The Drunkard's Guide to Casablanca
February 1, 2003

Friday night I had the best night out in San Francisco that didn't involve food. Dr. Mathra and I met Gytha Ogg, her husband and friends, and Belchimaera in Oakland to see Casablanca at the Paramount Theatre.

First of all, Dr. Mathra and I apparently JUST missed being involved in a Party Car on BART. Apparently, it's similar to Flash Mobs but with booze and people hanging upside-down from the overhead handrails. Gotta love California.

And you know? We do.

The Paramount Theatre in Oakland is colossal. It seats three thousand people and has managed to retain that awesomely classic Art Deco interior without the slightest sign of fading or shabbiness. Most importantly, there are two bars: one halfway up to the balcony level (there's a balcony!) and the other downstairs from the main floor. You can bring your cocktails and snacks inside -- a fairly new allowance, we learned. Mr. Ogg passed his Red Vines up and down our row, and Belch was likewise generous with her box of Jaffas, straight from New Zealand -- and as you settle back in your plush seats with lots of leg room, you might notice that some of the seats have small metal plaques tacked on the arms and bearing the names of donors.

Suddenly, music starts to play -- Cole Porter, "Hurray for Hollywood," among other snatches of nostalgic pieces -- and a nattily dressed, white-haired gent, seated at a genuine Wurlitzer, rises up from the orchestral pit. Since he doesn't ever use sheet music, the only piece of paper on the music rack is his playlist for the evening. Mr. Wurlitzer gets thunderous applause from the three thousand people who have now found their seats and are transfixed by the ambiance. After his final piece in that set, Mr. Wurlitzer takes his bows and is lowered back down into the pit. The theatre darkens and the curtains part to show us newsreels "of the day." Our "of the day" was 1967 and included clips of crazy three-wheeled cars being developed in Southern California, Easter Seals, snow in New York (some things never change in their histrionics), India going to vote, Oakland's own Houdini-like escape artist, and a longish piece from 1948 about the Mt. Palomar Observatory. Following that was Bugs Bunny meeting and terrifying Edward G. Robinson out of his spats and masticated cigar. The thick lips the cartoonist gave "the ugliest man in Hollywood" were just too pinkly classic for words.

Going into the theatre, we were reminded to keep hold of our ticket stubs because after the newsreels, the house lights came back up, and a statuesque redhead in a emerald green satin evening gown rose out of the orchestra pit to spin the "Dec-O-Win" wheel and give away fabulous prizes.

Finally, the movie started with that splendid map drawing and the well-loved narrative ending with "but the others wait in Casablanca. And wait. And wait. And wait." Although this was easily my one hundred seventy-first time watching the movie, I noticed more about food and drink this time around than ever before. And let me tell you, there's a lot to notice beyond the symbolically-trashed Vichy water.

First and foremost, I always believed that Veuve Cliquot 1926 was prominently drunk throughout the movie. I was wrong. That particular Champagne is ordered by Renault and drunk solely by the Nazis in that first scene at Rick's when Peter Lorre is arrested. The Nazis also eat caviar in the same scene. Now, if you didn't already believe that the Nazis were evil, further proof comes from the fact that they order the most expensive caviar and then proceed to eat it with metal spoons! Anyone who has ever thumbed over a Williams-Sonoma catalog knows that the correct and expensive way to eat caviar is with bone, ivory, or mother-of-pearl spoons so that the acidity of the caviar doesn't leech out metals from the spoon and taint the taste of the precious fish eggs.

Although he has a completely empty and dry Champagne glass next to his hand when he signs "O.K. Rick" on a money order advance for one thousand francs, we only see Rick guzzle Champagne with Ilsa in Paris in the happy flush of their romance. In fact, his preferred drink seems to be either the less effusive brandy or corn-fermented bourbon. And though Rick may sit down to Champagne with Ilsa, Laszlo, and Renault at his cafe, neither he nor Ilsa sip one bubble.

Following Rick's basically calling her easy, Ilsa's virginally-indignant exit flashes us back to Rick and Ilsa's Champagne past. Far from partaking of the expensive Veuve he later stocks in his well-appointed bar, the probably more threadbare Rick pours Ilsa glasses of Mumm Cordon Rouge throughout their Paris romance. The red slash across the Mumm's label -- the movie may be black and white, but I do know my bubbly -- is unmistakable. The distinctive bottle can be seen in several shots, but it is most prominently observed in the scenes at La Belle Aurore when the Nazis prance into Paris with their goose turd moustaches and intolerantly tight uniforms.

Obviously, there's a marked difference between who Rick is in Paris (Champagne) when all is right with his world, and who he is in Casablanca (bourbon/brandy) after his heart has been broken and rehardened against all women. Corn-based bourbon is about as far as you can get from grape-based Champagne, but brandy is often distilled from the same grapes (Pinot) Champagne is. Brandy takes on its singular characteristics and flavor only after going through the rigors of being heated, aged, and darkened by experience.

Wow. I never thought that much about this movie and its alcoholic overtones.

Ilsa and Laszlo order Cointreau their first night at Rick's and cognac the second night. Sharon Tyler Herbst defines Cointreau as "clear and colorless with an intensely exotic, mildly bitter orange flavor." I like to think that pairs nicely with the fact that Ilsa and Laszlo (being from Norway and Czechoslovakia, they are veritable exotics in Morocco) have yet to experience the bitterness of being apprehended or threatened by the Maj. Strasser of the Gestapo in Casablanca.

When Dr. Mathra and I took the Chunnel to Paris, the romantic in me insisted that as soon as we hit Calais, we had to have a glass of cognac. I must say that I far prefer Cointreau.

Laszlo orders a champagne cocktail when he meets Berger at the bar to discuss his Free France connections -- a clear indicator that the drink cannot be thought of as purely a hooker's drink. Or could it? Is Laszlo a hooker for the Czech and French independence?

Okay, you know what? After my thesissy analysis of Champagne vs. brandy and bourbon, that's too deep even for me to plumb this late at night.

After the minor character Yvonne is cruelly rejected by Rick, she reappears at the bar with a new conquest: a Nazi. Sasha -- the "crazy Russian" bartender, who happens to have a crush on the fair Yvonne ("Ywonne, I luf you but he pays me!") -- is asked by Yvonne to set up a bunch of rounds of French 75.

French 75 is brandy (originally concocted with gin), simple syrup, lemon juice, and Champagne. Interestingly enough, this stylish cocktail gets its name from an event occurring in WWI. Captain Harry S. Truman and his troops were poised at the ready with French 75 howitzer cannons primed to volley 75-millimeter shells at the Germans. I've favored French 75 since I first had it at The West Side Lounge in Cambridge, but I didn't stumble upon its connection to Casablanca until now. In fact, I never even really heard what Yvonne and her Nazi order in that scene. It's interesting that the Nazi is too dumb to realize the significance of the drink.

Not being anywhere near West Side Lounge any more, I was thrilled to discover that French 75 is one of the many cocktails on Absinthe's pages-long drinks menu. Now that I know the history of this delicious elbow-bender, I can get as emotional drinking that as I do when Victor Laszlo leads "La Marseillaise." I bawl every time I sit through that scene. Friday night was no exception, especially at the "Aux armes, les citoyennes! Formez vos bataillons!" part.

The cumulative audience reaction to the movie was priceless. For instance, applause broke out when Bogart appeared on screen for the first time, and even more applause erupted when Conrad Veidt (the most evil Maj. Strasser, who doesn't know how to eat caviar) dies. That, coupled with laughs at the jokes and favorite parts that the audience knew were coming, made sitting with three thousand other movie-goers quite fun. Additionally, the extremely kind Mr. Ogg was very solicitous about our experience and quick to ascertain whether or not anyone crouching behind us warranted the distribution of Glark's Movie Manners Courtesy Cards. They didn't.

Does anyone else see the resemblance between Jaques Pepin and Peter Lorre? Dr. Mathra pointed it out to me and I can't get it out of my head!

I can't wait to go back to see The Women at the end of February. Gytha and I are even knocking about the idea of wearing floor-length ballgrowns -- she in black and me in brushed gold. Of course, I will have to stand up and scream when my grandmother appears on-screen in the Technicolor fashion show segment, thus embarrassing everyone with me.

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