lyrics by Blanche Merrill) in 1919. George Jessel introduced a song of Jerome's in the 1925 show The Jazz Singer. He went to Hollywood in 1929 and was with Warners for 18 years."
Pianist, performer and music historian Michael Feinstein says, "Jerome fascinates me because he did so much work at Warners that it is mind boggling, writing songs, underscore and special material for probably hundreds of projects. He's the Max Steiner of the Warners songwriters. Rarely did he get screen credit for these songs."
Most notably, adds Michael, "He wrote those wonderful extra verses and interludes heard in Yankee Doodle Dandy in the Little Johnny Jones sequences that people now think were written by Cohan —'Good Luck, Johnny' and 'All Aboard for Old Broadway.' (They were even used without credit in the short-lived Broadway production of Little Johnny Jones starring Donny Osmond.) His son, Stuart Jerome, started as a page at Warners and eventually became a contract writer, later penning a book about his career." (The book is called Those Crazy Wonderful Years When We Ran Warner Bros., published by Lyle Stuart in 1983.)
Warner Bros. cartoon aficionados may be most familiar with Scholl and Jerome from repeated use of their song "My Little Buckaroo" over the years, and for the jaunty number "As Easy as Rolling Off a Log," sung by Johnny "Scat" Davis in the 1938 cartoon Katnip Kollege.
"Knock on Wood" gave Scholl and Jerome one of their all-time best showcases, although the song never had much life beyond its performance at Rick's Café Americain. Still, their status as house songwriters earned them credit in the main titles of Casablanca.
The man who sang that ditty, as well as "As Time Goes By," also reached the apex of his screen career in Casablanca. Dooley Wilson was born in 1886 and was 56 years old when he won the role of Sam over Hal Wallis' first choice, actor-musician-playwright-composer Clarence Muse, who was unavailable. (Muse later played Sam in Warners' short-lived Casablanca TV series in the 1950s.) A veteran of minstrel shows, vaudeville, and the legitimate stage, Wilson had just been put under contract to Paramount when he was loaned out (at $500 a week, $350 of which he got to keep) to play Humphrey Bogart's piano-playing sidekick. Had he been a Warners player, it's likely the studio would have followed up with other featured parts to capitalize on his success as Sam. Although he did appear in Fox's all-black musical Stormy Weather (1943) and RKO's Higher and Higher (1943) he never again had a movie role as notable as the one in Casablanca. He enjoyed success on Broadway in the 1944 musical Bloomer Girl, where he introduced the song "The Eagle and Me," and toward the end of his life had a recurring role on the TV series Beulah.
Oddly enough, Wilson never got to sing "As Time Goes By" in one continuous performance in Casablanca. He is also heard singing snatches of other familiar songs like "It Had to Be You" and "Shine," but "Knock on Wood" is the only song that receives a complete performance. When Casablanca became a smash hit, Warners had no recording of "As Time Goes By" to promote. In fact, because of a musician's union recording ban in 1943, the key beneficiary of the song's revival was Rudy Vallee, whose original 1931 record was reissued to great success. What's more, Vallee included Herman Hupfeld's wistful verse, which was never sung in the film. In October of 1943, months after the movie's release, Decca (the first record company to settle with the American Federation of Musicians) did release a 78 rpm record of Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By" and "Knock On Wood," but it never caught on.
Ironically, the man who played one of movies' most famous pianists couldn't actually play the instrument (although he had been a drummer), so during filming Wilson fingered a dummy keyboard — a miniature one, at that, with only 58 keys — while musician Elliot Carpenter performed just off-camera. Decades later, when the producers of a Warner Bros. 50 Anniversary record album set wanted a complete rendition of "As Time Goes By," they hired jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles to flesh out Wilson and Carpenter's rendition.
The conclusion one reaches after exploring this multifaceted soundtrack is that, like almost every film of this period, Casablanca was the result of collaboration and the efficient use of the studio system. If Warners didn't have such a "deep bench" in the music department, or a skilled staff orchestra, or access to the catalogs of several major music publishers, or geniuses like Max Steiner and Hal Wallis orchestrating these elements, it might not have been the great movie it became. Yet nothing was done by rote, or formula: if so, Warners could have turned out a Casablanca every year.
In so many ways, from writing to casting to timing in light of world events, this movie caught lightning in a bottle. That is why it remains one of a kind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hooked on Hollywood"
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Table of Contents
All the Music of Casablanca 1
Blues in the Night 10
Where Did the Music Go? 27
Remembering Forgotten Men 42
Grade B-But Choice 53
Act Three: Television 60
Here We Go Again 68
Introduction: Seeing Stars 91
Anita Loos 93
Burgess Meredith 99
Robert Youngson 113
Joan Blondell 126
Mitchell Leisen 134
Henry Wilcoxon 149
George O'Brien 160
Ralph Bellamy 170
Madge Evans 186
Later In-Depth Interviews
John Cromwell 203
Peggy Webber 224
Arthur Gardner 244
Marc Connelly 256
Later In-Depth Interviews (cont'd)
Paul Wurtzel 275
Dick Jones 290
Leslie H. Martinson 316
The Forgotten Studio
RKO Revisited 341