Casablanca and Popular Music as Film Music

Birger Langkjær

In its combining of several genres and archetypical situations, Casablanca has acquired an outstanding reputation as the quintessential Hollywood movie (Eco 1987). Dramatic conflicts of love and politics are given flavor by combining the style and mood of exotic settings with popular American tunes. It has often been stated that almost any line spoken in Casablanca is quotable (Jørholt 1989). The central use of popular music, including As Time Goes By, somehow matches this as the quotability of dialogue is complemented by a "hummability" or "singability" of the music. In the case of film music, Casablanca can be considered a case study in how popular music as film music can be highly foregrounded at a time when the pop score pure and simple was an option not even to be considered.

The name Max Steiner ought to be familiar to anyone who has ever glanced at the names written with big letters in the opening credits of films from the 1930s and 1940s. He is one of the most productive Hollywood composers, and has written scores for about 150 films. Apart from Casablanca, he has done music for movies such as King Kong (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Big Sleep (1946). But even though every film in Hollywood has its musical composer, many a tune heard as the story unfolds has a previous life. They can be popular tunes to be heard in scenes in restaurants, clubs, from a radio or the like. As those popular tunes often appear as part of the fiction, they will be played in the manner of contemporary popular music and combine instrumental and vocal means of expression, including lyrics. Otherwise, an already popular tune might provide melodic material to be combined with other motifs in the instrumental musical score and thus be part of the symphonic orchestral sound. Furthermore, some well-known songs and melodies, like national anthems and "classical highlights," can be used together with recognizable pastiches of specific musical styles, to signal time, place or cultural identity (see Langkjær 1996). Thus, a Hollywood composer will both compose new music and use and arrange already written tunes for specific narrative purposes. And all of this applies to Casablanca.

As is the case for many other popular tunes used in Hollywood movies, As Time Goes By had an earlier life. It was written by Herman Hupfeld and first appeared on Broadway in 1931 in Everybody's Welcome. By way of the play Everybody Comes to Rick's (never to be produced on stage but nevertheless the basis for the movie that became Casablanca), the song ended up in Casablanca. It was sung by Dooley Wilson as the character Sam (and probably played by the pianist Elliot Carpenter). According to imdb.com the song remained on the radio "Hit Parade" for 21 weeks - but not in the same version as in the film:

However, because of the coincidental musicians' union recording ban, the 1931 Rudy Vallee version became the smash hit. (It contains the rarely-sung introductory verse, not heard in the film.) Max Steiner, in a 1943 interview, admitted that the song "must have had something to attract so much attention."
(imdb.com\Casablanca\Trivia, august, 2002).

Even though the sound track album is a more recent invention of the combined music and film industry, the circulation of popular tunes between movies and theaters, and later records and radio, has its origin back in the early years of the 20th century: "Between 1936 and 1942, film songs were regularly found atop Variety's weekly roster of the twenty-five most-played songs. Additionally, a Peatman survey showed that Hollywood and Broadway together accounted for more than 80 percent of the most-performed songs in 1942" (Smith 1998: 31). In that sense, much movie music is certainly heard by its audience; both as part of and apart from the film in which it appears.

As noted by Jeff Smith (1998), popular music was for a long time thought to be unsuitable for underscoring the reason being its lack of dynamic change and its repetitive form that made it unable to adjust to the changing actions and events on screen. This view was probably enhanced by a certain elitism (and vanity) on part of the composers. Many of them had their formal training and cultural background in European art music and were somehow mental strangers to the American film industry. Max Steiner did not choose As Time Goes By himself: it was given to him. As he later, in 1966, was to complain: "Composition is a highly developed art that's now dominated by young men who can only hum a tune" (Steiner quoted in Prendergast 1992:148).

The pop score proper was not to be made before the late 1950s. As is the case in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s, the musical style or idiom is closely tied to the reality-status of the music, whether that is diegetic or non-diegetic. The actual underscoring is often in the style of late romanticism and turn-of-the-century opera, that is, rich orchestral texture, recognizable but often tonally and otherwise transformed melodic material (a game of melodic hide and seek), and expressive dynamics. Diegetic music, on the other hand, is most often heard as tunes and vocal songs in the idiom of today or nearby yesterday. They are hummable and singable, easy to remember and accessible, often have lyrics and consist in repetitions with minor deviations. Whereas the first can be recognized (and sometimes hummed), the second can be recognized and sung. In Casablanca, it is not only Sam that is singing. The Knock on Wood song (music by M. K. Jerome, lyrics by Jack Scholl) basically has a song and response structure. As Sam sings "who is knocking", the people at Rick's reply "we are knocking."

This is a moment in the film where the kind of common human space established by the entertainment culture is most visible - but never without a prevalent feeling of nostalgia, the felt presence of something distant or unreachable in the past. In Casablanca, the collective nostalgia is one for America, a nostalgic object that is framed by the exotic scenery that surrounds Rick's Café Américain. Thus, in Casablanca music is very much part of establishing spatial and cultural identity. Rick's Café Américain gives the film makers an excuse for playing plenty of music, most of it popular and somehow nostalgic tunes from the thirties like It Had To Be You by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, Shine by Ford Dabney, some rhythmic improvisations on piano, and, as already mentioned, Knock On Wood and As Time Goes By. Songs like these create a microcosm, a small scale imaginary America. But it is an America in African exile, full of Europeans, and, except for Rick and Sam, without any Americans. And, ironically, Rick is for some reason not allowed to go back to America. Thus, the nostalgia related to the impossible love-affair between Rick and Ilsa, certainly has its emotional equivalent in terms of national and cultural belonging very much prevalent in its music.

Other kinds of familiar songs can be heard as is the case with La Marsellaise. Basically, it is a march with its characteristic triumphant upwards leaps in the melody line so typical for many western European anthems. It is first heard during the credit sequence (it triumphantly accompanies the name of Max Steiner!) as a musical foreshadowing of the drama to come. In the opening sequence, it has a somehow ironic effect. A mocking snap of the melody line (in the minor mode) is heard as a man is shot in front of a huge poster for the Vichy-regime. In his hands they find a poster for The Free French. Later, as Sam enters the bar late at night to find Rick drinking on his own, there follows a flash-back sequence in which it is used as a signature for France (to evade any possible misunderstandings both the Eiffel Tower, the Arch of Triumph and the Seine is seen as back-projections behind Rick and Ilsa). And later, in a variation in the minor mode, it is heard before the Germans march into Paris and, finally, as Rick stands alone on the platform in the rain with the farewell-letter from Ilsa.

Apart from its use as part of the score, it gains its most triumphant expression during the virtual battle on anthems at Rick's. Beforehand, Victor Laszlo tries to buy from Rick the much needed "letters of transit" and offers him a big sum of money. But Rick refuses. As Laszlo asks him why, Rick replies: "Ask your wife." They are now interrupted by the off-screen sound of a group of German officers singing Die Wacht Am Rhein. Maybe because he is somehow upset about Rick's reply, Laszlo throws away any caution and asks the band to play La Marsellaise. Their hesitation is brief as Rick nods silently. And with Laszlo in the lead, more and more people sing along, even the French girl Yvonne, that earlier came together with a German officer. The Germans react by singing louder but their small group is soon to give up, thereby loosing the battle on anthems. This extended and symbolic use of La Marsellaise results in the closing of Rick's place and the political thriller plot is intensified. From being snatches of melody in the score, the song has been foregrounded as part of the action. And as I will argue in general, foregrounding music is the essential strategy in Casablanca. This will be even more obvious in the case with As Time Goes by.

Baldly stated, some of the fundamental functions of film music are to secure that the plot gets through and to enhance our pro-attitude towards certain characters and whatever they might wish for (see Langkjær 2000).

As the film begins, two German couriers carrying exit-visas have been killed. Major Strasser arrives from the third Reich to secure that the famous resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, will not succeed in leaving Casablanca. This war/thriller plot is intensified with the confrontation between Strasser (with some dubious help from Renault) and Laszlo. Narrative closure is achieved as he - and his wife - leave Casablanca on an airplane and Major Strasser is shot. Thus, the thriller plot provides some limitations that puts pressures on characters. It gives the plot a forward drive, and leads to some final action that closes down the chain of events. Even though the romantic plot somehow complicates the thriller plot, it is the thriller plot that forces Rick to decide on love. In this (narrative) sense, the thriller plot is the central plot that frames and structures the chain of events, and the love-plot a secondary one. But as is often the case, the secondary plot-line is the most interesting, the one the audience really cares about. And even though some musical attention is given to the central plot in the last third of the film by use of suspenseful musical motives and harmonics, the music in the first half of the film concentrates on two other functions: to characterize the place and to characterize the inner state of the two central persons of the romantic plot, Rick and Ilsa.

In the first quarter of Casablanca, underscoring has "characterization of locale" as its major functions. Arabic sound-alike melodic figures are heard (pentatonic scales and movement along chromatic intervals, enhanced in its cultural color by instrumentation). Whereas the film as such supplies its audience with a rich, varied, and numerous cast of characters and a more narrowly focused suspense-plot, the music focuses on place. The only deviation is the chase scene, mentioned above, taking place in the streets of Casablanca. No music related to the psychology of the characters will be heard before Rick and Ilsa meet.

As Time Goes by is heard as the first quarter of the film has passed. In terms of plot structure this fits in with the first so-called plot-point (Field 1979), that is, some action or event in a scene or sequence that gives the plot a new direction and supplies it with a forward drive. Everybody has been presented at Rick's Café Américain, except for two people that up until now have only been spoken about: Victor Lazslo and Ilsa Lund. An important set-up is the fact that Ugarte has been arrested for having stolen the much needed exit visas some few moments before they enter the cafe. And from that moment, it will be more and more clear that both Strasser and Renault will do anything in their power to prevent Laszlo from having those exit visas (which, by the way, happen to be hidden in Sam's piano) and leaving Casablanca. And, in return, Laszlo will do his best to succeed in leaving (the thriller plot). Secondly, the verbal exchanges, acting, and editing make it all to clear that there is a past between Rick and Ilsa yet to be revealed to the audience (the romantic plot).

As the two enter the café, Ilsa gives Sam a strange look and vice versa. Later, Ilsa asks a waiter to call Sam over and he places himself at the piano (for those who find bad continuity funny, the very useful piano that suddenly appears next to the table of Ilsa is absent in previous shots). Ilsa asks questions about Rick, and Sam obviously feels this to be unpleasant. At a certain point she asks him to play some of the old songs: "Play, it Sam. Play As Time Goes by." As Sam replies "I'm a little rusty on that," Ilsa insists: "I'll hum it for you." And so she does. When he plays it on the piano, she will insist once again: "Sing it, Sam." The lyrics go like this:

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
And when two lovers woo
They still say "I love you"
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

The piano-accompanied song is a slow ballad in regular beats. In the scene mentioned above only part of the song is heard, basically two verses of eight bars each. The first bar (and the first line of the lyrics) consists of a six-note melodic figure starting with a small upward movement (a small second) and ending on a sustained note. The second bar starts with a larger tonal leap (a small third) but otherwise the melodic rhythm and the intervals between tones are repeated. And again, the third bar repeats the pattern even though it begins with a bigger tonal leap (a fourth). The fourth bar is without a melodic line, thereby preparing us for the next two bars that vary and give a certain closure to the melodic figure and are to be followed by a two bar interlude. Thus, the six-note melodic line undergoes small variations in the first half of the verse, but the melodic contour is somehow repeated. The last half provides variation and closure. These eight bars are repeated in the second verse as only the lyrics (and the last note in the seventh bar) change. Thus, the song has its musical identity from the principle of likeness (melodic rhythm and contour) and some variation (as the sudden leap by a fourth at the beginning of the third bar), thereby making it somehow easier to remember and to recognize by ear.

As soon as Sam begins to sing, there follows a visual cut to Ilsa. She is seen in soft-focus with a downward glance, inward and dreamy as if listening to the lyrics and tone of the song. At the end of the third bar in the second verse (before "no matter what the future brings"), the camera cuts to Rick forcefully moving through the café. Sam stops playing and Rick immediately scolds him: "Sam, I thought I told you never to play...." Sam nods out of frame and Rick looks up. Then follows a visual cut to a close-up of Ilsa in soft-focus. A light-pitched and vibrating musical drone is heard (non-diegetically). As the two exchange glances, the melody line of As Time Goes by is played with a lot of vibrato by a solo-violin. Thus, Ilsa's musical request (including some nice humming), Sam's reluctance to play it, and Rick's highly emotional response to his playing it (otherwise he is not the emotional kind) makes it quite clear to the audience that this is not just another tune.

From this moment the melody is part of the underscoring and it will return again and again. As Renault interferes and presents Rick to Victor Laszlo, the melody disappears for a short while. As they talk about Germans and Laszlo's work, a low rumbling of timpanies are heard. But as soon Rick turns towards Ilsa, the As Time Goes by motif returns as a variation in the light strings. And when Ilsa talks about "the day the Germans marched in," dark timbered and dissonant brasses are heard together with a high-pitched version of the As Time Goes By-melody, as if the music both resonates the dangers of war and the love-affair. And as Lazslo and Ilsa finally leaves the café, Ilsa comments to Rick that "there is still nobody in the world who can play As Time Goes By like Sam." Thus, dialogue, character-reactions, and visual editing appears as if almost excessively trying to frame and foreground the small melody and its lyrics. Thereby, it is given every possible chance of making itself heard. It will be the major musical motif to appear again and again, accompanying Rick lost in sad memories; in the long flash-back sequence in Paris; in some scenes between Victor and Ilsa in which her possible doubt as to whether or not to stay with Victor is in play; and, of cause, every time Rick and Ilsa are together.

This is one of the clearest examples I know of in a film that educates its audience into knowing what a certain musical melody is all about. The song and its melody are framed in such a way that probably no person with a normal hearing ability will leave the theater without remembering this little sentimental tune and the romance it makes salient.

Hollywood films are man-made artifacts designed for mass consumption. Accessibility is a prime intention among producers and something expected by its audience. Music is part of what makes a film accessible. Popular music will often work to enhance accessibility by using easily recognized and singable or at least hummable tunes and melodic lines that hook into the memory of the audience.

In some sense, Casablanca can be seen and heard as a predecessor to the pop-score of the late 1950s and later on. But whereas the pop-score does sound like pop-music pure and simple (e.g. in its style, orchestration, arrangements, etc.), the score of Casablanca presents itself as an idiom and as an orchestral sound typical of late romanticism. Even though the melodic material can be recognized as a popular tune, its actual sound and manner belong to a previous century.

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Eco, Umberto. "Casablanca - Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage" in Travels in Hyperreality, London: Picador, 1987.

Field, Syd. Screenplay. The Foundations of Screenwriting, New York: Dell, 1984.

Jørholt, Eva. "Spil den igen og igen og igen, Sam!" Kosmorama no. 189, 1989.

Langkjær, Birger. Filmlyd & filmmusik. Fra klassisk til moderne film. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1996.

Langkjær, Birger. Den lyttende tilskuer. Perception af lyd og musik i film. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.

Prendergast, Roy M. (1992): Film Music. A Neglected Art. New York: Norton, 1992.

Smith, Jeff. The Sounds of Commerce. Marketing Popular Film Music. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

www.\\ imdb.com (august 2002): Casablanca\Trivia

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