Cocktails and A Movie: Discussing Censorship, Bar Nuts and Breen on the Set of Casablanca

 

This week’s post has us traveling all the way back to a cosmopolitan city in exotic 1940’s North Africa thanks to a lovely invitation from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. This weekend, October 13th – 15th marks the date of the Great Breening Blogathon featuring Joseph Breen, an influential, but seldom remembered figure in filmmaking during the glamorous days of old Hollywood.

Joseph Breen (1888-1965)

Joseph was the enforcer behind the Production Code Administration, set up during the 1930’s, which acted as a morality censor for all film scripts, scenes, and storylines in the motion picture industry. Bolstered by his own Catholic beliefs and the bishops who originally wrote the code, Joseph was not interested in seeing sexy, sensual imagery on the big screen and the PCA wasn’t interested in exposing such immorality to the American movie-going public.  The thought of being subjected to plotlines involving extra-marital affairs, obscene language, excessive violence or varying degrees of nudity were offensive. Family friendly, American made films were not the place for such suggestive behavior according to Joseph and the PCA.

With line by line lists of cant-do’s and won’t-permits attached to each script that the PCA reviewed, screenwriters and directors were challenged with creative ways to express character’s motives and actions while also keeping their plots plausible and compelling. How do you portray magnetic chemistry without showing a steamy, passionate kiss? How do you elude to compromising situations without showing corrupt scandals? How do you make your central location not look or sound like the most unethical, debaucherous place in the world yet still convey to watchers that shady dealings are happening right and left? And ultimately, how do you tell one of the most romantic and dramatic love stories of all time without showing anyone caught up in the physical throes of passion?

The answer is Casablanca.

Many noteworthy movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood were questioned by Joseph and the PCA. The Outlaw (Howard’s Hughes 1943 western) showed too much of Jane Russell’s cleavage; the “damn” in Rhett Butler’s famous “Frankly  my dear, I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With the Wind was flagged for unnecessary profanity; and the fact that Casablanca’s Ilsa was married at the time she first met Rick was altogether too salacious for the PCA to greenlight.  All three movies managed to overcome these sticky spots eventually, but not without some major behind-the-scenes defense tactics for creative license.

The PCA and Joseph’s staunch deployment of it was frustrating but important to movie studios because it balanced political correctness with the expectations of what movie audiences wanted to see.  What was considered entertaining and appropriate to movie-goers in mainstream America in the 1930’s and 1940’s was laughter, light-hearted romance, and noble sentiment.  So if movie studios wanted to sell tickets, they had to comply with what watchers wanted to see. And the PCA was there to make sure that decorum and good manners reigned supreme as far as what was being showcased on the big screen.

On the morality level, Casablanca in particular, seemed like it was doomed from the beginning. It was set primarily in a bar, Rick’s Cafe Americain, where alcohol continuously flowed. It was fueled by desperation with characters willing to do anything and everything to garner exit visas to leave the country. It contained a smoldering, forbidden romance, murder and contempt for government officials.  All major issues when it came to the Production Code Administration.

The legendary ending of Casablanca

By the time the script came back from the PCA review office, it contained several red flags and numerous notations from Joseph Breen. No bed was ever to be shown in Rick’s apartment, (such an object would have signaled an intimate encounter with Ilsa).  The dubious character of Captain Renault (who was in charge of granting exit visas from Casablanca) was not allowed to verbally suggest or show that he was granting visas to women only in exchange for sex. And Rick and Ilsa’s fated love affair? Joseph found it highly immoral that Ilsa met and fell in love with Rick years before in Paris while she was  married to her husband Victor Lazlo. This long-simmering love business between Ilsa and Rick had to be cleaned up in order for the movie to go on. Even though sex does sell, in conservative 1940’s America these scandelous situations were considered way too over-the-top for the eyes and minds of mainstream movie-going audiences.

The smoldering attraction between Rick and Ilsa.

So how did Casablanca’s production team manage to get around such roadblocks and ultimately propel the film towards three Academy Award wins and iconic movie status? Through good writing and good direction and good acting. So much of the storyline that seemed PCA in-appropriate – the excessive drinking, seduction, womanizing and volatile emotions were so expertly staged and nuanced that the script eventually passed approval with Joseph Breen. Once Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa)  and Claude Rains (Captain Renault) delivered their performances there was no mistaking the precarious situations that the scriptwriters originally intended. Movie audiences still got the idea loud and clear even if wasn’t visually or audibly spelled out.

In today’s depict-anything-you-want movie plot experience, it seems so foreign to have such a morality cloud like Joseph Breen hovering over a film production. But I wonder if the beauty and ultimate success of Casablanca came in the act of being challenged to subtly hint at each impropriety. Perhaps that is what makes it timeless and still translatable in today’s cinematic scope. It leaves room for our own imaginations to sort out and further dissect the specifics of the relationships between characters.

I’m not a big fan of censoring art in any way. I think you lose the point of it then. I once lived in a town where plays were censored for language or risque content and it felt very limiting. Art is intended to provoke reaction and expand horizons so I’m not sure if Joseph Breen and I would have been on the same page in the philosophy department, but his impact on Casablanca was influential, so maybe his enforcement of the Production Code Administration ultimately helped the movie in the long-run.

For all the spicy current passing between Ilsa and Rick throughout the movie, there is not a lot of spicy food being passed around Rick’s cafe.  Originally I thought it would be fun to write a dinner and a movie post and feature some aromatic Moroccan food of the likes that would have been served at Rick’s. But apparently, the main thing on the menu at Cafe Americain, the bestseller of all bestsellers, was a cocktail or two or three or half a bottle. Champagne, bourbon, scotch, gin, whiskey are present in almost every scene. Alcohol swishes and swirls and sits in glasses while Rick broods, Captain Renault schemes and Ilsa seeks courage.  So in lieu of a traditional North African dinner, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are staying true to the spirit of Casablanca by serving up a food accompaniment with this post that pairs best with your favorite cocktail…Sweet Spiced Nuts circa 1967.

This recipe comes from the vintage cookbook, A World of Nut Recipes by Morton Gil Clark and features three ingredients essential to Moroccan cooking: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This is a super easy recipe to make for cocktail hour, parties or late night snacking. The flavors are subtle, accommodating and interesting and with nut season now in full swing, you have a variety of options to choose from. For this recipe, I used a variety of mixed nuts which included peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts but pecans, pistachios, macademias, etc all would make delicious alternatives as well.

Find this cookbook available in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

Sweet Spiced Nuts – Makes 1 Cup

1 cup nuts

1/4 cup fine granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8th teaspoon ground allspice

1/8th teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg (egg white part only)

Place the nuts in a small bowl and pour over them the slightly beaten whites of 1 egg. Mix so that all the nuts are evenly coated. In a separate bowl combine the sugar and spices and then toss with the nuts, mixing well again so that all the nuts are evenly coated. Spread seasoned nuts out into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes. If you prefer ultra-crunchy nuts bake them about 10-15 minutes longer, but keep your eye on them so they don’t burn. Once done, let them cool on the baking sheet until ready to serve. Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation.

Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation. And while you’re at it, raise a toast to Joseph Breen, who made his mark, for better or worse, on one of the world’s most beloved movies of all times. Here’s look’n at you, Joe!

To learn more about Joe Breen and his influence on old Hollywood, catch up with other blogathon related posts here. 

For more dinner and a movie posts from the Vintage Kitchen, pull up a chair here.

And last but not least, find 200 more pages of interesting nut-related recipes in the World of Nut Recipes cookbook available in the shop here.

On the Set of Get Low: Ms. Jeannie’s Moment in the Movies

Two years ago, there was an open casting call for extras for the film, Get Low, which starred Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek,  Bill Murray and Lucas Black.

Get Low movie poster

Ms. Jeannie had never been an extra, so she signed up with excitement,  for her moment in the movies. She thought it might be a fun way to spend an afternoon, but it actually turned out to be a two full days of activity!

Day 1 involved a trip to “wardrobe” which was actually one of the film sets,  Gaither Plantation, located near Atlanta.

Gaither Plantation’s main house served as the exterior of Sissy Spacek’s house in the movie.

It was a gorgeous location!

Ms. Jeannie was on set for only ten minutes before she saw Sissy Spacek, coming out of her trailer, just feet away!  While on set,  the extras were asked not to bring any camera or video equipment and also asked NOT to get  autographs from any of the actors.

Wardrobe was set up in one of the outbuildings on the plantation.

The log cabin (on the far left) was the site of wardrobe.

There, Ms. Jeannie met no-nonesense costume designer Julie Weiss, who has worked on a ton of movies including The Time Traveler’s Wife, Secretariat, Frida (see past post about this movie here), American Beauty, Steal Magnolias, Honeymoon in Vegas…so many movies that Ms. Jeannie loves!

Get Low was set in 1930’s Tennessee, so all the extras had to be authentically dressed in period clothing, makeup and hair.  Julie was no exchanger of pleasantries, she was on a serious mission to get everyone in and out and dressed appropriately.

For Ms. Jeannie, she choose a red and navy pattern print dress, a red, navy and white plaid coat and a funny looking navy and white hat.  Ms. Jeannie managed to sneak a few photos of her outfit up close. Shhh..don’t tell Julie!

Lots of pattern mixing going on!

Ms. Jeannie also wore gloves and nylons. And because she wore a pair of vintage looking black loafer type shoes to her wardrobe appointment, Julie gave the thumbs up that they could worn for the movie. You can kind of see them in this picture…

The 1930’s woman always wore gloves. Even in rural Tennessee!

After Ms. Jeannie’s outfit satisfied Julie, it was off to be photographed by costume department staff for the continuity files. Clothes were then hung up on hangers with names attached for next day’s shoot.

Day 2:

All the extras had to be on set at 4:30am in Crawfordville, GA which meant a super early morning drive for Ms. Jeannie.

Crawfordville is located about 2 hours east of Atlanta, and is as tiny a town as towns can get.  Surprisingly, many movies have been filmed there including Sweet Home Alabama starring Reese Witherspoon.

Apparently movie companies like to film there because it’s historic main street is easily adaptable.  The town is so small (population under 800) that film crews can pretty much do whatever they like, set-wise,  without displacing a lot of locals.

Here are pictures of Crawfordville’s main street as it looks today…

And here is how it was transformed for the movie. Again Ms. Jeannie was a little sneaky on set with her camera!

Dirt was brought in to cover the roads.

Fake building facades were installed on one side of the street, but all the other buildings are real store fronts.

That’s Lucas Black sitting on the bench below. The Farmers & Merchant Bank is the actual real bank in Crawfordville.

Old cars really helped give it that 1930’s feel.

More cars!

Many of the cars were loaned for the movie from an antique car collector that lived nearby. Also, in the photo above, you can see a Panavision movie camera peeking out underneath the awning. Very Hollywood!

Ms. Jeannie’s role in the movie was to walk across the street carrying paper wrapped packages. Here, the crew is preparing for the busy street scene, where Ms. Jeannie will appear.

That’s Robert Duvall standing next to the cart. It’s hard to see, so here’s a close-up. He’s the one with the full beard.

In this scene, Ms. Jeannie crosses the road in front of Robert Duvall, whose hermit character has come to town for the first time in 20 years.  The cart is driven by Hollywood’s famous trick mule Grace, who indeed was quite professional! Read more about her many talents here

Grace and Robert Duvall on set.

Ms. Jeannie had a walking partner too – a fellow extra who has made a professional career out of being an extra for the past 15 years. You can see her in the grey and green below. And that’s Robert Duvall! Up close!

It was nice to have a walking partner for company, because this one scene took about 7 hours to film. Ms. Jeannie and her partner criscrossed the street from every possible angle. It was also super windy that day, so that made some elements tricky for the crew. Julie was on set to keep everyone’s hats secured.

Pictured above is the director, Aaron Schneider talking to Robert Duval. There’s costume designer Julie,  in the back left wearing the checkered sweater.

Finally, the scene was shot, and we were all off to the catering hall for dinner.

Bill Murray was the only major actor that ate with the extras.  He sat, by himself,  but close enough to Ms. Jeannie to make her sort of nervous.  She wanted to talk to him, but she suddenly felt speechless. So, much to her disappointment, she lost all her nerve to chat.  That was when it struck Ms. Jeannie…it was as awkward for Bill Murray to eat with a room full of strangers as it was for a room full of strangers to eat with Bill Murray.  Ms. Jeannie could understand how it could be lonely, on the road, for an actor.

Hours later, in-between scenes, Ms. Jeannie got to personally meet Bill Murray, along with a bunch of other extras. He shook her hand and commented on what an unusual hat she was wearing.  He was wearing a super tight suit. Ms. Jeannie wanted to joke about that – but she refrained!

This is the outfit Bill Murray was wearing when Ms. Jeannie met him.

Now that they had established a repoire, Ms. Jeannie was hoping that she might get up her nerve to talk with him again, but unfortunately, he had left for the airport to hop a flight to California, so he could play in a golf tournament at Pebble Beach.

So Ms. Jeannie’s days spent with celebrities came to an end. After a long but magical day on set, she headed home, with the new found appreciation for actors and all those millions of unnamed extras.  Weeks later, she received a $100.00 check in the mail – her day rate as an official movie extra!

Many months after that, the trailer was released…

And then the movie. And Ms. Jeannie saw that her scene actually made it in!

Robert Duvall, Ms. Jeannie and professional extra.

To Ms. Jeannie’s surprise, costume designer Julie recreated outfits with a lot of pattern. For some reason, Ms. Jeannie thought in the 1930’s that women wore mostly solid colors. Not so!  Ms. Jeannie discovered on Etsy that women in the 1930’s like this one wore a lot of pattern together. Check out her coat and dress…

Vintage Photo from phunctum.

Thanks to the fabulous vintage shops on Etsy, anyone could recreate  Ms. Jeannie’s movie costume with the following items…

Vintage Black & White Plaid Coat from MarcellasExcess

Vintage 1930’s Dress from Revolving Styles

1930s Oxford Style Shoes from honeytalkvintage

30’s Leather Riding Gloves from Freestyle Collection

The hat that Ms. Jeannie wore in the movie was really unusual. It was shaped like this one below, but it had a big white bow that ran across the front and was floppy in back like a beret. No wonder Bill Murray commented on it!

1940’s High Hat from poppycockvintage

Get Bill Murray’s funeral director look:

Vintage Pinstripe Suit Jacket from TrueValueVintage

Men’s 1930’s/1940’s Fringed Scarf from fifisfinds

1939-1949 Men’s Brown Wool Coat from Lins Vintage Boutique

Vintage Stetson Hat Felted Derby Wool Bowler from KTsAttic

Julie would definitely approve!!!!