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"Casablanca" at 70: That Piano, That Song (And That Songwriter!)

Posted by: Jeremy Walsh, December 12, 2012 6:32 pm
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2012 marked the 70th anniversary of the classic 1942 film Casablanca. We hope you made it out to one of Queens Library’s free screenings of the movie. You may know that recently, Sotheby’s  auctioned off the piano used by the character Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play the movie’s thematic song: “As Time Goes By.”


The instrument seems to have been manufactured by Richardson’s of Los Angeles – not a lot more information is easily available. The origins of the song itself are far more interesting.


"As Time Goes By" was written by Montclair, N.J. native Herman Hupfeld. It first appeared in the 1931 Broadway musical “Everybody’s Welcome,” which was a comedy. The song made enough of an impact that several artists recorded it that year, including noted crooner Rudy Vallée.


That means it wouldn’t be out of the question for a nightclub pianist like Sam to be familiar with the tune, despite Casablanca taking place 11 years later and a continent away from the Great White Way.
A musicians’ strike kept Wilson from being able to record the song in 1942. Instead, record labels re-released 1931 recordings by bandleader Jacques Renard and by Vallée, for whom the song became his last hit.


As for Herman Hupfeld? By most accounts he was a bit like Sam, nursing an old piano in a small bar in Clifton (where a plaque now commemorates the writing of the song). He was 48 years old in 1942, the peak of his songwriting half a decade behind him. The resurgence of “As Time Goes By” caught him by surprise.


In 1943 the New Yorker described him as “a tall, white-haired, utterly frank man” whose newly re-famous song was critically successful in 1931 but made no money for him at the time. He survived the 1930s through revenue from apartment buildings he owned, but his creative slump only deepened. Having his song featured in Casablanca took “ten years off my age and added ten years to my checking account,” he told the magazine, adding that he only learned of the song’s inclusion in the film from one of his tenants.


He spoke to the magazine of a return to form. By most accounts he performed extensively for American troops during World War II. But according to the Internet Broadway Database, the gap between his songs appearing again on Broadway stretches from 1937 to 1950. Hupfeld died in Montclair in 1951, perhaps a little short of a full-fledged comeback — but nonetheless assured a permanent spot in the Great American Songbook.


Give a listen to some of the many versions of As Time Goes By recorded over the last 70 years. Want to learn more about Broadway in the Great Depression? Check out Sing for Your Supper. Want to learn more about Casablanca? Check out this behind-the-scenes book.


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