- Written by Barry Sparks Barry Sparks
Rich Santel has watched Casablanca 61 times … and counting.
The 75-year-old York resident never tires of viewing the 1942 classic, which he says is the perfect film.
“It’s a movie about men who have to make decisions; it’s about character and integrity. It’s a movie of substance,” he says. “It was relevant in 1942, it’s relevant today, and it will be relevant 100 years from now.”
In 1998, the American Film Institute named Casablanca the second greatest American movie of all time, behind Citizen Kane. The romantic drama set in World War II stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Santel, a self-described film buff, has shared his passion for Casablanca and movies, particularly those from the 1930s and 1940s, for more than a decade. He started by inviting friends from his church for dinner, a movie, dessert, and then discussion.
As an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) instructor at Penn State York since 2012, he has shown nearly 300 movies to classes of adult learners. He also presents a movie once a month to residents at two Spiritrust Lutheran locations and at Normandie Ridge senior living community.
Prior to the movie, Santel shares background information and trivia with the audience. A discussion usually follows.
“I always want people to learn something about the era in which the movie was filmed,” he says. “Movies are a visual history of the times, whether it’s fashion, politics, or language.”
Santel advocates watching a movie more than once. The first viewing is all about the plot and the characters. Each subsequent viewing is an opportunity to study other aspects of the movie, scrutinize details, and look for foreshadowing.
“You always miss something on the first viewing,” he says. “It’s important to remember that every action and every scene has a purpose.”
Although Santel is known as York’s Movie Man, he stops short of calling himself an expert. He points out that he didn’t study film in college, nor does he have a degree in fine arts.
He has, however, conducted countless hours of research, read extensively about Hollywood and its stars, and watched and studied hundreds of movies.
He says what started as an interest turned into a hobby. And now, it’s an obsession.
Growing up in Reading, Ohio (pop. 10,000), 12 miles north of Cincinnati, Santel watched movies at the Emery Theater. His mother gave him a quarter for admission and a nickel to spend on candy.
Santel fell in love with the 1930s and 1940s before he fell in love with movies.
“I tell people that I should have been born around 1915. That way I could have lived through the 1930s and 1940s. I just love everything about those decades — the music, the cars, the actors and actresses, and the fashion,” he says.
He believes one of the reasons he connects with that era is because those are the years his parents grew up, became young adults, and started a family.
“When I watch The Best Years of Our Lives (released in 1946), it’s like experiencing what my parents went through after World War II. Films of the 1930s and 1940s provide great insights into their lives.”
Because of the era, Santel has an affection for black-and-white movies. While some people shun those films, he says they provide an intriguing atmosphere, make great use of shadows and lighting, and present a unique feel.
He says Turner Entertainment’s colorization of black-and-white classics, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), was poorly received.
Santel’s favorite time period (1930-1948) is known as the Studio Era, which was dominated by five major studios and three smaller studios. The giants were RKO, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Paramount Pictures.
The studios owned their own production spaces, often known as backlots, signed actors and actresses to long-term contracts, and owned their own theaters. A handful of moguls, such as Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner, dominated the movie industry.
Studios had their own publicity departments, and they worked hard at creating images for their stars. Those images were often very different from the actors’ real lives. Studios made sure their stars were featured in newspaper articles, movie magazines, and gossip columns.
“Actors and actresses received weekly salaries, and they were told what to do,” stresses Santel. “They had little control over their careers. Studios controlled everything.”
Audiences flocked to more than 15,000 theaters across the country to watch Hollywood stars, such as Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotton, William Powell, Clark Gable, Fredric March, and others.
To meet the demand prior to the age of television, studios tried to produce a movie a week. Many of them were low-budget B movies. In 1949, a staggering 90 million people a week watched a movie in a theater.
Movie production reached its peak in 1937 when the eight largest studios released 414 movies. That total dropped to 256 by 1948.
“Stars drove movie attendance,” says Santel. “People went to see a Bette Davis film or a Humphrey Bogart film. The stars had tremendous drawing power and a loyal following.”
The era produced a long list of classic movies. Some of Santel’s personal favorites are The Thin Man (1934), Gone with the Wind (1939), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Random Harvest (1942), Now, Voyager (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Laura (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
“Every era has produced great movies,” he says. “But, I believe movies from the ’30s and ’40s more than hold their own with other eras. How many movies made today will be around in 70, 80, or 90 years?”
Santel, however, doesn’t eschew more modern movies. Some 21st-century movies he has shown to his OLLI classes include Chocolat (2000), Seabiscuit (2003), The King’s Speech (2010), The Help (2011), and Philomena (2013).
He confesses that he seldom watches a newly released movie in a theater. He says there are too many distractions.
“I’m always on the lookout for new movies to watch and share,” he says. “I didn’t know half of the movies I have shown since 2012 even existed before I started doing research.”
Researching movies is a labor of love for Santel, who approaches the task with a workman-like attitude. Every nugget of information and piece of trivia he finds energizes him.
As a movie buff, Santel is convinced that the best way to watch a movie is “in a dark room, on a big screen, and with friends.”
Although the coronavirus significantly decreased movie attendance, giant, high-definition flat-screen televisions offer a viable alternative.
Santel wonders if movie theaters will exist 25 years from now, as the younger generation is accustomed to watching movies on their smartphones or tablets.
No matter what the future holds, we’ll always have Casablanca.