Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Play It Again, Sam
By "Guido Veloce"

First there was Ted Turner colorizing, then there was a plan to remake Casablanca, followed by a remake of Psycho. Will people ever quit messing with classic movies?

I hope not.

I live in a two-person household where movies matter. We care deeply about them, although in different ways. One of us has excellent taste, watches serious films repeatedly, with ever-growing appreciation for their artistry. The other regards the Life of Brian as a documentary and will watch any form of trash except true horror films, like those by and about Barbra Streisand, or teenage slasher flics--although probably only because I haven't seen one in a long time.

These differences in taste make it remarkable when we agree on a movie, which brings me back to the classics and, especially, Casablanca. In any given year, it is the most frequently played feature film in our house, the one to which we turn when nothing else sounds good or when we are just in a mood to see it again. More remarkable still, I had to overcome a great deal in order to appreciate it. My schoolmates and I loved to twist the lyrics of songs our parents liked, and the best known one from Casablanca, "As Time Goes By," was among our victims. The first times I saw the movie I couldn't keep a straight face when Dooley Wilson sings it. I kept hearing the alternative version in which "a thigh is just a thigh" is the only printable line. It took a while to view Casablanca as a serious movie.

We watched Casablanca again recently, relieved that plans for a remake failed and that we were going to be seeing the real thing edited to fit our TV screen. As always, we fell for every cheap, sentimental trick. We were in suspense even though we knew exactly where the plot was going. We felt bittersweet at the end.

I noticed something, however. Casablanca looks old. That's probably appropriate for anything classic, except a soft drink. Even so, a lot of things set Casablanca apart from today's films. The people who made it were old enough to vote. The special effects are cheezy, beginning with a globe of the world that looks like it was made with those supermarket things that squeeze cake frosting. There is character development. One of Ingrid Bergman's hats resembles an inverted pasta bowl. Nothing explodes. Few people die, and then not horribly. There isn't any nudity. Clearly, it's an old movie.

Fortunately, we can do something about that even if no filmmaker steps forward to give us a Casablanca for our times. I don't mean by imagining nudity--not a good idea in a movie featuring Sidney Greenstreet. I don't mean by humming a more current soundtrack, although I have an ending in mind where a Frank Sinatra standard would be perfect. I mean by mentally rewriting the dialogue so it sounds modern. You can do it in the privacy of your own home, and it is guaranteed to give any classic movie a whole new meaning. After all, if Hollywood can mess up perfectly wonderful movies, why can't we, the audience? Here are a few examples for Casablanca. You can take it from there and even imagine a sequel:

(Old) Sam the piano player, considering an offer from Ferrari to double the salary he receives from Rick: "I like it fine here."
(Modern) Sam: "See my agent in the morning."

(Old) Rick: "We'll always have Paris."
(Modern) Rick: "We'll never have closure."

(Old) Renault: "Rick is completely neutral about everything. And that takes in the field of women, too."
(Modern) Renault: "Rick is completely neutral about everything. And that takes in the field of women, too."

(Old) Rick: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Rick and Renault walk off together into the night. THE END
(Modern) Rick: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a wonderful relationship." Rick and Renault walk off together. Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" swells on the soundtrack.

This game works with any classic movie and is cheaper than seeing a remake or buying a colorized version. You may have to explain why you giggled rather than cried.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.