This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.
Today is National Classic Movie Day, an event that we are celebrating in style here at Rancho Yesteryear: a sumptuous dinner, cake and all the other trimmings. Okay…I might be exaggerating about the food aspect. My mother did prepare a cake, but not for the special occasion…she just had a hankering for cake.
This shouldn’t, however, diminish today’s event because as it is all too evident over the years at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, classic movies are one of my true passions. I’ve examined the origins of why this is so both on the blog and other venues in the past, so I’m going to try and not be too long-winded in this introduction. Suffice it to say, that day that I sat down to watch King Kong (1933) with 300 citizens in the small West Virginia town library of my formative childhood years, the fix was already in with regards to my classic movie addiction.
When Rick at the Classic Film and TV Café proposed this blogathon to talk about our favorite classic film, I knew without hesitation that my essay would have to be on Casablanca (1942). I first saw Casablanca at Marshall University around 1981/1982; the college’s Activities Committee showed movies in a makeshift auditorium on weekends, and on one occasion they featured three Humphrey Bogart titles: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948)…and of course, Casablanca. I love all three movies but Casablanca had the most significant impact on me since I was seeing it with an audience. The consensus has long been that movies need to be enjoyed most in that sort of venue, and Casablanca was no exception; the audience roared with approval at the point in the movie where Bogart’s Rick Blaine orders Claude Rains’ Louis Renault “Not so fast, Louie,” signaling that Blaine has finally decided to throw his support to the Allied cause. The electric response to that scene in that makeshift auditorium (actually a converted biology lab) still stays with me today.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen Casablanca, probably because I thought it kind of pedantic to keep score. But I’ve seen it enough to know most of the dialogue by heart, which is why I always got a kick out of that old Diet Coke commercial where the couple starts mouthing the movie in the theater before they step out into the aisle for a romantic waltz and embrace:
It’s first and foremost a romantic love story, but it’s also a rousing WW2 adventure with elements of nail-biting suspense. It’s also a musical, with the tuneful contributions of Dooley Wilson on Shine, Knock on Wood and the film’s iconic As Time Goes By. It’s also quite comical at times; there are so many great moments in Casablanca for some odd reason the one that always makes me laugh out loud is when Rick glances at the dossier on him and asks “Are my eyes really brown?” (A week or so ago, Our Lady of Great Caftan and I recreated the famous “I came here for the waters” scene on Facebook to thunderous applause. Okay, maybe a few titters from the crowd—don’t ruin a beautiful moment here.)
Bogart was recognized by his peers with an Oscar for The African Queen (1951) (though I would argue he gave better performances in both The Treasure of the Sierra Madre  and In a Lonely Place ) but I agree with Danny Peary (he makes the case in Alternate Oscars) that Bogie deserved it for Casablanca. His Rick Blaine is the kind of guy we’d either like to be or envision ourselves as already: a suave tough guy whose wisecracking cynicism masks the heart of a true idealist. The actor was able to wipe away multitudes of movie memories playing snarling gangsters and other villains with his heroic portrayal of Rick, simply by making the noble sacrifice of giving up the woman he loves in order that she help her husband carry on in the fight of stamping out the Nazis and all that they stood for.
And yet, in none of those films does the man demonstrate the amazing chemistry that he shared with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. The electricity between the two of them is positively astounding—even more when you realize that the two had never worked together before (and would never again) and Bogart had to wear platform shoes to compensate for the height difference between him and Ingrid. I don’t want to suggest that Bogie did all the heavy lifting here (except to say that with the exception here of Ingrid and Gloria Grahame in Lonely Place, none of the actor’s onscreen romances come close to the passion generated by these two); Bergman was nothing short of luminous as Ilsa Lund. When she explains to Rick that her attraction to Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid) was more intellectual than physical (“He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals”), we recognize that not only she is a bright, intelligent, independent woman but one who is capable of being nurturing and caring as well. The glistening tears that collect in her eyes as she wrestles with the dilemma of loving two men equally is devastating to watch.
This explains the eclectic cast of the movie: Claude Rains (as Renault), who was delighted to learn that his Louis would not turn out as a rotter but a hero; Sydney Greenstreet (as Ferrari), stealing scenes despite an inconsequential role with the mere swat of a fly swatter; Peter Lorre (as Ugarte), at his sniveling best (“You despise me, don’t you?”). Paul Heinreid, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey and the others—there’s not a false note in anyone’s portrayal. And of course, it goes without saying: nobody sings As Time Goes By like Dooley Wilson.
“They don’t make them like that anymore.” We all know the familiar cliché, and we’re often tempted to apply it to Casablanca as the gold standard of “oldie but goodie.” We also know that the making of the movie wasn’t as simple as all that; Casablanca had a troubled history, with stories of script pages being dashed off at the last minute…and the surprise that this unassuming picture, re-released in 1943 only to cash in on the publicity surrounding the headline-making Roosevelt-Churchill summit (it had actually played in New York the previous year to stifling yawns), would win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Our love for Casablanca is such that it seems silly to think that any other film could have taken the top prize…but the Oscars don’t always function on that same logic.
The reason for this could be found in a movie of which she was quite fond, the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally... In that picture, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) have an intense conversation of the subject of Casablanca, and the reason why Ingrid Bergman gets on that plane at the end. (“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who runs a bar. That probably sounds very snobbish to you, but I don’t.”) For my friend, this is the reason why she would never see Casablanca: “She gets on the plane at the end of the movie!” Even when a mutual friend of ours painstakingly tried to explain why it was necessary for Bergman to do so (a dialogue exchange that I seriously could not keep from laughing throughout) the woman remained firm. She later explained to me: “I don’t like movies with unhappy endings. My life is an unhappy ending, and who wants to watch their life on the big screen?” (I even thought that agreeing to sit down and watch her favorite movie—Gone with the Wind—she might relent. No dice, Chicago.)
We’re upset that the torrid affair between Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund won’t ever progress as far as Paris (and one night in Casablanca), but we know that Rick makes the right call: “You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.” It’s an unhappy ending, but a satisfying one—one that produces both tears and smiles knowing that despite Rick’s observation that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” betting on humanity and people doing the right thing is a can’t-lose proposition.
The appreciative audience that watched the movie with me when I saw it in Savannah was a plus (though it didn’t come close to that memorable reaction at MU), but what I remembered most about the showing was the guy who announced at the beginning: “Since there were no cellphones around in World War II, we request that you turn yours off during the movie.”
Happy National Classic Movie Day, everyone!