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Shooting Down the ‘Sergeant York’-’Casablanca’ Swap

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Re Robert W. Welkos’ article “Taking Direction From Hollywood Greats” (Sept. 17):

Although I found quite entertaining the story told by Howard Hawks, and recounted by Tony Macklin in the latter’s book of interviews, “Voices From the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews,” about how the director swapped assignments with Michael Curtiz, exchanging “Casablanca” for “Sergeant York,” the anecdote does not seem to be very well supported by the historical facts.

“Sergeant York” was completed and released in 1941--before the United States entered the Second World War, I believe--and “Casablanca” only came out in the following year.

According to Arthur Marx in his biography of Sam Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky approached Goldwyn to borrow Gary Cooper for “Sergeant York” in 1940, but even apart from the unlikely possibility that “Casablanca” was already in planning in 1940, the tone of the films is indicative of two quite different periods.

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In retrospect, “Sergeant York” was clearly intended as a warning that the United States might be involved in another war with Germany, but the film is relatively un-propagandistic in its depiction of the Kaiser’s army.

By contrast, “Casablanca” is a full-fledged anti-fascist melodrama such as no studio would have dared to produce before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In his biography of the director, “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood,” Todd McCarthy describes the making of “Sergeant York” in some detail, including the delicate negotiations with Alvin York, who had long resisted having his exploits adapted to the screen, but I do not recall a word about any trade-off with Curtiz involving “Casablanca.”

In any case, although Curtiz was Warner Bros.’ jack-of-all-trades, Hawks would have been a logical first choice to helm “Sergeant York” as one of the most prominent directors of action pictures in the industry and something of a specialist in World War I stories, having made the greatest of the pictures about the war in the air, the original “Dawn Patrol” in 1930, as well as “Today We Live” in 1933 and “The Road to Glory” in 1936.

Like Macklin, I too worry “that today’s younger generation is not even aware of many great films of the past.” But uncritically repeating fairy tales of this kind hardly furthers the cause of film scholarship.

In his superb book of interviews, “Hawks on Hawks,” Joseph McBride diplomatically but prudently inserted caveats as a corrective to some of Hawks’ wilder assertions. I wish that Macklin had exercised the same diffidence in handling his sources.

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DAVE CLAYTON

San Diego

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