Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #20: Casablanca

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Casablanca (released November 1942)

Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa & Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Most any film student can explain the old Hollywood studio system. Between the late 1920s and early 1960s, motion picture studios -- like MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox -- produced movies primarily on their own filmmaking lots with creative personnel (writers, directors and stars) under long-term contracts. In the peak days of the Hollywood studio system, arguably the late 1930s through the 1940s, these companies produced and distributed over 350 films a year. They were cranking out product for audiences whose alternative to radio in those pre-TV and Internet days was a trip to the local movie theater. There was far, far less emphasis on making a blockbuster that would pack houses on opening weekend. More often than not, the studios were just hoping that a solid story and some A-lists stars would produce a hit. And that was essentially the formula behind Warner Bros.' Casablanca, a product of the studio assembly line that was based very loosely on an unproduced 1940 play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's.

Casablanca is set during World War II (1939-1945), after German troops had invaded and occupied many European cities, including Paris, but just before the United States had entered the war (after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941). American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a thriving nightclub in Casablanca, a city located in the northwest African territory known at the time as French Morocco. As yet unoccupied by the Germans, Casablanca is the next-to-last stop for desperate refugees fleeing Europe. In Casablanca, luck, perseverance and money will get you a letter of transit and a plane ride to Lisbon, Portugal, which had become the great embarkation point to the Americas. The most likely place to find a shady character selling letters of transit? Rick's nightclub, of course. Cynical and aloof, Rick is expressly detached from the process. His personal philosophy is, "I stick my neck out for nobody." He says that twice in the first twenty minutes, so you know that mantra is due for some recalibration.

Enter Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). He's a renowned Nazi-resistance leader and concentration camp escapee. She's Rick's former lover -- and thanks to an extended flashback, we see their whirlwind romance unfold in Paris just weeks before the Germans marched into town. Rick makes plans for them to escape Paris by train, but Ilsa's a no-show at the station, opting instead to send Rick a note via his buddy, Sam (Dooley Wilson). Movie notes are never good news: she's not going, she can't see him again, and he must not ask why. A year and a half later, there she is with Laszlo, and bitter, brokenhearted Rick sums up her entrance with pithy precision: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." Naturally, Ilsa and Laszlo need letters of transit to Lisbon. A cabal of Nazi officers are determined to thwart their departure. And Rick is suddenly conflicted about whether or not to stick his neck out for somebody.

Casablanca is an intoxicating mixture of romance, intrigue, idealism, quotable dialogue and great performances. It's a crackling good story, shrewdly directed by Michael Curtiz -- a Hungarian immigrant who helmed a lot of great movies, like Captain Blood (1935), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and one of my all-time favorites, Mildred Pierce (1945). Curtiz received five Best Director Oscar nominations during his career, winning once for Casablanca. Austrian immigrant Max Steiner composed the impeccable musical score, but not the film's iconic song, "As Time Goes By" -- it was a ten-year-old Broadway tune that he discovered, rearranged and turned into a haunting leitmotif. Steiner scored over 300 movies, including King Kong (1933) and Gone With the Wind (1939); he was nominated for eighteen Oscars, winning three times.

One of the more fascinating things about Casablanca is the casting. Humphrey Bogart had already played plenty of tough guys, but this was his first truly romantic leading role. With his careworn face and rusty, nasal voice, he was pretty much the antithesis of Hollywood's leading men at the time. There's no real reason that pairing Bogart with the radiant Ingrid Bergman should work, but it does. "With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love," says Bergman to Bogart, striking a note of pitch perfect pathos. A lesser actress would have made Ilsa seem foolish, but Bergman's performance never lets you forget that this character is a complex, vulnerable woman navigating protracted circumstances as best she can.

More about the casting: Bogart and Dooley Wilson (the African American actor playing Rick's best friend, Sam) are the only two members of the main cast born in the United States. Bergman was born in Sweden. Claude Rains (local prefect Captain Renault) and Sydney Greenstreet (rival nightclub owner Ferrari) were born in England. Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte) were born in Austria-Hungary. Conrad Veidt (Nazi officer Major Strasser) was born in Germany. In fact, virtually all the supporting parts, minor roles and background extras were European immigrants or refugees. According to Warner Bros., thirty-four different nationalities worked on the film. Casablanca is a terrific symphony of accents.

Considering Casablanca's troubled production history - four writers essentially jettisoned the source material, writing and re-writing the script throughout the shooting -- it's a smartly paced, unified film that mixes genres with wild abandon. You could call it a wartime melodrama about some star-crossed lovers, but it's so much more -- a tale of personal integrity, selflessness and meaningful emotional sacrifice. Released roughly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and coinciding with the Allied invasion of North Africa, you can imagine Casablanca having a particular resonance with American audiences of the day. Casablanca's famous ending (and if you don't know how it ends, I'm not about to spoil it for you) has been discussed at length, but there's a particularly powerful moment earlier in the film that really stuck with me. A group of Nazi officers casually intimidate the multinational patrons of Rick's nightclub by loudly singing a German anthem, "Watch on the Rhine," that's deeply rooted in French enmity. Resistance leader Victor Laszo starts singing the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," and others follow until the Germans are entirely drowned out. In under two minutes, this superbly acted, directed and edited scene embodies everything from fear, paranoia and antipathy to defiance, patriotism and hope. It's extraordinarily stirring.

Stray Gay Observations: Before Casablanca, I'd watched a handful of Humphrey Bogart pictures, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), The African Queen (1951) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). His career was filled with hard-boiled, hard-drinking, disillusioned characters. That can be an awfully narrow range to play, but his carefully modulated performances never feel lazy or perfunctory. And although I really don't think he possessed the sheer sex appeal of some of his Hollywood contemporaries, like Errol Flynn, Cary Grant or William Holden, Bogart was brimming with personal magnetism and ineffable presence.

When asked his nationality by a Nazi officer, Rick replies, "I'm a drunkard."

Is there a gay character in Casablanca? In a 1996 review, Roger Ebert described the Claude Rains character -- charmingly corrupt French police prefect Captain Renault -- as "subtly homosexual." I admire and respect Ebert (1942-2013), arguably the most successful film critic in cinema history, but I have to respectfully disagree. Renault has an obvious fondness for Bogart's Rick, but then so does Rick's buddy and house pianist, Sam. Both, in their own ways, show a lot of compassion for Rick. I wonder what Ebert saw in Rains' performance that led him to believe the character is gay? To me, Casablanca's not-so-subtle homosexual is rival nightclub owner Signor Ferrari, played by Sydney Greenstreet. And I jumped to that conclusion because, among other things, he owns a parrot and wears white suits throughout the film. Perception is a funny thing.

Should You See It? The opening narration over a spinning eighth-grade-science-project globe is the only element that feels dated, and you'll have forgotten it anyway by the time Casablanca arrives at its bittersweet, honest denouement. There's an old Hollywood legend that Casablanca was dubbed "sophisticated hokum" by the Warner Bros. script department; they weren't making Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane. But seventy years on, time has not diminished this accidental classic of the Hollywood studio system assembly line, even though it's been badly mimicked, parodied and ripped off dozens of times since its premiere. I can't imagine myself curling up on the sofa with Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind on a rainy Sunday afternoon; Casablanca is like cinematic comfort food.

Next Week: The Way We Were (1973)

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully spoofed in Play It Again, Sam by Woody Allen. But you knew that, said John Ozed