If you love movies the way I do, you’ve probably watched Casablanca more than once. Maybe, like me, you’ve seen it a dozen times or so.
But you’ve most likely only ever seen it on TV, if not by yourself then with one or two others.
And that means, gentle reader, you’ve never seen Casablanca at all.
I came to that realization a few nights ago at Wolf Trap, the National Park for the Performing Arts, as I watched Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid play out their star-crossed love triangle on a giant screen, with the National Symphony Orchestra playing Max Steiner’s immortal score live on stage…and most importantly, surrounded by several thousand others who long ago accepted as gospel truth Dooley Wilson’s reminder, “A kiss is still a kiss.”
For some years now, I’ve been mourning the creeping loss of movies as a communal experience—I even did a piece about it for AARP’s My Generation TV show. Even so, I was unprepared for my Casablanca epiphany. The movie lovers around me cheered when that black-and-white Warner Brothers shield filled the screen. They applauded with the first screen appearance of Bergman and laughed with anticipation at first sight of Claude Rains as that irresistible scoundrel, Captain Louis Renault. And when Bogie made his entrance—ingeniously unveiled bit-by-bit by cinematographer Arthur Edeson—well, you could feel the anticipation rippling through the crowd, all the way out to the faithful on the Wolf Trap lawn.
They cheered when Ilsa ordered Sam to “Play it” (you do know, of course, that no one ever says ‘Play it again, Sam’ in the whole movie). They tilted their heads in pity as Rick stood helpless on the Paris train platform, desperately peering through the pouring rain for a glimpse of the never-coming Ilsa.
And yes, a few even leaped to their feet to join in singing La Marseillaise, helping the French loyalists drown out those lousy Nazis at Rick’s Café Americain.
It wasn’t quite a Rocky Horror Picture Show experience—no one shouted lines back at the screen, and I didn’t spot anyone arriving in a Bogie-like trenchcoat (although the 95-degree temperatures might have had something to do with that).
But as the lights came up, and we all headed reluctantly for the exits, I could be sure of one thing: Despite all the times I, like everyone else, have gone to Ricks, for me and Casablanca, this was just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.