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Rick's Place

The Stanford Theatre Foundation brings 'Casablanca' to the restored California Theatre movie palace in San Jose

By Richard von Busack

WATCHING Casablanca on the late show a week after the recent election, I nudged my wife: "See that? That's gonna be us, looking for letters of transit." I'm mentioning this moment not to wallow in that brief hysteria that made for such long hours for the clerks at the Canadian consulate last month. Rather, I bring it up to point out that every fresh viewing of Casablanca (1942) brings something new.

The first movie to be shown in the revived California Theatre in downtown San Jose is a perfect choice, because it's what almost everyone agrees upon is a first-rate movie. Every facet of the film appeals to at least one facet of an audience—thus Umberto Eco's comment that Casablanca is "not a movie, it's the movies." It started as an ordinary exotic potboiler, fit for the likes of Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan. During the summer of 1942, endless daily rewrites baffled the cast, to the point where they never really knew who was what. "Lines of script were usually only minutes or hours old when spoken, and the mystified director and cast could only guess at motivations and destiny of the characters," wrote cinema historian John Eastman. The movie suffered a fortunate stroke when the high desert city of Casablanca was captured by the Allies in winter 1942; suddenly, there was all the free publicity one could want in the headlines.

Casablanca is the finest kind of factory-made object, with all hands at their best. It made Humphrey Bogart, who plays a man preferring beauty to duty until he gets his priorities straight. "A women's picture for men," as critic David Thomson put it, although Ingrid Bergman's strangely unpolished performance has moved men and women alike. Cast and crew representing 34 nationalities add to the atmosphere.

The movie Casablanca may not have much in common with the Moroccan city of Casablanca, but it has a lot in common with the city of L.A. during these years, overrun with refugees from the fascists. One such refugee, Peter Lorre, adds a note of expressionism when he's hauled away by the Germans. He shrieks his way offstage, and for a second the obscenity of the Nazis is manifested in a way that's more vivid and painful than anything even in Schindler's List. Casablanca may be about a game of liar's poker between various players, but Lorre's exit shows—all to clearly—what the stakes are.

Michael Curtiz's rapid direction makes this like an ordinary thriller played at double time; it's easy to watch and rewatch because the trickery here requires more than one viewing to unravel. In addition to Casablanca, the program includes a Bugs Bunny cartoon and a newsreel; and there will be a Wurlitzer organ performance a half-hour before each show. This performance, hosted by the Stanford Theatre Foundation, which nurtures our cinematic heritage with regular shows at the Stanford in Palo Alto, marks what could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, with classic movies screening at the beautifully restored old movie palace. Bring your friends and show them what a real movie looks like.

Casablanca shows Dec 18-Dec 23 at 7:30pm with an added 10pm show Saturday and a 3pm show Sunday at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., in downtown San Jose. Tickets are $5. For information call 650.324.3700.

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From the December 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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