Are you watching “Casablanca” again? – a reprise post

This repeat blog from 2012 flows from a conversation between Roger, our British blogging friend, and me the other day. It was nice to add to our blogging friendship that he also likes “Casablanca.”

When my wife has caught me stopping while channel surfing on a showing of “Casablanca” as I did Friday night, she invariably asks “How many times have you seen that?” I usually answer “Not enough” depending on her mood. I was encouraged to write about my favorite movie when I stopped by a blog yesterday where the blogger did a wonderful job of talking about her favorite book and movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I should note my wife will do the same with “Somewhere in Time,” but since I appreciate the story and seeing Jane Seymour’s classic beauty it is a more than a fair trade – she of course has a thing for Christopher Reeve, but that is another story.

To me, Casablanca takes me to another place in time. It is a great story told well, set at a crucial time with a backdrop of Nazi antagonism, and played by great actors under great direction. You can go to Wikipedia and see the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards and the numerous nominations, so it is acknowledged for its surprisingly unexpected brilliance. Also, the fact that the movie is included as one of the all-time best movies confirms it is a classic. Yet, to me it is the dialogue and interaction between the starring roles, supporting roles and the many smaller roles, that make it worthwhile.

I enjoy the banter between Carl and Sasha, the head waiter and bartender, and their patrons as much as the dialogue between the lead roles. And, the most moving part of the movie includes only the third star – Paul Heinreid as Victor Lazlo with a brief nod from Humphrey Bogart as Rick – as Lazlo directs the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the Nazi sing along in Rick’s Americain Cafe. This scene never ceases to give me chills as it shows what a heroic figure Lazlo is and why people look to him to lead and why the Nazis are so wary of him.

Setting aside this emphatic moment, it is the dialogue and story that deserve the credit more so than anything. The movie is a compilation of conversations leading us to the inevitable climax. You have little reason to like Rick at first, so the dialogue helps paint a better picture of this gray character – why he is bitter and how he was not always this way. At the same time, we see the grayness of Claude Rains’ Captain Louis Renault’s character evolve into someone who gives a damn at the end. Even Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund is not perfect, as she is torn between Rick and her devotional love to Victor Lazlo. So, the grayness of these characters and others (such as Sydney Greenstreet’s Ferrari) shows how imperfect we all are in our daily struggles between survival and doing the right thing. In fact, the only true hero and villain are Victor Lazlo and Major Strasser with others having many shades of gray in-between.

The writers, primarily Julius and Phillip Epstein with help from Howard Koch, deserve the Best Screenplay award. The dialogue reveals the characters in this struggle. The movie is remembered for its six classic quotes being included among the 100 Best Movie Quotes, but those quotes should not overshadow the dialogue that give them meaning. The classic “round-up the usual suspects” after Major Strasser has been shot is based on earlier dialogue. It has extra meaning to me as the writers initially did not know how the movie should end even after filming began. When one of the Epsteins blurted out “round-up the usual suspects” they knew Strasser had to be killed and that led them to Lazlo getting on the plane with Ilsa as Rick had to be the one who shot him.

Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson as Sam, Peter Lorre as Ugarte and Conradt Veidt as the villainous Strasser all are ideally cast in their roles. Plus, the many dialogues and scenes expose us to Rick’s handling of the essential sub-story of the Bulgarian couple trying to win their way to America while the young wife considers sleeping with Renault and Rick’s relationship with his casino boss, Sam, Sasha, Carl, Ferrari and Ugarte among others.

Yet, we should not forget the role of Michael Curtiz and his other directors who helped him when the Academy Award (he was not the only director used on the film). Focusing on the sadness and beauty of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa shows that much can be said without a word even in this movie of words. And, it doesn’t stop with her as the facial expressions of the people listening to other people is very telling. There is a brief moment when the guitar playing female singer cannot hide a glimpse of her disgust over Major Strasser; note it is not overtly apparent, as in real life, he may have noticed it and said something to her. There are also classic scenes where the camera catches the silhouette of one of the actors in a dialogue, to let us see the other party. There are some very effective scenes like this in Rick’s office.

So, I watch again and again. Note, I do not stop every time, but I do enjoy parts of the movie so much, that I will at least catch a taste before I move on. If you have not seen it, I would encourage you to do so. I have seen it in a theatre and it is even more special as you can see more facial expressions than on a TV screen.  If you have not watched it in a while, please check it out again and look at the facial expressions and listen to the dialogue. And, if you love it like I do, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Please feel free to share your favorite moments, characters, etc.

Two lanterns for the South (and humanity) – a reprise

I wrote this article over four years ago, I felt we needed to escape politics of the day.

Two of my favorite authors have died in the past weeks – Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. They both were lanterns into southern life, showing the world our love, anguish, bigotry, eccentricity, manners and eccentricities. Yet, they showed all of humanity these same attributes and asked us why must we have these barriers to each other?

Harper Lee wrote the best and most impactful novel I have ever read about the south in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She created through Scout’s eyes a hero in her father, Atticus Finch, that she had to learn how great and brave a man could be. She had written a previous manuscript, which was initially not accepted, but it was released this past year as “Go set the Watchman.” I have this book, but have not read it, as it paints a different version of Atticus, a journey I do not want to take.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird, we learn what racism under Jim Crow looks like. She sneaks it up on you, so by the time the reader understands what is going on, they are hooked and ready to take up for Atticus and Tom Robinson, just like Scout and Jem did. I have written before about the novel and movie, but let me repeat my favorite parts. First, when Atticus leaves the court room after losing the case, the minister admonishes Scout to stand like everyone else is because “Your father is passing.”

The other is when the female neighbor is consoling Jem after the loss. She notes “There are people who are put on this earth to do our unpleasant tasks. Your father is one of them.” Yet, that is what makes the book so marvelous, we are seeing Atticus and racism through a child’s lens. And, it also confirms what is noted in the Rogers and Hammerstein “South Pacific” that bigotry has to be carefully taught. Scout and Jem have been taught not to be bigoted.

As for Conroy, he put in words stories and characters who make the south live. Critics have noted that he has written novels around his father being a very abusive man. It is true that many of his novels, like “The Great Santini,”  “The Prince of Tides,” of “South of Broad,” have elements of his father therein, with Santini being a thinly veiled biography. Yet, his books are much more than that.

My first Conroy book was “The Lords of Discipline” which is about a young cadet being asked to look after the first black cadet at a southern military school, which looks and smells like The Citadel, where he went to college. I normally like to read the book before seeing the movie, but the latter lead me to the book. The Bear was the grandfatherly mentor at the school referring to his mentees as “his lambs.” And, he called the lead character Bubba, which is a nickname for brother, usually because a younger sibling could not pronounce brother.

“The Water is Wide” is great auto-biographical read and was made into a movie called “Conrack,” which is how the Daufuskie Island children, who spoke Gullah, pronounced Conroy’s name. He set out to teach these kids how to read and expose them to new things, rather than just shepherd them along. Eventually, he was fired for being rebellious, as the principal did not want these kids getting aspirations.

He also penned “My Losing Season,” which is a true story of his basketball playing days for a very poor and inconsistent coach. Reading this book led me to a realization that I actually saw Conroy play basketball in the mid-1960s, when The Citadel played Jacksonville University. He spoke of the players I saw for the Jacksonville team, as my father would take us to the games and this is where I learned what The Citadel was.

Yet, my favorite is “The Prince of Tides,” which also was made into a movie with Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner and Nick Nolte. The movie was good, but left out the best example of a character in a Conroy novel. The grandfather was so religious, every Easter he would drag a cross around town to suffer like Jesus did. When he got too old to do this, the family put the cross on roller skates, so he could wheel it around. That is classic eccentricity.

If you have not read them, please give them a chance. The movies are excellent, but the books have so much more to offer. These two will be missed.

Friday memories

Since I am exhausted from talking about our modern day Voldemort, let me offer a few random memories on this Friday, Greenwich time. In no particular order:

When my father used to cook chicken on the grill, he would always return to the kitchen with a wingless chicken. When asked, he noted said chicken could not fly as it had no wings. Of course, he would eat the wings outside to make sure he got the basting right, at least that was his ultimate story.

When he smoked meat in his Cooking Cajun smoker, he would cook a ham on one rack and a turkey on another. The poor cook would start the large turkey around 2 am in the morning and then add the ham later. I wish I had his knack for smoking it right. He did say he basted the turkey with mayonnaise to keep it moist. Whatever he did, both were excellent.

My mother was a terrific cook as well, so these meals were accentuated with her casseroles, side dishes and desserts. One of her wonderful dishes was a layered salad, which must be served in a glass bowl to see the layers of lettuce, cheese, mostly thawed frozen green peas, mayonnaise (we southerners love our mayo), bacon and green onion. She also had a fruit pie made with fresh strawberries and bananas.

My mother was an Education and Home Economics major in college, so she would plan out our meals for two weeks between paychecks. Pot roast, fried chicken, cubed steak, spaghetti, lasagna, ham steaks with limas and cheese, etc. were usually in the mix. Back then, she went to the grocery store once in two weeks. Think about the planning behind that statement. We did not make runs to the grocer as we do now, with the exception of fresh milk which we got from a nearby dairy store you could actually drive up to.

With three kids who all played sports, we liked to eat and ate a lot. So, my mother keeping the refrigerator full shopping once every two weeks was a chore. One of the wisest things my high school did was, if you played sports, you automatically took PE in the last class of the day, so we could start practicing early. With a full load of classes in the preceding years, I found a free period for lunch in my Senior year, so I would eat at home and return for practice. So, more food was needed to fill this growing boy’s body. Did I mention I ate a lot?

When I got home, I would do my studying at night. So, my brother, sister and I would watch the reruns of Star Trek, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, The Wild West, etc., before and just after dinner. With one TV, we all watched the same thing. I must confess, the love interests of Captain Kirk and James West were fascinating to this adolescent boy. And, it did not dawn on me, at first, the comedic genius of Don Knotts as Barney Fife and Lucille Ball as Lucy. I would get irritated with how silly they were, but realized later that was their gift.

Well, that is enough for memory lane. I had a good childhood, not perfect mind you, as I have left off my parents’ fighting, but it was largely good memories. I have written before about my father’s drinking problem (which I inherited), but he was still a good man, who just had a problem. He was sober the last twenty years of his life and I have been without a drink for over thirteen years.

You remember that place next to the restaurant we liked – an updated version

This is an example of “couplespeak.” After years of marriage, it is entirely possible the other member of the couple will know precisely where the speaker is meaning. And, neither may actually remember the name of the place or the restaurant used as the landmark. This kind of conversation can surface in a multitude of ways. Here are a few more examples.

Oh, she is that actress who starred in the action movie with the guy we like.

This one usually requires some stumbling add-ons. Because the responding question will usually be, “Which movie are you talking about?” Nowadays, with Google, it is possible to come up with names and trace the movie to the other star. Yet, it is possible for the spouse to know after some add-on suggestions, who the actress and actor are.

Why don’t you make that casserole you made when we had some folks over?

Between the two, the name of the other couple can be surfaced which will help with the mental Rolodex of recipe names. Otherwise, it will be an ingredient hinting exercise. “I remembered it was a chicken and sausage dish.”

Was it Johnny, Susie or Joey that had the whooping cough or was it the croup?

This is not a fill in the blank question like the others. But, if you are a parent of more than one child, some of the younger child illnesses blend together. Your kids will laugh at you if you don’t remember, but they will cease laughing when it happens to them as parents. Also, the diseases do get mixed up some, which is why you keep a list.

What is the name of that singer that sounds like the woman we heard on the American Idol or The Voice?”

It is the “name that person questions” that come up the most. We know both of us know her, yet neither can recall her name. We do need to find some hint that will jog memory or facilitate the Google search.

Do you think the “Sun” or “Jellyfish” or “Popcorn” is that actress or singer who was in…?”

To get this reference, you have to be a fan of “The Masked Singer,” where artists dress in very creative costumes and sing in competition. Throughout their stints, the competitors offer clues. Yet, given the previous and first example above, it does test our couplespeak. Do you think that is the guy who starred in the sit-com about the young family with two dads?

To others, it will appear we have no sense at all. If you told someone that you could not remember a popular person or place, the other person would think you were crazy. “How can you not know that?” Yet, all couples will eventually migrate to this couplespeak at some point.

Tell me a few of your examples. Which ones did I not capture? When did you first notice this trend?

A seventy-one old toaster (and marriage)

It is just a toaster, a Sunbeam T-20 model, which toasts two pieces at a time. Yet, it was purchased and given as a wedding gift in 1949. And, it still works. Two slices of toast are still needed each morning, because Frank and Gloria Witt are still married after seventy-one years.

Per the article by Nicole Brodeur of The Seattle Times called “After 71 years, marriage – and wedding gift – endures,” the 92 year-old Frank and 93 year-old Gloria, are enduring well. A picture accompanying the article reveals Frank, with his World War II Veteran ball cap, and Gloria, and her large smile, placing her head on his shoulder.

They met when Frank ventured to Tacoma after the war to attend college and went to the dentist. Gloria was the dentist’s niece and was working behind the desk. Frank said he made more appointments to find out who she was. Good dental hygiene can be a matchmaker.

Per Brodeur, “It’s not just about a toaster. It’s about marriage, and anything of value. It’s about taking care of something – or someone.” Their son Christopher adds, “‘if you treat something really well, then it will last.'”

Frank added, “‘we try to take care of everything and keep using it. We came from the Depression days. You used everything you could for as long as you could take care of it.'”

Frank said they had only purchased a refrigerator before they got married. Everything else was provided by others. They planned their purchases as well as when they wanted children, five years hence. They ended up with three Victoria (now 66), Christopher (now 62) and Margaret (now 56), but note the spacing in ages, which also looks to be the product of planning.

A vintage Sunbeam toaster like the one they have is worth about $300 today. This one is worth far more than that as a symbol. Yet, my guess is, if it goes before them, they will be practical and just go buy another one.