A Light in the Dark

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

Anticipation. Lights dim.The screen brightens with the famous black and white Warner Brothers shield. The soundtrack revs up to speed and with a sudden lurch, Max Steiner’s music transports the audience from their seats to another world, long departed. The Warner Brothers logo dissolves into a map of Africa and up come the names: “Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid” ….another dissolve…..“in….Casablanca”. The audience erupts with applause. It didn’t matter if they’d seen it 20 times or if this was their first. It was always the same. Next, a funny scene about a pickpocket warning an older couple to beware of the vultures “…vultures, everywhere” in Casablanca (as he steals the man’s wallet), gives way to a crowded nightclub. A close-up of a tabletop, a bill is signed with a quick “OK, Rick”, the camera tilts up to Humphrey Bogart, nattily attired in white evening jacket and black tie, cigarette smoke framing his face. The crowd applauds and whoops. It was always the same. The great scenes cascade down, each upon the next, famous lines mouthed by half the theater “Why did you come to Casablanca?” asks Claude Rains’s ethical chameleon of a police chief.

“The waters” replies Bogart. “I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

“The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert."

“I was misinformed."
 
  
Title card from Warner Brothers' Casablanca, 1941, directed by Michael Curtiz. Victor Laszlo sticks it to the Nazis
leading the orchestra and patrons of Rick's Cafe Americain in La Marseillaise. We helped.
  
 
It’s funny no matter how many times you’ve heard it. The Nazi officers, all stentorian bluster and unctuous sliminess, belt out the German war anthem Die Wacht Am Rhein. Paul Henreid’s character, the resistance leader Victor Laszlo, angrily directs the nightclub band to play La Marseillaise. The musicians (looking vaguely like criminals on work release) check with their boss. Bogart gives the nod and the martial strains of the French national anthem gather us out of our seats. We stand and sing La Marseillaise along with the eclectic crowd in Rick’s Café Americain. And as Bogart walks into the darkness with Claude Rains, after nobly sending the woman he loves off to help Laszlo save the world, the audience cheers wildly. It was always the same.
 
Just another magical night during the great age of the repertory and revival movie houses. From the early sixties through the 80s repertory movie theaters offered double bills every night, showcasing gems from past eras both foreign and domestic. The particular venue I’m recalling here is the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. The Bogart festivals, often coinciding with spring final exams for Harvard and other boston area colleges, meant packed houses for all the great Warner films: The Big Sleep, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (“We don’t need no stinking watches!”), They Drive by Night, The Maltese Falcon (“The ah… the stuff that dreams are made of.”), High Sierra, The Petrified Forest, and of course, Casablanca.
 
 
Betty Bacall has Humphrey Bogart at a disadvantage. The Big Sleep, 1946 directed by Howard Hawks. The definition of cool:
Bogart as detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, 1941, directed by John Huston.
 
If it wasn’t Bogart, it might be a Francois Truffaut festival or a Welles retrospective, giving avid film buffs a chance to see movies they’d only read about: The Four Hundred Blows, Jules et Jim, Chimes at Midnight, Lady from Shanghai, The Magnificent Ambersons. Or it could be a Katherine Hepburn festival showing off her talents in Holiday or Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant, or Bill of Divorcement with John Barrymore, or Stage Door (“The calla lilies are in bloom”) with a cast featuring Ginger Rogers, Adolph Menjou and a young Lucille Ball. You might catch some rarely seen Kurosawa films: Hidden Fortress (the film Star Wars was based on) or Red Beard or High and Low. Films made in Japan after the war that brought the great Japanese director to the attention of the western world. The next week you could revel in a Jean Renoir festival (“C’est Arizona Jim!!”) or impossible to find Godard films. It was heaven on earth for film lovers. Like me.
 
 
    
 The Four Hundred Blows, 1959, Francois Truffaut. The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942, Orson Welles. The Philadelphia Story, 1940, George Cuckor.
 
 
 Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's Red Beard, 1965. As a combination samurai and doctor, he could break your arm and
then set it afterwards! The Brattle Theatre some time in the 1970s.
 
 
Jean Paul Belmondo looking a bit blue in the face. Pierrot le Fou, 1965, directed by Jean Luc Godard. Films by
Godard (right) and many other New Wave directors were impossible to find outside of art houses and repertory
theaters.
 
The Brattle began life as a social club and later housed theatrical productions. In the early 50s two Harvard students, Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey, installed a rear projection screen (one of the few used in this country), converted it into a movie theater and soon after created the type of programming that would become a staple of repertory and revival houses for decades: lost or little seen Hollywood treasures from the 30s and 40s, contemporary and classic foreign films, and films that today would be characterized as independent features. In fact, today’s burgeoning Indie market is a direct beneficiary of the love for offbeat and overlooked movies nurtured and prized by repertory audiences in the 60s and 70s. Today’s Indies are descendents of quirky, low-budget films like Harold and Maude and King of Hearts, which became cult classics in the rep houses.
 
 
Harold and Maude, 1971 and The King of Hearts, 1966, were part of the repertory standards that helped audiences develop
a taste for the offbeat movies that have become today's generation of independent films. The King of Hearts played for years, every day, at the Central Square cinema in Cambridge.
 
The Brattle single-handedly triggered the Bogart cult of the 60s by featuring his classic films during Harvard’s reading and exam periods starting in the mid 50s. The iconic image of a world weary Bogart fighting the establishment and still trying to do the right thing provided a compelling and romantic image to an iconoclastic generation. Plus, it was great fun.  Long passages of Bogart speeches from some of these films were committed to memory and I was introduced to the writing of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler by way of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (which I distinctly recall reading straight through while sitting on a beach south of Boston with my girlfriend during my sophomore year in college). Rarely, you might catch one of these movies on late-night television, but never straight through (the local PBS station did play the occasional foreign film) and hardly ever did they present a decent print. At the Brattle and other rep houses, you could often watch pristine 35MM prints in glorious, rich, satiny black and white. The current trend in restoring old classics originated during the days of the revival theaters whose owners and audiences craved clean prints almost above eating and drinking.
 
 
The rear screen projection system in the Brattle (used previously on a cruise ship). Harvard Square in the 1970s, heyday for repertory and revival theaters.
 
But the real magic, the true high, was the thrill of watching these films with a crowd of like-minded fanatics. I can still hear the booming audio echoing around these theaters, giant images in the dark that pulled you into the frame. The audience reactions, a collective, shared experience that amplified the entire enterprise. Television viewings, no matter how high the definition, can never equal that sense of shared adventure--unrepeatable outside a movie theater--for an audience sitting together in the close, electric darkness.
 
 
The Orson Welles Cinema. Inside the doors of the Welles was a huge mural of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood depicting
this scene in which Mifune (playing a Macbeth-like shogun) is skewered by arrows. Hey, it worked for me.
 
The success of the Brattle and the explosion of college populations in Boston, New York, San Francisco and other hotbeds of repertory fanaticism meant a rapid expansion of theaters showing vintage and foreign films. Old, run-down neighborhood theaters found new life and audiences by switching to the repertory template and some, such as the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, expanded our viewing options with creative programming. The Welles was a spectacular film experience, a theater run by film fanatics for other fanatics (the first manager was a Harvard senior named Tommy Lee Jones). Walking in the doors and up the entrance ramp you passed a huge mural of a scene from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood with the incomparable Toshiro Mifune. I became a huge Kurosawa fan, devouring Donald Ritchie’s first rate book on his films and scouring the Boston rep houses for Kurosawa screenings. It took some years (and a few more in New York) before I was able to see all Kurosawa’s available films but the act of seeking out these films, the sense of adventure and the excitement paid off enormously. All prior engagements were cleared from the calendar if a long-sought film appeared on the schedule of one of the rep houses. During a Japanese Film festival featuring rare films of Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa, I was able to drag some friends (who weren’t particularly avid film buffs) to watch Kurosawa’s three and a half hour masterpiece, Seven Samurai, purely, I think, on the strength of my fanatical love of this film (it also could have been their way of finally shutting me up).
 
  
Takashi Shimura takes aim in Kurosawa's masterpiece, Seven Samurai, 1954. The master looking very hip in his Ray-Bans.
 
The Welles also broke ground with its 24 hour Science Fiction marathon. I made it through only one full 24 hour block but in other years I would do at least eight or ten hours. Seeing some of the films for the first time or films which I had only seen in terrible condition on TV was cathartic. Films like Forbidden Planet, in new prints, were a revelation. Or George Lucas’ THX1138, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And it was at the Welles that I got my first taste of Monty Python (another obsession) when my roommate suggested I see this crazy film called And Now for Something Completely Different. My friends and I thereafter instituted Monty Nights during which we alternated Python bits from their albums with cuts from whatever jazz records each of us had brought to the proceedings.
 
  
George Pal's 1953 War of the Worlds. Light years better than the DOA remake with a wooden Tom Cruise. Three on a saucer:
a dazed Pat Neal looks on as Gort, the robot enforcer, gets ready to revive Michael Rennie.  The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951. Klaatu, Barada, nikto!
 
 
Michael Palin is a lumberjack and he's okay. John Cleese, cleaver in hand, confronts Graham Chapman and his date over the problem of the dirty fork. It was impossible, after the Pythons, to look at sketch comedy the same way. I have friends who, thirty years after seeing this movie, can recite word for word entire routines. "You shot him!" "Well, he was attackin' me with a banana!"
 
The Welles also encouraged the study of film as a serious pursuit by distributing mimeographed sheets for each film featuring the cast, crew, and a review or critical piece. I still have over a hundred of these sheets packed away in a box somewhere. It was this sort of engagement with film, developed in these theaters that prompted my study of filmmaking in college and grad school, eventually carving out a career in the media world.
 
But those Repertory days offered something unheard of in today’s buttoned down corporate film world. By the 70s the Hollywood studio system was long gone and a new corporate model had yet to emerge. This allowed for some maverick elements to try different approaches. Larry Jackson, then managing director of the Welles, using connections he had with Twentieth Century Fox was able to get a 10 minute reel of scenes from a new film being released in the summer of 1977. The studio execs had slim hopes for it but thought a showing at the Welles would allow them to see what “the kids” thought of it. The film was Star Wars. The hysterical response of those few hundred repertory fans who got to see that 10 minute reel opened some eyes at Fox and the rest, as they say, is history.
 
 
Fans at the Welles got to see a 10 minute sample reel of scenes from Star Wars in 1977. A midnight show regular at the
Welles was The Harder They Come, 1972. Reggae gangstas, ganja, Jamaica, and Jimmy Cliff.
 
Other art houses and repertory theaters in Boston, The Kenmore Square, where I first saw Disney’s Fantasia and the Kennedy assassination documentary Rush to Judgement, the Park Square, which often ran Astaire/Rogers festivals, The Exeter, and the Coolidge Corner, where you could spend a night watching nothing but vintage Hollywood trailers, all have special places in my film memory bank. While attending a documentary on the life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke at the Coolidge Corner, I happened to be standing in the lobby holding a copy of Richard Sudhalter and Phillip Evans’ biography of the legendary cornetist. A gentleman noticed the book and asked if he could show me something. He pointed to a picture in the book. It was a photo of Beiderbecke with some family members taken not long before he died. The man pointed out a small boy in the picture. “This is me” he said. His mother was related to Bix. That ain’t gonna happen at the local multiplex.
 
 
Mickey as the Sorceror's Apprentice, and his magic mop. Fantasia, 1940. The great Bix Beiderbecke.
 
   
Justin Freed, who operated a number of rep theaters in Boston, notably Coolidge Corner, The Kenmore
and Park Square theaters, went out of his way to schedule unusual fare in addition to the standard rep
classics. He once hired musicians to supply a live soundtrack to G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece Pandora's
Box, starring the inimitable Louise Brooks (left).  I caught Rush to Judgement, 1967, a response to the Warren
Commission report on the assassination of JFK, at the Kenmore. The Coolidge Corner theater (right).
 
Often in the spring there would be a Marx Brothers festival somewhere (often at the Welles). This complicated my life because in those years the Metropolitan Opera went on a spring tour AND baseball season was starting up. My girlfriend at the time commented on the schizophrenic nature of our dates. One night with the Marx Brothers, the next at the opera and maybe the next night at Fenway Park for a Red Sox game.
 
But, hey,what could be better?
 
  
Groucho, Chico and Harpo.'Nuff said.  The Off the Wall theater specialized in animated classics (cult or otherwise) such as
Bambi Meets Godzilla. (Sorry if this image gives away the ending....)
 
I would be remiss however, if I neglected to recall one of the true gems of  the repertory era. In a world where even the repertory theaters tried to offer their own specialties, the Off the Wall theater stood out. Located in what could only be described as a genuinely off the wall spot, a room not much bigger than a living room off Pearl Street in Cambridge’s Central Square, The Off the Wall specialized in animated and short features. They would program stuff  Warner Brothers made during WWII with Bugs Bunny handing out ice cream covered grenades to Japanese soldiers (and offering a running commentary of jaw-dropping, racist slurs) or the fanciful, highly creative Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons made by Columbia in the early 50s. The Off the Wall also presented hard to find European animated films like those created at Zagreb Film in Croatia, cartoons like Professor Balthazar, as well as cult classics like Bambi Meets Godzilla.  My friends and I rarely missed the Warner animation festivals featuring the great Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones masterpieces from the 40s through the late 50s, such as What’s Opera, Doc? and Super Rabbit (a cartoon for which the United States Marine Corps made Bugs Bunny a Master Sergeant—the only cartoon character so honored).
 
  
Gerald McBoing Boing. Gerald never spoke but he made a lot of neat sounds when he opened his mouth. Elmer Fudd
gets ready to "Kill da wabbit!" in What's Opera, Doc, 1957, a six minute condensation of Wagner's 16 hour Ring cycle.
 
Sadly, with few exceptions, these houses have disappeared. The Brattle and the Coolidge are still in operation but many others have slipped away. The repertory theaters I haunted as a grad student in New York City, the Regency, the Thalia, Theater 80 St. Marks, and The Bleeker, are either gone or showing mainstream films. DVD rentals, cable and Netflix have done them in but I am heartily grateful for the many, many hours I spent enraptured in the dark with equally crazed fans. Repertory theaters provided me and thousands of film buffs with a locus for our obsession. They truly offered us all a light in the dark.
 
Vive la France!
 
 
Madeleine LeBeau as Yvonne in Casablanca. LeBeau and her husband, Marcel Dalio (who also appeared in the film),  just like many of the characters in Casablanca, escaped Europe steps ahead of the Nazis. Flying to Lisbon, then to Mexico, and finally to Hollywood just in time to exclaim "Vive la France!" Amen, Madeleine. Amen.
 
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