Saturday, October 27, 2012

Classic Cinema Series # 1 - Casablanca

     First of all, I must apologize that it has taken me months since the announcement that this series of articles was coming to get started.  After I first began to think of what to write about films that so much has been said about already, I began to get a little intimidated by the project.  I did force myself slowly through the process of putting this first one together.  I'm sure I'll adapt the format of these with time, but with some template to work from, hopefully these will get easier as I go along.  So it should come as no surprise to anyone that number one in the classic cinema series is:

(Warner Brothers, 1942)
Part One - Credits
  Director:  Michael Curtiz - also known for:  Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954)

  Principle Cast:
     Humphrey Bogart - also known for:  Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Sabrina (1954), The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
     Ingrid Bergman - also known for:  Intermezzo (1936), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Murder On the Orient Express (1974)
     Paul Henreid - also known for:  Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
     Claude Rains - also known for:  The Invisible Man (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), The Wolf Man (1941), Notorious (1946),  Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
     Conrad Veidt - also known for: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
     Sydney Greenstreet - also known for:  The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Verdict (1946)
     Peter Lorre - also known for:  M (1931), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), The Verdict (1946), The Raven (1963)
     S.Z. Sakall - also known for:  The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Ball of Fire (1941). Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
     John Qualen - also known for:  His Girl Friday (1940), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Knute Rockne All American (1940), The Searchers (1956), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)
     Dooley Wilson

  Writers:  (interestingly, the only twins to ever co-write an Oscar winning script)
     Julius J. Epstein -  also known for: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
     Philip G. Epstein - same
     Howard Koch
  Cinematography:  Arthur Edison - also known for: The Thief of Bagdad (1924), All Quiet On the Western Front (1930), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  Original Music:  Max Steiner - also known for: King Kong (1933), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Jezebel (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dark Victory (1939), Gone With The Wind (1939), Seargent York (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), White Heat (1949), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Searchers (1956)
  Editor:  Owen Marks - also known for Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), White Heat (1949), East of Eden (1955)
Part Two - Awards
   Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars)

        Won:  Best Picture
                   Best Director
                   Best Screenplay
        Nominated:  Best Actor (Bogart)
                             Best Supporting Actor (Raines)
                             Best Cinematography - Black and White
                             Best Editing
                             Best Score
  National Board of Review
       Top Ten Films of 1943
  National Film Registry
       Inducted in 1989
  New York Film Critics Circle
       2nd Place - Actor (Bogart)
       3rd Place - Actress (Bergman)
Part Three - Famous Quotes
     It is worth noting that although many classic movies have a famous quote or two attached, Casablanca is one of most quoted and quotable films in history.  Just a smattering of lines you probably know whether you've seen the picture or not...

  - "Play it, Sam.  Play As Time Goes By"
  - "Here's looking at you, kid."
  - "We'll always have Paris."
  - "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
  - "I stick my neck out for nobody."
  - "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
  - "Round up the usual suspects."
  - "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Part Four - A Brief Synopses
  Genres:  Drama, Romance, War (bits of Comedy, even)
  Rated:  Approved
     During World War II, Casablanca became an important transit point for those trying to escape the Nazis and start a life in The New World.  Opposition spokesman and symbol of the fight for freedom Victor Lazlo and his wife Ilsa wind up there for just such purposes.  Unfortunately, the letters of transit they need to escape have fallen into the hands of Rick, proprieter of the local Rick's Cafe Americano.  Unfortunately, because Rick and Ilsa share a past that may or may not be finished.  Everyone's loyalties are tested, and sacrifices must be made.
Part Five - Interesting Tid-Bits
   - The timing of the film is historically interesting.  The Warner Brothers' reader assigned to evaluate the play "Everybody Comes To Rick's" that the film is based on started that assignment the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.  The film adaptation was originally scheduled to be released in Spring of 1943 but was bumped up to a limited release in New York on November 26th, 1942, mere weeks after the Allied invasion of North Africa, when Morocco was already on everyone's minds.  "As Exciting as the Landing at Casablanca!", the posters read.  It went into wide release on January 23, 1943 to coincide with Churchill and Roosevelt's famous Casablanca conference.
  - Casablanca cost a reported $950,000 to make.  Not only was this a hugely expensive production for the time, but it was a full $100,000 over budget.
  - A few facts about Bogart and Casablanca....The film was a turning point in Bogey's career.  Up until this point he had mostly played heavies; Casablanca was his first romantic lead.  Like Rick, Bogart was a chess enthusiast.  The game he plays against himself in the film was an actual game he was playing by mail at the time.  Bogart was a good two inches shorter than Bergman which led to some creative camera work used to mask the difference in height.
  - More notable bits about Dooley Wilson and the character of Sam...Supposedly a musician in a Parisian cafe inspired the character of Sam, which in turn sparked the whole story of "Everybody Comes To Rick's".  Wilson was the only member of the cast who had ever actually been to Casablanca.  Wilson was a drummer, who didn't actually play the piano at all.  The character of Sam was almost turned into a woman, as Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald were all considered briefly for the role.  Sadly, Wilson was only paid about $500 a day for his role in the film.
  - The use of music in prominent in the film.  However, of all the songs performed in the movie, only "Knock On Wood" was an original composition.  Despite not being original to Casablanca, "As Time Goes By" was still ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Songs" list.
  - Casablanca is often noted as being one of the best examples of Film Noire in terms of cinematography.  The use of shadows is especially notable, as many of them take the shape of prison bars, crucifixes, and the Cross of Lorraine (the symbol of the Free French forces).  It has even been leaked that some of the shadows were actually painted on the set rather than cast by light.
  - The film is notable for the internationality of its cast and crew.  Warner Brothers claimed that no less than 34 nationalities were represented.  Many feel that the tone and emotion of the film were enhanced greatly by the presence of so many true refugees from Nazi controlled portions of Europe.
  - Although it may seem tame by today's standards, the film did meet with censorship when first released.  Besides screenings in Northern Africa by the Office of War Information, the Production Code Administration almost made the producers cut Ilsa's line "Victor Lazlo is my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris" out.  They did force the film maker's to change Renault's line, "You enjoy war!  I enjoy women!" so that he said "like" instead of "enjoy" to tone down his sexual exploitations.
  - Screenings of Casablanca on college campuses during exams is an American tradition, reportedly started at Harvard.
  - References to the film run rampant in American pop culture.  Two unmistakable examples are the titles of the films "Play it Again, Sam" and "The Usual Suspects".
Part Six - My Review
      So, what do you write about a film that has been discussed and lauded for seventy years?  Is it a timeless classic about love, loyalty, honor, and sacrifice or the greatest piece of corn-pone pro-war propoganda ever visited upon the American public?  Well, the answer is yes...and yes.  It is all of those things and more.
     It is, first and foremost, a classic story of love and sacrifice, almost biblical in the way that it is layed out.  Lazlo is the Christ-like figure.  He has sacrificed everything: his safety, his freedom, and the purpose of his life to the cause of inspiring others to rise up and fight the Nazis.  The only sacrifice he will not make is leaving behind the woman that he loves.  Ilsa is his inspiration and the thing that keeps him going.
     In turn, Lazlo's example of ultimate sacrifice inspires others to sacrifice for the greater good as well.  His ability to inspire is demonstrated most dramatically and obviously in the scene where he leads all the patrons of Rick's in song.  You can see in the faces of everyone joining in all the pain, fear, and uncertainty of living in a world turned upside down fade away to be replaced by a greater sense of pride and purpose.  It is a very powerful moment in the film.  However, this man's greater power is in how he impactss and inspires individuals from Ilsa, to Rick, to Renault.  Rick has every reason to despise the man, yet it is not just Ilsa that leads him to break precedent and have a drink with the couple.
     Is the film a little corny?  Well, yes, but only in the best tradition of the time.  The dialogue is fantastic, but when every other line is a zinger, it does stretch believability a bit.  No city has ever been populated by that many people who are that witty that much of the time.  Yet the wordplay at work here is part of the genius of the film as well, and a big part of what makes multiple viewings so rewarding,  It seems that one can never run out of clever quips to discover that go by too quickly to catch them all the first time.
     Of course, one cannot discuss Casablanca without raving a bit about the fantastic cast, maybe one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled.  Henreid, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Wilson are all spectacular.  S.Z. Sakall is easy to overlook as the waiter Carl, but he adds so much to the proceedings with very little screen time.  I'm sure some people would disagree with me, but the one weaker link in the chain is Bergman who can be a little muggy and melodramatic in places.  Bogart, and especially Rains are simply brilliant.  They have the most dramatic character arcs and change the most throughout the course of the film, and it is all handled so believably.  Every character is a fully realized human, with strengths and flaws that the viewer can fully relate to.  Even the modern viewer.
     Upon this most recent viewing (my fifth or sixth), it strikes me how central friendship is to the story of Casablanca, particularly that of Rick and Renault.  Rick ends the film talking about the friendship "beginning", but it seems that it is place from the start.  The two alternately meddle in each other's lives and look the other way for each other the way that old friends who value each other tend to do throughout the picture,  It is this mutual admiration upon which the film's end hinges, totally changing the outcome of the final scene.  It is only then, when both men have all cards out on the table, that they are able to acknowledge this.
     If you have never seen the film, you are woefully lacking in your knowledge of cinematic history.  Correct yourself right now.  If it has been a while, give it another look.  I find something different each time.  Of course I give this film 5 of 5*.  It is one of the great staples of the medium.

     And it is done.  Number one in the Classic Cinema Series finally in the can.  Next time out we stick to this time period with the film that many hold up as the yardstick to measure all great cinema by, created by one of the classic auteurs.  Hopefully I will be a little prompter now that I've gotten my feet wet (so to speak).


Related posts:  Classic Cinema Series - Preview

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