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Play it (again) Sam

Casablanca and the Kennedy Assassination

Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Everybody Comes to Rick’s

Murray Burnett was one of my teachers. These days I pass myself off as a writer, which would have amused Murray. He never stopped writing, even though his play was taken from him (Everybody Comes to Rick’s—1938 with Joan Alison) and the writing credits shared out among a committee, Hollywood style. That fame defined as having a full-time press agent on call 24/7 had passed him by. When Westinghouse Broadcasting tagged him to do a live call-in show, the latest big thing that year, he did it. I was the kid engineer, a warm body with a union card: IBEW Local 1212. And, credit where credit is due, he was not shy about getting or giving corrections. He and the Company were, however, not overjoyed about going toe-to-toe with the FBI, and shuffled Mark Lane’s Kennedy Assassination exposé—JFK had been shot less than a year earlier—into a show on unsolved murders.

Note: The following transcript is from Warren Commission Volume 25, pp. 664-667 (CE 2475-C):

Mr. Burnett: Good evening here on “Contact.”

The Caller: Oh. Hello.

Mr. Burnett: Yes.

The Caller: I’d like to ask Mr. Lane if he doesn’t think it’s strange that, since the Ruby trial—since the Kennedy case was so well covered that no pictures of Officer Tippit [sic] appear, even a high school picture. I mean, I got about three newspapers and I didn’t see any picture in the papers.

Mr. Lane: That was an interesting point. I will tell you this. There was a conference which took place just a week before the assassination. Present at that conference was Bernard Weissman, the gentleman who placed the full page ad in the Dallas Morning News that practically accused the President of treason. Also present at that conference was Officer Tippit, and there was a third person whose name I will not mention although I have his name now, but there are reasons for which I cannot reveal it now.

Mr. Burnett: Fascinating.

Mr. Lane: And this conference took place in a strip joint called the Carousel, in Dallas, Texas.

Mr. Burnett: A strip joint called the Carousel?

Mr. Lane: Yes.

That Casablanca might be available for consultation as a spirit-channel from the Great Hereafter, I did not guess. But, wait! It had in its day been intended as an ad hoc guide to the dilemma of an isolationist America. Lucky Lindy loved Hitler; Errol Flynn revered the Fuehrer by most accounts. But then, no one took Flynn overly seriously—his premier accomplishment 1 was playing a piano with his penis, a party stunt. Humphrey Bogart stood up, too, but for American values. The Motherland, Fatherland, Homeland. Sounds too European, make that Heartland, Nebraska, football and Mom. Just the ticket, a taste of empire is all, not that mean old Nazi stuff. Murray missed the Heartland and landed on the Upper West Side. He missed fame, too.

Errol Flynn had been in the running to play Rick but Bogey got the call. Dooley Wilson played the piano fully zipped. Here’s a film clip of the movie’s magic moment: stream  | download  (wmv windows media)

A large rumpled presence, a quondam high school English teacher and playwright, Murray Burnett would break into song as easily as rage when an interview was going well or badly. And as quickly forget to be mad or sad. Murray sang I’d Like to get You on a Slow Boat to China, a 1940s hit.

I was Murray’s tape editor on an hour and a half nightly magazine show, Program PM. Space shots were big news in those days, there having been none before. I cobbled Murray’s stuff together with considerably more care than the Mercury astronauts received.

I’d love to get you
On a slow boat to China,
All to myself alone.
Get you to keep you in my arms evermore,
Leave all your lovers
Weeping on the faraway shore.

Murray Burnett, the unsung author of the play on which one of America’s iconic movies, “Casablanca,” was based, died on Tuesday in his apartment in Manhattan at the age of 86. As a 27-year-old English teacher at a New York vocational high school, Mr. Burnett went to German-occupied Vienna in the summer of 1938 to help Jewish relatives smuggle out money. He returned to the United States with the idea for an anti-Nazi play in which an embittered saloon keeper helps a crusading Czech newspaper editor escape from Casablanca with the woman the saloon keeper loves. When “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” of which Mr. Burnett was a co-writer with Joan Alison, could not find a Broadway producer, the play was sold to Warner Brothers for $20,000 and the title was changed to “Casablanca.” Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, “Casablanca” won an Oscar as the best movie of 1943. Mr. Burnett’s play “Hickory Street” had a short Broadway run in 1944 and he wrote, produced or directed many radio programs, including the successful “Cafe Istanbul” with Marlene Dietrich, but “Casablanca” was the high point of his career. He became increasingly angry when the movie became a staple of popular culture and his contribution was ignored.

— excerpted from the New York Times Obit

Happy Murray. He knew his craft and excelled at it, writing 49 productions of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the mid-1970s. This was the heyday of the 2nd “Golden Age” of radio drama. It didn’t last, but those of us who were in diapers in the 30s and 40s were happy with radio’s second coming for however long it might last and cherished the CBSRMT. Not unlike the churches of Rome and Byzantium, producer Himan Brown’s Radio Mystery Theater paid the 2 flat-rate union scale for miracles performed daily and on demand.

“In 1983, after Warner Brothers produced a short-lived television series based on “Casablanca,” Mr. Burnett and Miss Alison sued the studio, claiming that they still owned the characters even though they had sold the play in which they appeared. The New York Court of Appeals ruled in 1986 that the authors had signed away all rights to their work. During his last years, Mr. Burnett was rescued by the 1976 copyright act. Mr. Burnett and Miss Alison, who died in 1992 at the age of 90, had copyrighted “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” in 1941 and renewed the copyright in 1969. After threatening to terminate their agreement with Warner Brothers at the last renewal of the copyright in 1997, the authors were given $100,000 apiece, and Warner Brothers granted Mr. Burnett what he had always wanted: the right to produce Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”

— excerpted from the New York Times Obit

Notes:

1 Allegedly. There was a conversation of Truman Capote with Marilyn Monroe reported in Music for Chameleons. Marilyn spoke of England’s Queen Elizabeth II:

MARILYN: You know what? I’ll bet she gets everything free. In return for endorsements.

TC: Very possible. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. By Appointment to Her Majesty. Corgi dogs. All those Fortnum & Mason goodies. Pot. Condoms.

MARILYN: What would she want with condoms?

TC: Not her, dopey. For that chump who walks two steps behind. Prince Philip.

MARILYN: Him. Oh, yeah. He’s cute. He looks like he might have a nice prick. Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Errol Flynn whip out his prick and play the piano with it? Oh well, it was a hundred years ago, I’d just got into modeling, and I went to this half-ass party, and Errol Flynn, so pleased with himself, he was there and he took out his prick and played the piano with it. Thumped the keys. He played You Are My Sunshine. Christ! Everybody says Milton Berle has the biggest schlong in Hollywood. But who cares? Look, don’t you have any money?

TC: Maybe about fifty bucks.

MARILYN: Well, that ought to buy us some bubbly.

2 Actors were paid union scale at around $73.92 per show. Writers earned a flat rate of $350 per show. The production took place with assembly-line precision. Brown would meet with actors at 9:00 am for the first reading of the script. After he assigned roles, the recording began. By noon the recording of the actors was complete, and Brown handed everyone their checks. Post-production was done in the afternoon.

Resources:

Political Philosophy Comes to Rick’s: Casablanca and American Civic Culture
Orange Crate Art (on Aeneas, Hector and Rick Blaine) http://mleddy.blogspot.com
Himan Brown’s [bio] CBS Radio Mystery Theater:
Fan sites [Mystery Shows.com], [Internet Archive]

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