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Best Picture: CASABLANCA (1943)

Week 16 in Witney Seibold’s epic quest to watch and review every single Best Picture winner, and he has to struggle to find something original to say about Casablanca, perhaps the best movie to have ever won Best Picture. 

Christ, what do I say?

Do I mention that Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca is not only the best picture of 1943, but perhaps one of the best of all the Best Picture winners, outstripping even Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, The Godfather, and other well-known classics? Do I mention that this is the single most seminal American movie of all time, arguably beating out Citizen Kane as the best of all American movies? Do I mention that everyone instantly loves Casablanca, regardless of their age or knowledge of movie making? My challenge here is not to write about Casablanca – writing about great movies is the deepest pleasure a film journalist can have – but to say something new. And I’m not sure of I can do that. It’s all been said in film journals, reviews, retrospectives, books, essays, interviews, and ad copy. Casablanca is that one great film that lives up to every scrap of its hype. It cannot be hoisted high enough. If you haven’t seen it, turn off your computer or your smart phone immediately, and watch it in whatever form you can. There are even frequent repertory screenings of it in theaters across the country. See it. Do it. Now.

Casablanca cafe

I suppose I can repeat this story, because it speaks volumes to me: Casablanca was not intended to be the classic it has become. Michael Curtiz was not a “prestige” director, but an action guy. The stars were assembled out of usual Warner Bros. star contracts, and was merely produced, workmanlike, within the well-established studio system. The producers were merely exploiting story conceits that were popular at the time: exotic locales, wartime angst, love stories, tales of vice. Everything that went into Casablanca, including its stars, were well-worn commercial successes, and the studio was merely cranking out another one. It was just a magical, serendipitous set of circumstances that made this perfectly normal production turn into one of the greatest movies of all time.

Here’s the thing about Casablanca – and I quote a friend here: It still plays. Watching some of these early Best Picture winners, I have seen some films that feel stodgy and dated, films that reflect trends of the time more than universally great qualities. Casablanca could be shown to any modern audience member, however jaded, and they would pick up on every subtlety, every emotion, every detail, every joke. It plays. It plays like gangbusters. Claude Rains is still a flip, happy criminal. Every line he says sounds like he’s doing a crossword puzzle off the to side. Humphrey Bogart is still equal parts wounded, thick-skinned, complex, brusque, and deeply emotional. Ingrid Bergman is still beautiful and torn. Paul Henreid is still the noble, strong hero worth sacrificing a true love for. Seriously, the scene where Victor leads the bar in a chorus of La Marseillaise to drown out a German patriotic song still gives me chills. And I’ve seen this damn film a dozen times.

Do I need to relate the story? I suppose I should just to do my critical due diligence. It is World War II, and Europeans long to escape to America. A popular place to get a black market exit visa is Casablanca in Morocco, where Rick (Bogart) runs a bar, and where gambling and mild criminal activity is always abuzz; to put it into context for the sci-fi nerds, Rick’s Café Américaine was definitely the inspiration for the famous Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. A sniveling little thief named Ugarte (an indelible Peter Lorre) has just handed off some illegal – but usable – exit visas to Rick, who hides them. It’s soon thereafter that Ilsa (Bergman) enters the bar with her husband and French resistance fighter Victor (Henreid). Rick and Ilsa have a past, once having enjoyed a blissful romance in Paris. Ilsa wants the exit visas to help her revolutionary husband flees the Nazis, but Rick and Ilsa find themselves struggling to reconcile their past, and may be falling in love through it. Meanwhile, the dandyish local law (represented by Rains) alternately helps Rick and the local Nazis (represented by Conrad Veidt).

When compared to other Best Picture winners, Casablanca is relatively low-key. Sure, it deals with a real war, but this film falls in the new form of Best Picture winners which skewed away from historical epics and inter-generational War & Peace tales. It’s a new classicism at work. A classicism that would eventually be referred to as “Old Hollywood.” Casablanca has, then, essentially set the standard for how we gauge an entire decade of Hollywood product.

Frankly, it’s earned its reputation.

Join me next week for Going My Way.

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