February 10, 1998
What a great weekend we had for classic movie buffs! Two of the all-time greatest, most stupendous films in history appeared on local TV on consecutive nights and it was almost a serendipitous occasion, for me, at least. Both were listed in the printed schedules we all consult, but I failed to notice either one of them right up to the starting times, so they came as a delightful surprise. If you're a fan, you probably already know the ones I mean. "Gone With the Wind," which heads my personal list of all-time favorites, was run in its entirety Friday night on Ted Turner's Super Station, then on Saturday night B.J. Wexler celebrated the 10th anniversary of his OETA movie program with a screening of "Casablanca." It was like waking up in cinematic heaven.
I well remember when Margaret Mitchell's epic Civil War romance novel burst upon the scene in the 1930s. Her lengthy book made history in several ways. For one thing, it was perhaps the longest fictional tome ever to make the best-seller list, with approximately twice the number of pages usually found in that select group. GWTW, the novel, created nationwide interest as the public debated which star should be cast in each role in the inevitable movie version, from the leading characters right down to the smallest bit part.
There was never any question about who would play Rhett Butler. The author surely had only Clark Gable in mind when she wrote the book and there was a unanimous expression that no one else could handle the part. The dashing actor, who at the time was known to all as "the king," years before Elvis claimed that title, was exactly right for the part. His appearance, manner of speaking and real-life personality were well known and they precisely fit the character created by the author.
The choice of an actress to portray leading lady Scarlett O'Hara, however, was so contentious that it launched and intense national dialogue. Many possibilities were suggested, and David Selznick, the producer, nearly caused a riot when he ultimately selected Vivien Leigh, a little known British actress, of all things, to essay the challenging role of the feisty Southern belle. That, coupled with his choice of another British performer, Leslie Howard, for the part of the Southern patrician Ashley Wilkes, nearly caused another Civil War among movie fans of the day. When the three-hour film was finally released in 1939, however, it was warmly received and swept most of the Academy Award nominations that year. It is still an immensely popular theater movie when it is periodically released, and Mr. Turner rakes in several dollars each time he allows it to be shown on his TV station.
When GWTW came to Perry for its initial showing on a fall day in 1939, it was projected on the standard square screen at the Roxy Theatre on the east side of the square. Charlie Wolleson, owner of the Roxy, had to change is normal policy because of the length of the film. Instead of two nightly showings, the three-hour epic was shown once as a matinee, starting at about 3 p.m., and then again as a night feature, starting at about 7 p.m. A brief intermission was built into the film to allow movie-goers a trip to the bathroom or just a few minutes to stretch their legs.
The Roxy did not have a concession stand -- Foster's Corner Drug was right next door -- so many young people brought refreshments in a brown paper bag to relieve the pangs of hunger and tide them over until supper time after the matinee. My friend Bob Elliott and I took in the first screening at the Roxy and each of us had a sandwich of some description and an apple or a banana. Though mere lads, we thoroughly enjoyed the film spectacle and could hardly believe our ears when Rhett told Scarlett in the final scene that he frankly didn't give a d___! Such profanity was unknown in movies of the day.
"Casablanca" came along some three years later, in the fall of 1942, and the local showing was the main attraction on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at the newly opened Perry Theatre, a sumptuous movie palace on Sixth street where the Exchange Bank drive-through facility now is located. I saw that for the first time with a young lady who had recently moved to Perry from Enid, and it was only a few months before I answered the call of Uncle Sam and signed up as a soldier for the duration of World War II. For all those reasons, I could never forget that drama, even if it had not been such a classy movie. It was a major vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Cuddles Sakall. With a dynamite cast like that, the film could not help but succeed. Plus, it was released at about the same time President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill held a significant wartime conference in the city that served as the movie's locale Casablanca.
The opportunity to see again just one of those magnificent old films is a thing to be treasured, but having both of them on consecutive nights is almost too breathtaking to appreciate. I'd do it every weekend if that were possible and never grow weary of seeing them. "Here's looking at you, kid." That was one of Bogart's classic lines in Casablanca. And, just like the song that we still regard as an icon of that time, it and the movie will continue to stay at the top of my list "As Time Goes By," along with GWTW. They truly do not make them like that any more!