Friday, February 6, 2009

Recasting Casablanca

February 6 is the birthday of Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor who went on to become a president in real life. (Hollywood's movies have portrayed a lot of US Presidents, both in biopics and fictititious Presidents; with the Presidents' Day holiday coming up in a few weeks, perhaps I'll get to a post on that topic then.) Reagan's political detractors often derided him as being a B-actor, and liked to bring up the story that he was originally penned in to play the part of Rick in Casablanca, a story which is apparently an urban legend. I'm not going to defend Reagan here, since he's scheduled to be TCM's Star of the Month in March, and I've been thinking about posting a defense of his work then.

Instead, I've sometimes found myself thinking about the serendipity of getting the right people to play the right parts. Casablanca was made at Warner Bros., and they could just as easily have gotten their two biggest stars -- James Cagney and Bette Davis -- to play Rick and Ilsa. After all, the two had just come off the successfull The Bride Came COD. Despite the fact that almost everybody has high praise for Cagney and Davis, they probably wouldn't have made a good Rick and Ilsa.

Or the rights could have gone to MGM; they apparently did try to by the rights to the original play "Everybody Comes to Rick's". In that case, the lead pair might have been played by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, who had just made the big hit Mrs. Miniver. Sorry, but Pidgeon is entirely wrong for the role. Worse, MGM could have tried to inject some comedy into the movie and paired William Powell and Myrna Loy. Or, in line with Dooley Wilson's singing "As Time Goes By", "Everybody Comes to Rick's" could have been turned into a musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. There's a frightening thought.

It wouldn't have been much better at other studios, either. At Fox, the part of Rick would probably have gone to either Tyrone Power or Don Ameche; maybe Henry Fonda would have gotten it. At Paramount, it would obviously have been yet another vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. A lot of these people are fine actors, but not right for every role.

So perhaps all of us (including myself in my posts) ought to take a few seconds to stop and think before being too critical of Hollywood actors, especially the B actors.

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