CASABLANCA (Michael Curtiz)
How different movie history would be if CASABLANCA had starred Ronald Reagan, as an early press release from Warner Brothers had indicated. And how much duller. As it turned out however, this above average wartime drama of patriotism and romance just got better and better as it developed. Out went Reagan and in came Bogart. Around him was assembled one of the most impressive casts in the history of the studio. A certain song was added and an A-list director signed on. The sum of these parts equaled movie magic.
Thirty years after its release, lest we had forgotten, Woody Allen jogged our memories of CASABLANCA with his hit play and subsequent film adaptation, PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM (1972). CASABLANCA is now firmly established as one of those movies that everybody is supposed to see. And why not?
Like another Humphrey Bogart movie, THE MALTESE FALCON, just the year before, CASABLANCA has the perfect cast. The leads, Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid blend together beautifully. But it is the supporting cast that provides the fuel that propels this vintage classic. In scene after scene, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio and a host of others (many who had become emigres from occupied Europe themselves) do what they do best, making good dialogue even better, erasing the idea that anyone else could inhabit those roles.
And let’s not overlook Bogart’s contribution. In 1942, Bogey was relatively new to stardom, but not to his craft, after playing in mostly supporting roles for over a decade. In CASABLANCA, the role of Rick required him to hold a lot in. There was an air of mystery around Rick and it was nobody’s business why. But when “of all the gin joints in the world, she has to walk into mine”, the mystery is revealed. Bogart’s anguish in that scene and his insistent plea to “Play it, Sam” is really one of the great performances on film, sometimes lost in the blur of over-familiarity.
And once again the name of Michael Curtiz appears in connection to a memorable film. William Wyler had originally been considered to direct CASABLANCA, but had other commitments. Would it have been all that much better? Seeing the film today, Curtiz just seems to have been the right man for the job. Andrew Sarris has said that CASABLANCA is one of the great exceptions to the auteur theory. And while Curtiz may remain under-appreciated by cinephiles and unknown to the general public, at least CASABLANCA got him an Oscar, just as he had helped guide so many others to theirs.
THE PALM BEACH STORY (Preston Sturges)
The finest of the Preston Sturges masterpieces, and that’s saying plenty, Jack. Perfection is not a word one should regularly bandy about. But with THE PALM BEACH STORY, I find it hard to resist. When I do the usual breakdowns and examinations of what makes certain films so great………I can’t find anything to even quibble about.
Made in the middle of Sturges’ furious five-year, seven-picture frenzy of creativity, THE PALM BEACH STORY is a wonder. You can study screenplay construction, come up with a unique story concept, follow the rules of what defines a rom-com, write sparkling, snappy dialogue, include some stinging satire, and assemble a bevy of supporting characters (all of whom have their individual moments while never distracting from the narrative). And you will still never equal the…..well, perfection of THE PALM BEACH STORY.
Watching veterans Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert deliver their scintillating back-and-forth lines, one has to assume that they worshiped the ground Sturges walked on. For an actor, reading the dialogue from a Sturges script is feeling like you have been blessed by the cinema gods.
As much as Sturges seems to fit into the “Hollywood style” of film-making, he was anything but conventional. A closer look at his concepts as well as his approach, and you can see him breaking traditions and writing his own rules. His guide seems to be his instincts. And for a relatively brief time in cinema history, he made his mark. His films also made money. How could they not? And so for that same brief stretch, Paramount was happy. It’s astonishing to learn that Sturges nevertheless had occasional conflicts with producers. It’s that same old story of an artist too good for the people around him.
In later years, things would get dicey for Preston Sturges; an ill-advised partnership with Howard Hughes, some bad investments, heavy drinking. But that’s another story.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Ernst Lubitsch)
In 1942, Adolf Hitler was no laughing matter. Even Chaplin, after learning of the horrors of the Nazi regime, was having second thoughts about his portrayal of the tyrant in THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940). But for Ernst Lubitsch, among the greatest of Hitler’s faults was his bad manners. And that made him fair game to be skewered by the greatest weapons at Lubitsch’s disposal —— humor and satire. Lubitsch was undeterred by the somber mood of the times, and created a stinging and hilarious comedy in his inimitable style. Only Lubitsch could combine political satire with a sophisticated marital comedy and get away with it.
In another stroke of genius, Jack Benny was employed to play the hapless thespian husband, urged on to become a spy for the Allies. Benny could not have been an obvious choice. His main claim to fame was on radio (later transitioning to television). A movie star he was not. But Lubitsch and the powers-that-were must have noticed that whenever Benny did drop into the movies, he was a natural. Perhaps they saw him as the master of ceremonies in M-G-M’s THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, or the independent THE MEDICINE MAN (1930) from Tiffany Studios. Benny displays such a natural presence that one has to wonder what future he might have had as a movie comic, if radio hadn’t claimed him.
And Carole Lombard (tragically, in her last film) is at the peak of her beauty and sense of comic timing. In her career, Lombard could effortlessly glide between comedy and drama.
HOLIDAY INN (Mark Sandrich)
5 reasons why HOLIDAY INN is the best Christmas movie ever (or at least one of them):
1. It’s the movie that the song, “White Christmas” came from originally. 2. It has a whole score full of other new songs by Irving Berlin as well, which were released at the time in an album of 78 rpm records, which I found and bought at an old bookstore, with only one of the records missing. 3. It’s in glorious black-and-white. 4. It has both Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in it, which means that sometimes they’re in the same scene! 5. It doesn’t just have Christmas scenes in it. It covers other holidays, too like the 4th of July, Valentine’s Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, New Year’s, etc. These are BONUSES!
You see, Bing and Fred are a song and dance team, and Fred gets Bing’s girl, so Bing decides to quit show biz and buy a farm in Connecticut. He finds out that he’s not really cut out for that life, so he’s persuaded to turn the farm into a night club that’s only open on holidays. The inn is a big success and musical merriment follows. There are also romantic entanglements, and eventually Bing sings “White Christmas”. There you have it.
And now a word about……….
There really must be at least a mention of all the other classic holiday movies that I love, such as A CHRISTMAS CAROL (both the 1938 M-G-M version and the 1951 British film featuring Alastair Sim, the best Scrooge ever). Then there’s Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), and the ever-wonderful A CHRISTMAS STORY from 1983. BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958) is not really a Christmas movie, but it takes place during the holidays and has a great recreation on a studio back lot of a snowy Manhattan. It also features Ernie Kovacs and an early Jack Lemmon. Not only that, you get James Stewart and Kim Novak from the same year as their pairing in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO! The cinema gods work in mysterious ways. And see 1940 in this site for another film where Christmas is featured prominently, in REMEMBER THE NIGHT.