Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca never seems to date. Watching this at the BFI the audience was totally absorbed and clapped at the end, although I am sure most had seen it before. I ought to declare that this film has been amongst my favourites for at least 20 years and I don’t see it leaving that list any time soon. It may well have been a large reason for my choice of dissertation topic – “A Kiss is Still a Kiss: Women and Romance in British Cinema during World War Two” (I know it isn’t British but believe me it was why I chose it).

A film that has influenced filmmakers from the Marx Brothers (A Night in Casablanca (1946)) to Woody Allen (Play it Again Sam (1972)) and has provided possibly some of the most famous movie quotes (or misquotes) of modern times it is unsurprising that its 70th anniversary is being marked around the world but if you haven’t seen it then why should you? “Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” – New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (My favourite film critics name) upon its release.

This film has it all. Glamour, adventure and buckets of romance all offering a clear wartime message. They really don’t make them like this any more. It is based on a play Everybody Come’s to Rick’s which was written by Murray Burnett, a New York high school teacher and Joan Alison, a socialite. Burnett was inspired to write it after a visit to Europe before 1939 during which he saw a black pianist in a bar called La Belle Aurore entertaining refugees from across Europe on their way to Casablanca. (Lebo, H. 1992). Warner Brothers turned the play into Casablanca, keeping many of the themes and the central character of Rick Blaine. Originally it was planned to be released in summer 1943 but as rumours of a US landing in North Africa, specifically Casablanca, started circulating the studio sped up release and the film’s premier was on 26th November 1942. 19 days after the Allies landed in North Africa. The film was a patriotic masterpiece.

Of particular interest to me is the fact this film epitomises the change in the portrayal of romance in both British and American films. During the pre-war years screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940) and It Happened One Night (1934) were the typical romantic stories. Strong women meeting with men and ending up together (not unlike some modern romcoms). However the wartime message is one of sacrifice to be made for the greater good or as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) puts it “… The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Underlying the entire plot is the suggestion that without Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) Victor Laszlo won’t be able to do his work to subvert the Germans and he is vital to the resistance across Europe. The message is clear. Now is not a time for romance, it is a time for putting the war effort first. Indulging in romantic fantasy was selfish and un-patriotic and Casablanca was a reminder that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, as much part of the official narrative as films such as A Yank in the RAF (1941).

Throughout the film modern audiences are amazed at the themes discussed. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and there are many references to the Gestapo and German brutality. One can only imagine the effect the scene where Laszlo instructs the band to play La Marseillaise as the Germans are singing had on rousing contemporary audiences.

There is humour, not least in the pickpocket and general corruption and there is glamour. Largely brought to the screen by Ingrid Bergman. She is shot like a star. Often dressing in white (as is Bogart) so she literally seems to glow on the screen while all around her are dressed in duller colours. Her hats are something else, allowing her to look out from under them. In fact Bergman’s part is all about the glances and lingering looks. The eyes have it.

Music also plays an important role. Dooley Wilson plays Sam who provides most of the music as well as being Rick’s one true friend. The previously mentioned playing of La Marseillaise is one of the more powerful scenes in the film but As Time Goes By is the signature tune. Its lyrics* contain the essence of the story being played out on screen. The message is that love continues, even with a background of war. A reassurance, perhaps, that love will endure whilst the audience focuses on the war effort.

“And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.”

If you get the chance to see Casablanca then do. It may well start a love affair that lasts As Time Goes By (Sorry couldn’t resist).

Crowther, B. (1942) Casablanca (1942), New York Times Retrieved 19/2/2012 http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C06E1DF1039E33BBC4F51DFB7678389659EDE

Lebo, H. (1992) Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster

*Lyrics to As Time Goes By:

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
© 1931 Warner Bros. Music Corporation, ASCAP

500 Days of Summer (2009)

A romance that starts with the words “You should know upfront this is not a love story.” is bound to be interesting and one that also turns the typical romantic gender roles on their head is just excellent. I could watch this film over and over and never fail to see new things in it.

I have watched (and studied) a lot of romantic films both rom-coms and love stories and this is one of the most interesting (and realistic). It isn’t simply – boy meets girl, something goes wrong, inconvenient partner, misunderstanding, moment of realisation and reunion/happy ending. In most romances the girl is lovely and the men questionable but this reminds us that for every bastard there is a bitch. Unfortunately a lot of bastards meet nice girls and a lot of bitches meet nice boys. It also makes us wonder if some* of our bitches and bastards are only bitches and bastards because they aren’t right for us.

Not only turning the conventions of romantic comedies on their heads 500 Days of Summer also takes a non-linear approach to the narrative. It begins with the couple already at the end of their 500 days and jumps around the relationship. There are great sequences including when Tom  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dances down the street to You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates surrounded by dancers and even cartoon birds, taking a rom-com convention and escalating it (and including a great blink and you’ll miss it Star Wars reference – who doesn’t feel like a hero after a great date?). Another good sequence  is when Tom goes to Summer’s  (Zooey Deschanel) apartment with high expectations and the screen splits into two showing the expectations and the reality (to a background of Hero by Regina Spektor), an experience most people have felt and well represented here especially how it ends with a freeze frame turning into a black and white sketch and eventually fading to grey. There is also a great scene in the cinema which encapsulates how when you are heartbroken everything seems to be about you and your heartbreak.

It another break with romance rules is that it is Tom not Summer seen turning to his friends to ask their advice and unlike typical rom-coms where the women encourage the fantasy his friends add some realism. In one scene he says “It could have happened in a world where good things happen.” To which his friend replies “Well, that’s not really where we live.” His younger sister Rachel (Chloe Grace Moretz) also provides some great lines and realism getting him to remember  the bad stuff not just the good stuff. Tom is the romantic, sure that fate will bring him the prefect partner whilst Summer is the one who doesn’t believe, who lives in the now. In the end though it is Summer who shows that in fact fate can have a lot to do with it.

I have no idea why Summer  is motivated to behave in quite the way she does but then anyone who has been in love with someone (male or female) who is slightly absent like Summer is to Tom will relate to his mysticism over why she does what she does and denial that it will never change. There is a reminder from a girl he goes on a date with when she asks him “She told you up front that she didn’t want a boyfriend?” that sometimes us romantics can get a little carried away in the romance and ignore the reality. It’s the “He’s Just Not That Into You” thing …

Zooey Deschanel is believable as kooky Summer and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom just the right side of emotional. You don’t wonder why they would have fallen in love but they aren’t quite right together. The fact they are very good friends in real life belies the fact that maybe that is all they were.

The only criticism I have for this film is that maybe the feelings of despair Tom no doubt feels aren’t quite as well depicted as the feelings of unrequited love and highs of requited love are but then who goes to watch a romantic comedy to feel depressed? It just wouldn’t quite chime with the feeling of the film.

I would recommend this to anyone. Especially if they have had their heartbroken. I think despite the non-conventional narrative this film will make most people feel happy when they leave which is generally the main requirement of a romance!

This is only vaguely related to the film but it is FUN:

This is the trailer:

*Some people are just bastards / bitches …