Last Friday, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I went to see “Casablanca,” my favorite movie of all-time, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers. It was the fifth time I’ve seen “Casablanca” in a theater. As I watched, rapt as ever, something happened that’s never happened to me before and it made me realize that, each time I’ve seen the movie, I’ve been at a different stage of my life and, as such, I think I’ve interpreted, and been affected by, certain aspects of it differently.
I first saw “Casablanca” in a theater in 1992. It was also the first time I saw the movie at all and, looking back, I can’t be thankful enough that’s how I first experienced it. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, my 12th grade economics teacher, Frank Egloff, took us to see the movie in New York City, where it was playing for its 50th anniversary.
What did that have to do with economics? Nothing; Mr. Egloff just thought we should see it.
I’m glad he felt that way because that day changed my life.
Before then, my experience with black-and-white movies was limited to “King Kong” on Thanksgiving and the first 10 minutes of “The Wizard of Oz.” The things I remember most about seeing “Casablanca” that first time were the incredible dialog and scene in which Victor Lazlo, with Rick’s nodded ascent, leads the French café patrons in singing “La Marseillaise,” drowning out the drunk Nazis, who tried to take over Rick’s Café American, as they did everything else, with “Die Wacht am Rhein.”
That scene gave what my best friend and I used to call The Feeling; that tingly swell you get at a particularly cathartic scene in a movie.
I also remember Mr. Egloff talking to the bus driver about “Casablanca,” and other old movies, on the way back to school. It made me wonder what else might be out there for me to discover.
Seeing “Casablanca” that day was indeed the gateway to a deep and abiding love of classic film, and film in general, that defines me to this day. It also made up my mind that I wanted to write for a living; somehow, some way that’s what I wanted to do. I’d always written, of course, both in school and out, but my introduction to dialog and those characters that day convinced me I wanted to be a part of words and storytelling in some capacity for the rest of my days.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do up until then. It was either run guns to Ethiopia, fight in Spain on the loyalist side or be the guy who drove the tour tram around the Bronx Zoo.
The next time I saw “Casablanca” in a theater was later that same year, 1992, when it came to the little theater in Bronxville, which is still one of my favorites to this day. That time, I saw it with my soon to be first girlfriend and two other friends. That viewing taught me two things; Claude Rains’ Capt. Louis Renault was my favorite movie character ever—still is; I watch him more than anyone else in the film—and it’s awesome to share something you love with someone you love.
That last bit would serve me extremely well in later choosing someone to actually marry because, as you’ve recently read in this space, that first girlfriend had 12 break-ups and two years of angsty tumult in store for me.
Not even “Casablanca” could overcome that, and just as well.
The next time I visited Rick’s on the big screen was quite special in two ways.
First, I saw it at Radio City Music Hall, one of the grand palaces of American exhibition, and, second, it was the first time I saw “Casablanca” with my wife.
She’d also seen it during its anniversary re-release, though she lived in Atlanta at the time, and was already a fan.
We’d recently started dating, as I recall, so this would be sometime in the summer or fall of 1996. With that viewing, I learned one very important thing. There’s more to life than what you’ve known.
Between my first relationship and my second, “Casablanca” viewings at home were a way to cheer myself up for one reason or another. As of that screening at Radio City, the movie, and maybe life, was something to celebrate again. And it has been ever since.
We saw the movie again, this time as a married couple, of course, just a year or two ago at the City Center in White Plains. Nothing cathartic to report about this viewing except it was round about that time I realized, if you watch closely, Capt. Renault is never really a bad guy; he never really sides with the Nazis. He subtlety counters and digs at everything Maj. Strasser says from the start.
If sarcasm, wit and guile in the face of oppression can be their own form heroism, I’m in pretty good shape.
That brings us to last Friday. As you’ve probably guessed by now, seeing “Casablanca” on the big screen with like-minded people on Valentine’s Day with my soul mate was pretty damn special for me. It was the most I’ve enjoyed the experience since the first time, but there was that new thing that happened I mentioned earlier.
When Lazlo led “La Marseillaise” this time, I teared-up and I’m not sure why.
Maybe it’s because I understand love of country more than I used to. Maybe it’s because I have a better appreciation for the freedoms I enjoy that others around the world can’t.
Or maybe it’s because, 22 years after I first saw it, I’ve gotten to a place in my life—and as a person—in which I can just let a moment like that in to affect me how it will. I hope that’s what it was.
The best relationships are the ones that can still surprise you.
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