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

What people watched at the cinema in world war two.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Image via Wikipedia

As shown in my post on cinema-going in wartime despite the potential threat to life and limb people needed to occupy themselves and people flocked to the cinema. According to Kinematograph Weekly’s annual round ups (Table 1) the most popular films at the British box office were often melodramas and part of the counter-narrative. Few of the critically acclaimed films such as Millions Like Us appear in the listing with only This Happy Breed featuring.

Although it doesn’t appear on the Kinematograph Weekly’s list, the most popular film released in the UK during World War Two was Gone with the Wind which showed continuously between April 1940 and D-Day. It remains the most successful film of all time at the British Box Office[1] (BFI 2004). The Wicked Lady is often considered a wartime film despite featuring in the list in 1946. It was produced during the war and was the most successful of the Gainsborough melodramas.

Year Biggest Winner(s) Best British film
1940 Rebecca Convoy
1941 49th Parallel 49th Parallel
1942 Mrs Miniver The First if the Few
1943 In Which We Serve,Casablanca, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Hello Frisco Hello, The Black Swan, The Man in Grey In Which We Serve
1944 For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Happy Breed, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, This Is the Army, Jane Eyre, The Story of Dr. Wassell, Cover Girl, White Cliffs of Dover, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, The Sullivans, Fanny by Gaslight This Happy Breed
1945 The Seventh Veil The Seventh Veil
1946 The Wicked Lady The Wicked Lady

Table 1: British Box Office Information, 1940 – 1950[2] (Lant 1991, 231-233)

The Seventh Veil
Image via Wikipedia

It is clear a large number of the most popular films  were American and the idea that American films could be the films consumed in Britain was something to be feared during the pre-war years

Of all people they [Americans] are closest to ourselves in mind and spirit. But to allow these cousins of ours to put a stranglehold on this fundamental power of national expression, which is the British cinema, is carrying blood-relationship a trifle too far.

Editorial essay  1937

The reasons for the appeal of American films included in large part the perceived glamour. Something that the films produced by Gainsborough Pictures began to address. They signified an increase in escapism. The importance of glamour in British wartime cinema will be explored in later posts.


[1] This is in terms of tickets sold.

[2] Due to the lack of British Cinema statistics this table is taken from Kinematograph Weekly’s  annual survey, compiled by R.H. “Josh” Billings and collated in Antonia Lant’s Book Blackout

References

BFI. 2004. The Ultimate Film, 4/9/2006 2004 [cited 03/07/2010 ]. Available from http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/ultimatefilm/.

Editorial essay. 1937. World Film News (No. 8):5.

Lant, Antonia. 1991. Blackout : reinventing women for wartime British cinema. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.