Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
#2 on AFI Top Songs for “As Time Goes By”
National Film Registry

It is a feature hailed as perhaps the finest in American motion picture history. Renowned for its script, consisting of a fine mix of suspense, romance, humor, intrigue, and a wonderful cast Casablanca is a commonly referred to focal point in Hollywood cinema. It release was a near direct result of the major war events of 1941 and 1942. Originally thought to be an average picture produced by Warner Bros. at that time, it would live on as beloved love story and cinematic treasure for generations, with some going so far as referring to it as a “perfect film.”

Casablanca is a romantic drama of a cynical American expatriate whose life in during this World War II period is complicated when an old lover walks through the doors of his establishment. In Casablanca is a Moroccan city where many refugees from various European countries sojourn to in hopes of travel to then neutral America. In this city sits a nightclub and backdoor casino owned by Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a jaded American with no ties to either side of World War II. When Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the woman who profoundly scarred his heart by mysteriously leaving him in Paris at the onset of war happens into his business, Rick’s emotions begin to trouble him. Torn between helping her husband Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), a renowned escapee and resistance leader, shunning her, or running away with her himself becomes the emotional struggle he must fight within himself in a land influenced by French and German officers.

Rick’s relationship with a local French Captain Renault (Claude Rains) who controls the local police allows this fugitive refugee to escape with the woman he cares about more than anything for the hope of bringing down the German control that has made Europe a hive of evil. Rick, a man that had remained strictly neutral during his time in Casablanca, sacrifices his own possible happiness and a future Ilsa for the cause to aid a man to continue his fight to end the war in Europe and Ilsa’s own safety and future with that man. It is a poetic ending as Rick walks off with his rival/friend Renault knowing that both will continue within this war.

The feature consists of a glorious harmony of drama, suspense, romance, action, and comedy. With numerous memorable lines, a cast of colorful characters, a smooth flow of the plot, the happiness and sadness, the tale of love, loss, and nobility, this motion picture appears to have so much right with a movie that appears so very simple. Nothing within the production seems flashy. The cast are all renowned actors, but it is the characters that stand out beyond the stars and their performances. Many film historians may discuss it, and it is hard to dispute it, but Casablanca may be a perfect motion picture and one of the most beloved films ever to come out of Hollywood’s factory-like studio system.
With its origins in a then unproduced play entitled “Everyone Goes to Rick’s,” it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II that made the story shoot to the top of the list on the tables of producers at Warner Bros. In a way it was fast tracked to hit American markets to bank off the immediacy of the war. Furthermore the film originally set to release in theaters starting in January of 1943 was pushed up two months with the news of Allied Forces invading North Africa. Warner Bros. made sure the picture capitalized on this headlining news by premiering the film two weeks after the news of this invasion hit the American newsstands. All this was done to pad the Warner Bros. pocket book, never once with producers thinking they were assembling one of the industry’s more celebrated motion pictures.

The result of the motion picture was one the highest grossing pictures of 1943, when the film went into wide release, garnering critical approval nearly across the board. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the feature walked away with three, for screenplay, Michael Curtiz and Best Director, and the biggest prize of Best Picture.

The Best Picture award would however become a moment of great drama for Warner Bros. as the film’s producer and strongest advocate from its initial stages, Hal B. Wallis, was cut off by studio head Jack Warner at the ceremony. Warner accepted the award taking all for the glory despite having little faith in the project and never working on any aspect of the film other than his studio’s name being on it. All this happened much to the chagrin of Wallis who would never forgive Warner  for being stealing all the glory as Wallis would leave the studio shortly after this event.

The feature, although a success financially and critically, was nothing monumental at the time of its initial release, thought to only be a picture that would eventually fade into the library of Warner Bros. Despite having a remarkable cast, including Bogart and Bergman in iconic roles, the great Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and a supporting cast with names like Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, all the studio was looking to achieve was a fair profit on investment and nothing further. The film did win its awards, but from that point history and the studio moved on.

It was the new generation of university film programs and libraries that brought the feature a brand new level of admiration. With the addition of being one of the most played motion pictures during the first few decades of the television Casablanca rose in exposure, popularity, and appreciation as it became viewed and studied by new generations of audiences. It was from these fresh eyes would were viewing a a later stage in evolution in cinema who were able to look back on the feature, evaluate it closely over and over again, and considered it as one of the finest films ever to come out of Hollywood.

Humphry Bogart shines in his first romantic role, stepping beyond his usual tough guy persona. Having already been considered a star, his performance as Rick would be a timeless mark on his career with new levels of demension. Swedish born actress Ingrid Bergman gives the performance her career would be best known for. With the aid of director Michael Curtiz she literally glows on the screen and is most commonly filmed from her left side, which she considered to be her best angle. Paul Henreid also appears as a headliner coming off his acclaimed performance in Now, Voyager with Bette Davis, making 1942 a key year in his initial stages of his Hollywood career.

The film’s supporting cast is a veritable gathering of prestigious actors within the industry. Claude Rains portrays the playful rival to Rick as Captain Renault, to whom Bogart utters the famous closing words “…this the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Also featured are veteran actor and German defector Conrad Veidt depicting a Nazi officer, a role he chose in his efforts to demonize the Nazi’s of his homeland. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre add a bit of European mystery and danger to the story as characters that both work with and against Rick though there limited time in the feature.

As a result of World War II Casablanca was produced near entirely with the Warner Bros. lot using recycled sets from other features. Only one scene was shot off lot at the nearby Van Nuys airport for a day scene. The night field scene was shot in a soundstage due to wartime black out rules for all airfields. A commonly shared story about the production of this scene was the use of a small cutout for the airplane in the background to make the plane appear further away, and the masking of its size with the use of little people as extras to aid in its appearance of scale, further obscured by use of heavy fog. It remains one the all-time classic scenes in motion picture history, but also one of the more legendary for its quirky production design in dressing the set.

As a Hollywood treasure Casablanca one of the most improperly remembered features as well. Scenes and lines remain utterly memorable to many viewers, but in many cases are not recalled properly in the minds of some that may recall the feature. Curtiz’s camerawork remains rather simple throughout the movie, but many might recall in their minds a vision far grander than when they revisit the picture. Many lines in most cases are commonly misquoted.

Such is the case with Ilsa requesting Sam, Rick’s long time piano player, to play “As Time Goes By” for her. Many may recall the line as “play it again, Sam” when in actuality she requests “play it once more, Sam, play As Time Goes By.” My belief is that the film is so well enjoyed that viewers want to remember the emotions they experienced when they originally saw the film that the details become a bit “fuzzy,” manipulating the memory just slightly. None of this really matters, as the true case here manifests just how well the film is beloved by audiences that it leaves an emotional impression on them that they want to remember beyond the actual details of what it looked like or what was actually said.

Casablanca to many film coinsures, critics, and historians has been praised for its wonderful mix of script, performance, and production, long been considered by many as one of the best, if not the best ever feature film to come out of Hollywood. This is evident as the picture as recognized within the inaugural class of films elected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as one of the most culturally and historical motion pictures in American history. Time has not worn down the enjoyment of the feature a single bit. In fact it appears to get finer with age.

It is a feature that may be duplicated as it was a product of perfect time and place with its production. For years there is a legend that in the 1980s a screenwriter took the script of Casablanca and merely changed the names of the characters and shopped it around Hollywood to see what kind of reaction it would receive. Studio and producers turned down the script with most not recognizing its true origin, deeming the story to slow, unbelievable, sappy, or lacking action. This story, though very possibly exaggerated, manifests how a change in moviemaking styles through the ages may not be able to accommodate of feature of this style with contemporary major motion picture processes. Casablanca is one for the ages.

It remains a prerequisite to anyone who calls themselves a movie lover to watch and digest its beautiful production. Casablanca has been and will for the unforeseeable future ever be one motion picture held in the highest esteem.

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