06 September 2009

The midgets of Casablanca

Until yesterday, Casablanca was one of the multitude of classic films that I’d not seen, due to my peculiar aversion to getting my act together and actually renting them.  But the Paramount in Courtenay Place advertised four days of screenings this past week, so I was finally able to enjoy the film on the big screen. 

I can now see why it’s so popular and iconic.  Sure, it’s got certain aspects of cheesiness, what with the rather shameless repetition of Bogart’s “here’s looking at you, kid” catchphrase (four times, I think) and the similar repeated revisiting of Dooley Wilson’s performance of As Time Goes By.  And while the cast is an excellent and eclectic bunch, no-one could accuse Humphrey Bogart of out-acting anyone – his performance is strictly down the straight and narrow route of stoic reserve, which is no great surprise given that Casablanca was his first romantic lead, and up until then he had been best known for gangster tough-guy roles. 

Of course, Ingrid Bergman is lovely as Ilsa Lund, and the director Michael Curtiz ensured that the camera and lighting lavishes attention on her perfect features whenever possible.  Also of note is a charming performance by Claude Rains as the dapper, dissolute Capt Renault, with his kepi forever skewed at a rakish angle and a dry-witted quip ever ready. 

One of the things that I enjoyed about the rather random way I came to know about Casablanca before I saw it was that the majority of this knowledge came not from movie articles or IMDB, but rather from the lyrics of a Front Lawn song.  ‘Claude Rains’ is a thoughtful ballad from the Front Lawn’s peerless first album, and while I couldn’t find a video performance to include here, I urge you to track it down for a listen.  Although maybe you’d be better to wait until you’ve actually seen Casablanca

Another feature of the film that I discovered after the screening was the cinema trickery used in the iconic airport scene at the film’s conclusion.  In earlier scenes the plane to Lisbon, a Lockheed Electra Junior, was filmed at a distance using a convincing (for the time) model aircraft.  But the final scenes of the film, which required a backdrop of the plane ready to leave the airport, were shot at a soundstage without sufficient space for a real aircraft.  The producers solved the problem by building reduced-scale cardboard replicas of the Lockheed, cranking up a fog machine to obscure the view, and dressing a crew of midgets in overalls to give the impression that the airport ground crew were working on a regular-sized aircraft.  Now that’s creative thinking!

You can see the cardboard Lockheed and the uncredited background performances of the midget actors in the following clip and a still excerpt, and read more about the film-makers’ decision to use the midgets here.

Midgets of Casablanca

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