Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Saying Goodbye to My Dad and CASABLANCA

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow.”

Not the most famous line in Rick’s closing speech to Ilsa, but the one that stays with me. Casablanca was the last movie I ever saw with my Dad, who I followed everywhere.

We were true kindred spirits, and there was no one I saw more movies with. Saturday mornings were for comedies on Channel 5, especially if W.C. Fields was on. We saw It’s a Gift so often we did the routines at the breakfast table. (“You tell me where to go!” “I’d like to tell you both where to go!”) On nights I couldn’t sleep, he let me bundle in my blanket on the couch and watch the late movie with him, which is how I fell in love with Buster Keaton. And every year, to my delight and my mother’s horror, he woke me at roughly three in the morning to trundle downstairs and watch Alastair Sim’s A Christmas Carol, which, unlike the other 97 versions, somehow never aired at a normal hour.

Sometimes he threw me a curveball, like the time he sat me down to watch one of his favorite films, The Informer, without warning me I’d want to hurl myself out the window afterward. (His response? “Of course it’s depressing! It’s about Ireland!”) But usually we were completely in sync.

My father knew more about movies, and what went on behind the scenes, than anyone I’ve ever known. He’d throw out little tidbits as we watched—explaining bits of business, or telling me who that third banana was or how the woman playing the star’s grandmother used to have a vaudeville act and who she was married to. And he said it so casually, like everybody knew this stuff.

The way you do when you’re a kid, I thought those days by his side on the sofa would last forever. But when he was just 46, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Immediate surgery revealed it had metastasized. He was told he had about three months to live.

Summer was starting, so I could spend most every day with him until, I thought, he’d be coming home. His hospital window overlooked the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and one day, a line of sailboats bobbed lazily through the bay, maybe stragglers from the July Fourth flotilla a couple of weeks earlier. We watched the boats for a while, but then Casablanca was coming on. My Dad had just seen it—the local stations had a handful of classics they played over and over again—but he was happy to watch it again with me.

sis-casablanca-1

Usually we talked a little during movies, but that day, we were mostly quiet. He was tired, I could tell. But he piped up a couple of times.

“Did you know Conrad Veidt was the highest-paid actor in the film?” No, really? “He barely escaped the Nazis, and then he donated his salary to the war effort.” I said something about how sad it was that the poor guy was forced to play Nazis all the time, but my Dad said he wanted it that way, to show how evil they were.

At one point he started to say something and broke off, and I thought maybe there was some racy tidbit he’d stopped himself from telling me. So now I had to know. He finally blurted it out: “Dooley Wilson didn’t play the piano.” For an old-movie lover, that’s right up there with “no Santa Claus.” He softened the blow by telling me Wilson was a great drummer, though, and once led his own big band.

And he talked about Humphrey Bogart, and how brave he was when he was dying, how all his friends came by, one by one, to say goodbye. And how his kids were so young, but they knew he’d always be with them. I remember thinking it must have been horrible for them just the same, and wondered to myself why my Dad, who always said things straight, had put such a soothing face on it.

When the movie ended, I could see how tired he was, just from straining to stay awake for me for those two hours. When I leaned over to kiss him goodbye, I clasped his arm, and realized I could nearly close my hand around his wrist. I almost gasped but swallowed hard to hide it. When I brushed my face against his cheek, I could feel the bone beneath. But as frail as he was, it never occurred to me he wasn’t going to get better and come home. It’s not even that I suspected the worst and dismissed it. The thought never dared come anywhere near me.

My father often called me kiddo—I was the youngest—or Babe, as his seven older brothers and sisters called him. That day, when I turned to leave, he smiled and said, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kiddo.” And he seemed so happy as he drifted off to sleep.

My Dad was slightly color-blind, and I remember going home that night and organizing his brown, blue and black socks so they’d be ready for him when he went back to work. And checking the cupboard for Bisquik, so I could make pancakes for him.

Twenty-nine days later, he was gone. He hadn’t even gotten those three stingy months they promised him.

In all the years since, with all the times it’s been on television, I’ve never been able to watch Casablanca. Some memories comfort you, some reduce you to rubble. Some do both.

When TCM brought it back to the big screen in 2012, somehow I thought my Dad, who loved that movie, would want me to give it a try. And this was such a different setting—a billion-plex in Times Square. When I got there, I had to go up so many escalators that before I even got to my theater, I was already down to the part of the popcorn where I’d buttered it in the middle.

That morning, I’d gone back and forth so much about whether to go that I barely made it before the house lights went down. There was one spot on the end, in a little two-seater off to the side, but a woman had plunked her bag there. When I asked if she could move it, she said she was saving it “for a friend.” She also seemed mildly crazy. (One thing about New York: no matter what’s preying on your mind, there’s a good chance you’ll be distracted by an insane person.) I promised to move as soon as her friend arrived, and she huffily freed up the seat.

I made it through the introduction by Robert Osborne and the first scene of the movie. Then I started crying, then panicking because I was crying, then crying and panicking because I couldn’t figure out how to get out of there in the dark. As I grabbed my purse and started to get up, the seat-saver threw her arm around me and pressed my head to her shoulder. “It’s okay, I’m sorry! My friend said she isn’t coming!” I thanked her, wriggled free, and stumbled down the stairs and the escalators, crying and laughing and still kind of panicking till I was finally out in the street, in the light.

I tried, Daddy. I really did. But I have a feeling that my last time seeing Casablanca will always be that summer day— whiling away another afternoon watching movies with you, waiting for you to come home.

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73 Comments

  1. What a tender and heartwarming story of you and your father. He was such a handsome man. Thank you for sharing your special memories. You brought back some happy memories of my Dad (even though he wasn’t a movie buff).

    • Thank you so much, Linda!! And yes, he was handsome. 🙂 I’m glad I brought back some good memories!!

      • He is one of my fave actors of all time. I always watch Casablanca with my dad and we always quote the movie and laugh. We always have a good time. Especially when watching the movie together.

  2. Wonderful remembrance of your father. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m so glad you liked it…

  3. Lovely piece. A testament to the power classic films — and people we love who love them — have over us.

  4. Sharing a movie is everything – it is time and love and a strengthening of a bond.

    What you shared with us is equally special. Thank you.

    • Jessica Rains

      Wow..love this.

      • Thank you so much, my dear!! ❤

    • Thank you!!

  5. I’ve often said ‘goodbye’ to my father and CASABLANCA. However both always resurface in one way or another. In the last few years, I’ve come to regard the film as my older successful sibling and as I am working on a documentary and companion book now, both are with me constantly. … http://henreidbeyondlaszlo.com/
    Thank you for this lovely tribute to your father and the film!

    • Thank you, Monika! I can’t wait to see the film and the book!!

  6. A very sweet and moving tribute. Thanks so much for joining our blogathon!

  7. DenShewman

    A beautiful story about a wonderful bond. Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is an entry in the “31 Days of Oscar Blogathon.” Trust me, you’ve never seen CASABLANCA the way this woman has seen CASABLANCA.

  9. I just re-blogged this on my own blog. What a touching story. It just goes to show the power of movies.

    • Thank you so much, Steve!! Yes, they were and still are so important…

  10. This is beautiful. I’m sitting here tearing up because movies were something I shared with my dad, too, and he also died of cancer. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    • Thank you so much, Debbie!! I’m sorry we share such grief but happy we share such memories…

      • betty

        I also cried while reading this story. My brother, who just recently died of cancer, was a big classic movie fan and we watched and spoke about the movies a lot. Like you, specific movies remind me of him and for a few minutes it’s like he’s back with me. That you for sharing your memories with us. It helps.

      • Thank you so much for sharing that with me, and for your kind words!! ❤

  11. Westell Rhodes

    What a loving tribute to your father. When I was about12-13 my father would take me to see a preview showing of films at the New York offices of various studios. He was a film/theatre critic for a New York paper. I always remember, as you do, the special feeling of seeing the films with him. These were a “sneak peek” and sometimes we saw the actor too. It made me feel special. I lost my dad to an accident many years ago. I’m 83 now and your story brought a tear to my eye. A beautiful rememberance. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your memories with me! I’m glad my memories of my Dad could bring back such good ones of yours… ❤

  12. Dennis Davison

    Just beautiful. Thank you!

  13. The Flapper Dame

    This is a wonderful tribute to both Casablanca and your Father. I like hearing about films and special meanings. I am in the middle of drafting a similar post- about John Wayne films and My Grandfather. I love it when we can watch films and remember our loved ones!

    • Thank you for your kindness! I look forward to the John Wayne piece!! ❤

  14. Leeza B.

    Thank you so much for sharing your Dad and your wonderful memories. My Dad and I had the same bond, and one of our favorites was It’s a Gift, too…our everyday conversations were peppered with mentions of ipecac, jacarandas and bougainvilleas, and Carl LaFong. He introduced me to Harold Lloyd’s Milky Way, Walter Huston’s Dodsworth, and his beloved Laurel and Hardy. My Dad passed 3 years ago. It wasn’t an easy passing, and it hurts like it was yesterday. But your lovely remembrance brought smiles, along with tears of understanding. And again, I thank you.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your memories, Leeza! And yes, ipecac and syrup of squill turned up during our conversations as well… 🙂 I’m glad that sharing my memories rekindled some of yours as well… ❤

  15. Thanks for this. This is a wonderful and beautiful piece of writing.

    • Thank you so much, Tom!!

      • SteveHL

        A beautiful and touching tribute to your father and to the power of movies. Thank you.

  16. This is a lovely tribute. What would we do if not for dads! Honestly I teared up a bit.And I don’t know if it happens to others but I think I just know your father, it always makes me happy to know there are such kind and brave people in the world. Wish you a good life ahead.

    • Thank you so much for your kind and lovely words. He was a wonderful man, and I am so happy to be able to “introduce” him to so many people… ❤

      • Sorry for the late reply. Was glad to “know” such a fantastic person existed! 🙂

      • Thank you!! ❤

  17. Michael Fox

    Wow. Blessings to you. Such a remarkable narrative of love and sharing.

  18. A very moving tribute to your father, who by the way had great taste in movies!

  19. Karl Chiaro

    I can’t add much to these comments, except to thank you for your generosity in sharing so many special, but I’m sure bittersweet, memories. (Also, thank you for “trundle”, a great word that deserves more widespread use)

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Karl!! They are bittersweet, but I love that people are now getting to “meet” my Dad, who was wonderful. And yes, watching old movies gives you access to a lot of old words that should get around more…

  20. PIETRO DI RIENZO

    WHEN WE WERE YOUNG WE WENT TO THE CINEMA TO WATCH HOMPHERY BOGARD
    KNOWING THAT WITH HIS ACTING THE MOVIE WOULD BE EXCITING.
    A PURE LEGEND
    THANK YOU FOR YOUR MEMORIES

  21. This is a beautiful story, thank you for sharing it with us.

  22. Andy M

    You really know how to make a grown man cry…and in less than 60 seconds. What a beautiful and poignant tribute to your Dad. Surely, you are a published author. If you aren’t yet, with your writing skills, you certainly should be. If you don’t mind a curiosity question, what did you and your Dad think of Play It Again Sam?

    • First of all, Andy, thank you so much for your kind words!! And I am a writer and editor by trade, thank you for asking! About your question, my Dad never saw that film, as far as I know, but liked Woody Allen, whom he remembered from his old stand-up routines. He had really wide-ranging tastes in everything, from movies to books and beyond…

  23. What a sweet, sad and wonderful remembrance of your Dad! Reminds me a little of my Dad, and watching Star Trek with him during it’s initial TV run “Quiet now son, Mr. Spock is on…come sit with me.”.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Joe, and I’m glad I could bring back some memories of your own!! ❤

  24. Michael Brooks

    I second Karl ‘s comments.. I agree with everyone. When I watch the classics I am in Awe! I loved your Daddy.. I just recently took my wife to see ‘Casablanca’. I was awesome! My favorite is with him and Miss Lauren in ‘To Have and Have Not’
    When VCR tapes were the norm I have been known to watch my movies so often white spots would form I assume they were burn holes in the film.
    I encouraged my kids to admire the ‘Classics’.
    When they were younger I took them to the dollar theater every Friday. I worked evenings back then. We have wonderful memories and a respect for the cinema.

    • Thank you for sharing your memories and I’m so happy you love my Daddy!! 🙂

  25. Lovely post.

    Aurora

  26. Hello
    Fantastic blog
    Good luck
    Thank you

    &^&^^&

  27. Beautiful. I have a lump in my throat. What a sweet sweet man. x Heidi

    • Thank you so much, Heidi my dear!! Miss you!! Yes, he was wonderful… ❤

  28. What a beautiful tribute to your father, and what a bittersweet thing it is to lose him way too soon, but to also have him so closely – his influence, his love, his passion for movies. I’m sorry for your great loss & honor your pain and love. xo

    • Oh what a beautiful thing to say, Hermionejh! Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you got a chance to “meet” my father… ❤

  29. Wonderful post, and I’m so sorry to learn you lost your father at such a young age. My Dad and I were just starting to enjoy classic films together, as I had only recently become a fan, before he died at 81. How terrific that you shared this love together and created memories that will last forever.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, and I’m so sorry about your Dad… ❤

  30. There's No Place Like Vintage

    Beautiful and heart breaking. I am writing this through my tears. I too was introduced to old movies through my father and feel so lucky to still be able to watch them with him now. I will forever cherish these memories and your words and remember that time is fleeting. Thank you for sharing your story – I love it, and am so sorry that he had to go so young.
    Linda.

    • Thank you so much, Linda! He was a wonderful man. I’m so happy you can still share these things with your own Dad… ❤

  31. You almost made me cry.

    Thank you for sharing these treasured memories with your father. He must have found so much joy in watching these films with you.

    • Yes, we loved watching them together, and I still miss him every day. We were true kindred spirits… ❤

  32. Matthew Baker

    Thank you for this. With this article, my wife and I discover your blog. She says it reminds her of her relationship with her grandmother, with whom she used to watch the 1930’s musicals. I also owe my love of classics to my father, who also woke me up at odd hours to see them. So please know your blog is tremendously appreciated by kindred spirits.

    • Thank you so much for telling me that, Matthew!! I started it to find kindred spirits!! ❤

  33. A great story. Many thanks.

    • Thank you so much, John!! I’m so glad so many people are getting to “meet” my Dad…

  34. Wonderfully moving story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Trackbacks

  1. Final Week of 31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon: PICTURES/DIRECTORS – Outspoken and Freckled

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