Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Background As Time Goes By

“As Time Goes By” was officially born not in "Casablanca" , with Sam playing it again for Bogey and Bergman, but in a Broadway show. "Everybody’s Welcome" opened at the Shubert on October 13th 1931. And as Sammy Fain liked to recall, “Everybody’s Welcome. But nobody came.”

Fain was the show’s composer, and it wasn’t exactly his finest hour. Don’t worry, he left for Hollywood and cleaned up with “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” and much more. "Everybody’s Welcome" was a pedestrian adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s play "Up Pops The Devil", about a writer with a severe block who agrees that the time has come for the little missus to be the breadwinner while he stays home and keeps house. The same plot subsequently serviced the film "Thanks For The Memory", with Bob Hope and Shirley Ross. On stage at the Shubert, the househubby was Oscar Shaw (a bit of a stiff, he was the straight man to the Marx Brothers in 'The Cocoanuts') and the working wifey was Harriette Lake (who hit the big time in movies under the name Ann Sothern). But there were all kinds of other folks in it, including the Ritz Brothers, and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey in the pit. And at one point during the evening Frances Williams came out and sang for the first time:

You must remember this…

And when the show folded nobody did remember it. “As Time Goes By” wasn’t written by Sammy Fain. It was an interpolation by Herman Hupfeld, and after Everybody’s Welcome flopped even he barely remembered it. Dodo Hupfeld was one of those peripheral men about Broadway who placed a song here and a song there over the years without ever becoming a big name. He had “Two Quick Quackers” in Ziegfeld’s 9 O’Clock Frolic Of 1921 and “A Hut In Hoboken” in the 1929 Little Show and “Two Gat Gertie” in The Nine Fifteen Revue. In the early Thirties, his biggest hits were the song “Let’s Put Out The Lights And Go To Sleep” and the maddeningly catchy “When Yuba Plays The Rhumba On The Tuba”, plus “Sing Something Simple."

To say nobody remembered “As Time Goes By”, is not strictly true. One man did. His name was Murray Burnett and in 1931, an undergraduate at Cornell, he chanced to go to Everybody’s Welcome and fell in love with “As Time Goes By”. Nine years later, he and Joan Allison were working on a play called "Everybody Comes To Rick’s." “Rick’s” was Rick’s Café Americain, a fictional establishment loosely based on La Belle Aurore, a nightclub on the Côte d’Azur Burnett had visited in 1938. Quite a joint. The eve of war in Europe, but customers of all nationalities, including both French and German officers, sat around listening to a black pianist and singer perform great love songs. Some say Burnett even got the guy to play “As Time Goes By”. But the point is that, long before there was "Casablanca" or a plot or Captain Renault or Victor Laszlo or anybody else, there was a bar and a piano and a singer. That was why Burnett wanted to write the play, and he had the perfect song for it.

Aside from the fact that he’d always liked it, it’s certainly true that the geopolitical scene had enlarged “As Time Goes By” in ways Herman Hupfeld couldn’t have foreseen in 1931. You’ll recall the composer’s theme was that whatever scientific and technological progress we make – “speed and new invention… Mr Einstein’s theory” – the fundamental things will always apply:

Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate…

In Europe in the late Thirties, passion, jealousy and hate were making quite the comeback. The fundamental things apply as time goes by: That’s worth keeping in mind today as well.

If "Everybody’s Welcome" didn’t exactly set the stage afire, "Everybody Comes To Rick’s" didn’t even get that far. Burnett and Allison couldn’t get anyone to produce the play, and so eventually they sold it to Warner Brothers for 20,000 bucks. That was more money than Burnett got for anything, and he never wrote another thing anyone took any notice of. But he’s the man responsible for putting “As Time Goes By” in "Casablanca" , and in large part for keeping it there: it was the one point he insisted on. In Burnett’s script, Rick didn’t say “Play it again, Sam”, or even “Play it. If she can stand it, I can”. What he said was: “Play it, you bastard!”

Warner Brothers didn’t care much. Their music publishing subsidiary happened to own the rights to the song, so playing it wouldn’t cost the bastards anything and, if it was a problem later, it could be dealt with when Burnett was off the lot. Three more polished movie writers – Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Einstein - came in to work on Burnett and Allison’s outline and it started to take shape as the "Casablanca" we know and love today. Up to a point. The producer Hal Wallis had been to hear Hazel Scott at Café Society in Greenwich Village and thought it’d be great to get her in the picture: How about instead of saying “Play it, Sam”, Rick and Ilsa said, “Play it, Samantha”? Well, Miss Scott didn’t pan out, and so Dooley Wilson was brought over from Paramount to play Sam, and only after the contract was signed did they discover that he wasn’t a pianist: never mind “Play it again”, he couldn’t even play it the first time. He wasn’t much of a singer, either. But they dubbed the piano playing and decided to leave in his swooping tenor. Hey, what difference did it make?

Max Steiner, one of the greats of American movie music, came on board to compose the incidental score and decided “As Time Goes By” was too insipid to carry the dramatic burden placed upon it. So he persuaded the producer, Hal Wallis, to let him write a replacement song. But Michael Curtiz had finished shooting by then and Ingrid Bergman had already moved on to her next picture, "For Whom The Bell Tolls", which she considered far more important than "Casablanca" . For one thing, it required her to get her hair cut short, which she had done. To re-shoot the song in Casablanca would oblige Warner Brothers to have a matching wig made for Miss Bergman. Hal Wallis didn’t think it was worth the expense. “‘As Time Goes By’ stays,” he told Max Steiner. It was his orchestrator, Hugo Friedhofer, who persuaded Steiner of the tune’s merits, convincing him so thoroughly that the composer used it to bind the entire picture together. He plays it major, minor, fast, slow, joyous, tragic, carefree, brooding, big and soaring, sweet and intimate. In fact, it’s used ingeniously, to tell us all the things Rick and Ilsa aren’t saying: the theme is the first indication both that they once had a love, and that they’re still in love.

Friedhofer was right, but Steiner wasn’t necessarily wrong. “As Time Goes By” is a conventional (more or less) A-A-B-A 32-bar song of no particular harmonic interest, which is why there are so few jazz instrumental versions. But it has great melodic strength and even greater philosophical power. It proceeds step-wise, ascending through the first half of each section and coming down for the title phrase, rueful and reflective. And the middle section surges with passion:

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny…

However, there is a small flaw, all the more surprising from a composer/lyricist:

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh…

There’s no musical difference between “still a kiss” and “just a sigh”, even though the lyric is clearly drawing a distinction. That’s why newspaper headline writers always misquote the song: “A Kiss Is Just A Kiss”. And why blame them? Even in the film itself, Dooley Wilson manages to mangle the lyric and sing “a kiss is just a kiss”.

Having blown his first chance at a hit in 1931, Herman Hupfeld nearly lost the song all over again 11 years later. Casablanca opened during the famous musicians’ strike, which meant that pop records were having to do without instruments: it was all voices and choral backgrounds, and for a song so specifically linked with the sound of a nightclub piano that was a bit of a problem. Dooley Wilson’s version didn’t chart until it cracked the British hit parade in the 1970s, and then it was just a slab of the film soundtrack complete with Bergman’s Swedish hum and Bogart cutting off the first chorus with “Sam, I told you never to play that!” before returning to demand of his pianist: “You know what I want to hear. You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can!” And for a while, as time went by, “As Time Goes By” seemed too precisely tied to the picture. Woody Allen wrote a play called "Play It Again, Sam", and Tony Bennett recorded a song called “Play It Again, Sam”, and John Pizzarelli did one called “Here’s Looking At You, Kid”. And it seemed as if “As Time Goes By” was so embedded in the mythic status of Casablanca it would never wiggle free.

But it did. As Rick noted, the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But give ’em the right song and those two little people and their love are as big as anything. “As Time Goes By” has become the apotheosis of a certain kind of song and a certain idea of love. It's often said that the standards of the Great American Songbook will fade away. I doubt it. But, even if they do, even if by 2050 or 2100 no one’s singing them, then this one will be among the very last to die. As Dooley Wilson sings:

The world will always welcome lovers
As Time Goes By…

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