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THE ‘CASABLANCA’ WE MAY NEVER GET TO SEE

Unlike some lesser-known movies from Hollywood’s golden age, Casablanca enjoys enduring appeal and continues to produce substantial revenue for the studio that made it, Warner Bros. As a result, it will likely be available in every home-viewing medium yet to be invented.

Radio and TV spinoffs are also available, including two audio adaptations: on Lux Radio Theatre in 1944 (with Alan Ladd and Hedy Lamarr) and on the Screen Guild Players in 1944 (with original stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid); their fees were donated to the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

A short-lived 1955 hour-long series starring Charles McGraw (part of a rotating cycle with Kings Row and Cheyenne on Warner Bros. Presents)  turns up in bootleg copies. The first segment of its debut episode appears on the deluxe Blu-ray edition of Casablanca from Warner Home Entertainment. (It may take more digging to find the 1983 series reboot starring David Soul, but that may simply be poetic justice.)

The scarcest incarnation of this much-lauded, much-loved movie is a live television adaptation that appeared on Lux Video Theatre on March 2, 1955. Paul Douglas, Arlene Dahl, and Hoagy Carmichael starred in this hour-long broadcast, which apparently no longer exists. Like transcription discs of radio programs, kinescopes of live TV shows were not always commissioned—by the sponsor, ad agency, network, or star. Nor were they subsequently saved.

It’s difficult to think of anyone but Bogart and Bergman as Rick and Ilsa, but by several accounts, it was a respectable production. The eminent television critic John Crosby called it “An amazingly suave and professional bit of work with a great profusion of settings, some excellent lighting and fine unobtrusive direction by Richard Goode. I suppose the movies could do it better, but I doubt that they could improve it enough to send the average home-owner scurrying out to see it.”

Alas, like much of live television from the 1950s, we may never be able to judge for ourselves. The Paley Center hasn’t got a copy, nor has the Library of Congress or the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The long-running Lux Radio Theatre is readily available from a number of sources, and episodes turn up as bonus features on many DVD and Blu-ray releases. Its television equivalent hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. The Library of Congress does have a large number of 16mm prints—of the soundtrack only—donated by NBC in 1986. UCLA has eight complete episodes, only one of which (To Have and Have Not with Edmond O’Brien) is of particular interest. Another installment based on the charming 1949 movie A Holiday Affair can be seen on the Internet Archive, although it lacks commercials and the remarks of on-camera host Otto Kruger. And YouTube offers excerpts from a 1956 musical revue episode featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

As prestigious as the Lux show was on radio, where it ran from 1934 to 1955, it took time to establish itself on television. Quoting John Crosby again, “Lux, one of the older dramatic shows, has wandered all over the place, trying to find itself. It started as a half-hour live show from New York. It experimented with film. It moved to Hollywood. It expanded to an hour. This season it has been doing adaptations of important movies like Casablanca.”

By 1955 the show was able to boast higher star wattage than ever before. TV columnist Bob Foster explained, “The show is a Hollywood tradition. Practically every star in Hollywood has appeared on the famed radio version and since the inception of the hour-long television version  the stars feel that here is a show in which they can meet the television camera with confidence and friendship for their first portrayal in the new medium of the business.”

Claire Trevor earned an Emmy nomination for her performance in Ladies in Retirement (1954). Ruth Roman said appearing on the show boosted her professional stock. Said Foster, “It’s mainly because live television presents a challenge, and to sustain a portrayal for one hour is a great satisfaction to any real actor or actress. Also, the fact that Lux Video Theatre offers them TV adaptations of motion pictures give the picture stars that ‘feel’ of Hollywood, which is an important factor. Then, too, there is always the thrill of the ‘first night,’ which you never encounter in Hollywood before the film cameras.’”

All of which makes the absence of Lux programs a bitter pill for film buffs to swallow. But there is always hope. For several decades, no copy of the Producers’ Showcase production of The Petrified Forest with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda was known to survive. That is, until Ms. Bacall opened a closet in her apartment and found a 16mm copy she had stashed away in the 1950s. It now resides in the collection of the Paley Center, where anyone can go (in New York or Beverly Hills) to watch it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if some other tantalizing shows turn up? I know I’d like to see Lee J. Cobb in The Life of Emile Zola, Mary Astor in The Star, Miriam Hopkins in Sunset Blvd., and Brian Donlevy recreating his starring role in Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty. Random kinescopes turned up for years on the collectors’ market, so there’s always room for hope.

Thanks to Chuck Harter, Mark Quigley of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and to Connie Phillips and Arthur Pierce’s indispensable book Lux Presents Hollywood (McFarland, 1995)

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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