Play it, Sam

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 2

The piano in Casablanca, to be sold at Bonhams, is in all the key moments of one of the most romantic films ever made. Barry Norman describes its role and how Bogart and Bergman nearly walked off set ...

Let's not get carried away here: it would be pushing it a bit to suggest that the piano Sam (Dooley Wilson) appears to play in Casablanca is one of the stars of that great movie. But it certainly had a significant role, especially whenever Wilson sang the film's theme song As Time Goes By. And, yes, he did sing it although he had to fake playing the piano because he was actually a drummer, not a pianist, by trade. Hey, that's the movie business for you. Who says the camera never lies? There is a 'minor' piano used in the comparatively brief flashback scenes setting up the romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris in 1940 as the German army enters the city.

But in November, Bonhams is to auction the second, far more famous instrument along with other items from the film at Bonhams New York. It's quite small, salmon-coloured, ornately decorated in Arabic style and not at all the kind of piano you could pick up in any old music shop. Indeed, it was altered for Casablanca so that Rick can open the piano lid from the rear and hide the stolen transit papers entrusted to him by Ugarte (Peter Lorre) – and around which the film revolves. God knows how much an avid collector of movie memorabilia will splash out for such a key piece.

The instrument features prominently in the scenes set in Rick's nightclub, the Café Americain in Casablanca, then still part of unoccupied France. It is December 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbor is imminent. We first encounter the piano early on, as Sam sings It Had To be You and later Knock on Wood. Meanwhile, we are introduced to many of the main characters, including Rick himself, Claude Rains, as Louis, the city's corrupt, gloriously lecherous police captain, and Conrad Veidt as the German army major and villain of the piece.

Then Ilsa herself turns up along with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). This leads to a dramatic high point in the story because, recognizing Sam, who had also been in Paris, she begs him to play As Time Goes By, which had been her and Rick's special song. (Note: what she says is: "Play it, Sam". Contrary to common belief nobody in the film ever says "Play it again, Sam".)

Sam sings and Rick comes storming out, livid that his piano player had disobeyed his instruction never to play that song again – only to find himself face to face with Ilsa for the first time since he left France.

He's not at all pleased to see her, although at that point we don't know why. It's only in the flashback scenes that we learn that he and Ilsa had agreed to escape from Paris together, but she hadn't turned up at the railway station. Instead she had left a 'Dear John' letter for him, thus rendering him heartbroken, bitter and apparently irredeemably cynical.

Later that night when everyone else has gone, the piano features again. A brooding Bogart instructs Sam to play the song for him. "You played it for her. You can play it for me."

But enough of the plot. You've probably seen the film anyway. Based on a then unperformed stage play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, it was acquired by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for George Raft and Hedy Lamarr, but Raft turned it down.

The Brothers briefly considered casting Ronald Reagan as Rick (which would have been a huge mistake), but then sensibly changed their minds and went instead with Bogart and, of course, Bergman. Even so the way the film was made could have been a blueprint for disaster. Half of the screenplay was written by the twins Julius and Philip Epstein. But they went off on another assignment and handed over to Howard Koch.

By this time, however, filming had already begun, although normally nobody in his right mind would start a movie until the script was complete. And this one was far from complete. After a certain point nobody knew what was going to happen next. Koch was writing on the set, handing out the pages one by one to the director, Michael Curtiz, and the actors.

Bergman once told me that almost until the last day of shooting she had no idea which of the two men, Bogart and Henreid, she would finish up with. Ilsa loves both – when she was enjoying her Parisian romance with Rick, she had believed that Victor, a famous resistance leader, had been killed by the Gestapo.

One day, utterly bemused, Bergman asked Koch which man it was to be. But he didn't know either. He hadn't got to that bit yet. At one point both she and Bogart wanted to drop out of the film, partly because of this confusion and partly because they didn't like the dialog and thought the situations were ridiculous. Which just goes to show how much actors know.

But they saw it out, which was a smart career move for both of them, because out of all this chaos came a classic film, one that was made for a specific reason – to reassure America that it had done the right thing by coming off the subs bench to join the Second World War. It has continued to appeal to every generation since.

Bergman, though, never really liked the movie. Towards the end of her life she said to me: "You know, I think I've made some pretty good films but the only one anybody ever wants to talk about is that picture with Bogart."

That being so I wonder how she would have felt had she known that at her funeral in London in 1982 they would play As Time Goes By on a violin – and not, sadly, on one of film history's most famous pianos.

Barry Norman is a writer and leading authority on film.


Related auctions