This year marks the 80th anniversary of the most timeless of classics, Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By.” Although almost forgotten after its initial release, its inclusion in the 1942 film Casablanca has made it one of the most enduring and recorded of all popular songs.
Hupfeld might be considered an unlikely composer for this contribution to the Great American Songbook. Other than “As Time Goes By,” he had relatively few hits, and those few came mostly from novelty titles such as “When Yuba Plays The Rhumba On The Tuba” and “A Hut in Hoboken.”
He spent almost his entire life in Montclair, New Jersey, and he lived his adult life with his mother on the same city block on which he was raised. He served in the Navy Band during World War I, and his service did not require him to leave New Jersey. So while he may have penned the lyrics “It’s still the same old story / a fight for love and glory,” there’s little evidence he experienced much in the way of fights, love, or glory.
Even “As Time Goes By” provided little immediate glory to Hupfeld. It was written for the Broadway musical “Everybody’s Welcome” in 1931 and introduced on stage by Frances Williams. Bing Crosby performed it on the radio, and Rudy Vallee had a hit with it in the summer of 1931. A few other recordings followed, but when the Broadway show closed after 139 performances, the song languished in relative obscurity for a decade or so.
The quality of the song, however, warranted greater attention than 1930s’ audiences offered. The song begins with a 12-bar verse that offers a lyrically impressive quadruple rhyme involving “apprehension,” “invention,” “dimension,” and “tension,” while contrasting the ephemeral troubles of the era (“cause for apprehension”) with the timelessness of romance (“simple facts of life are such / they cannot be removed.”).
The chorus, meanwhile, focuses almost exclusively on the “simple facts of life” for lovers. It’s left to Hupfeld to remind us that “when two lovers woo / they still say I love you;” that “the fundamental things apply”—a kiss, after all, “is still a kiss / a sigh is still a sigh;” and that hearts are “full of passion / jealousy and hate. / Woman needs man / and man must have his mate.”
These fundamental lessons of life were perfectly incorporated into a sea of contemporary troubles in Casablanca, the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and, of course, Dooley Wilson. It was Wilson who made the song famous, but not without some scripted prompting by Bergman: “Play it once Sam, for old time’s sake. Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” Never once does she say, “Play it again, Sam.”
The song almost didn’t make it into the movie. Max Steiner, who was hired to score the film, reviewed an advanced draft of the film and decided to scrap “As Time Goes By” in favor of a new composition of his own making. Thankfully, he abandoned his plan when he learned that Bergman would not be available for new scenes. She had recently begun filming “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and was sporting a short hair cut, one befitting a recently freed prisoner of war. Reshoots were impossible. The song was kept, and history was made.
Wilson may have made history with “As Time Goes By,” but the song failed to make him wealthy. The problem was timing. Casablanca was released at the beginning of a musicians’ strike. With background musicians refusing to work, Wilson couldn’t record while the tune was hot. Instead, Victor records simply re-released Vallee’s 1931 version, which hit the charts again.
After the musicians’ strike ended, big names began performing it. Sinatra played it on the radio. Billie Holiday recorded a classic version in 1944. By the 1950s, Casablanca was appearing regularly on television, and the song took hold. Sinatra gave it another spin; Peggy Lee sang it; Louis Armstrong lent his talents to it; Mandy Patinkin recorded a heartfelt and serviceable version; and a few years ago, an unknown Ella Fitzgerald take was discovered. Even old Jimmy Durante turned out a snappy and romantic version, one that was later featured in the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie Sleepless in Seattle.
More recently, even ZZ Top, Kenny Rogers, Rod Stewart and Queen Latifah, and Jane Monheit have put their stamp on it, extending its cultural penetration. Even today, children watch Bugs Bunny singing it on Saturday morning cartoons, moviegoers hear it on the opening credits of Warner Brother movies, and music lovers sigh when hearing their favorite version.
Eighty years later, the world still welcomes lovers, even as time goes by.
Listen to Louis Armstrong sing As Time Goes By.