Updated below. Wednesday morning. May 27, 2015.
Came across this this afternoon while I was reading Mark Harris’ generally excellent chronicle of the adventures of a group famous Hollywood directors who put aside their moviemaking careers to enlist and go film World War II, Five Came Back:
In early 1944, after two years of war, the studios, which had become ever more deeply entangled with Washington, began, first gently and then forcefully, to reclaim their autonomy and to reassert themselves as servants of popular taste rather than of the national interest. In the months after Pearl Harbor, they had been quick to meet the government’s request for pictures about battlefield bravery and home-front sacrifice. But more and more, American moviegoers were turning away from war pictures and toward other genres for entertainment---musicals, comedies, religious epics like The Song of Bernadette, historical biographies like Madame Curie---or to pictures that exploited the war not as their primary subject but as a backdrop, at once topical and exotic, for foreign adventure or intrigue. In March 1944, the Best Picture Oscar went to Casablanca, in which the war was used to provide atmosphere and raise the stakes for romance. Some in the industry expressed surprise that a mere piece of genre entertainment could sweep past films that were thought to be either more hard-hitting or more high-minded, but the win for Casablanca reflected changing tastes both within the movie business and outside it; films that dealt directly with the realities of combat or global politics went home empty-handed, and were increasingly being ignored by audiences as well.
Don’t think I’ve ever thought of Casablanca this way. Using the war as “backdrop…for foreign adventure or intrigue” and to provide “atmosphere and raise the stakes for romance”? I know no one involved in making the movie thought they were making a “high-minded” masterpiece. But Casablanca is about more than whether or not Rick and Ilsa will get back together and I’d have thought that would have been clear to everyone involved and to audiences.
The question is will Rick save his soul by doing what needs to be done to help save the world from the Nazis.
“I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Ilsa also has put what’s right ahead of her personal happiness, although for her it’s not clear those two things are actually separate.
“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
Aw, you don’t want to sit here while I type quotes at you. Click on the photo to watch the scene.
The other movies Casablanca beat out for Best Picture that year included The Song of Bernadette and Madame Curie, but also The More the Merrier, which did use the war as a backdrop for romance and comedy, and The Human Comedy, a high-minded story about home-front sacrifice with a screenplay by William Saroyan. At the time of the Oscar ceremony Saroyan was overseas working with George Stevens, the Oscar-nominated director of The More the Merrier, filming the war in Europe as members of the Army Signal Corps, the both of them preparing to take cameras ashore at Normandy in June.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
Of all the news feeds in all the Facebook pages in all the world, he has to comment on mine: Posted the link to this post on Facebook where an SU colleague, Andrew W. Cohen, left this comment:
As screenwriter Julius Epstein observed, "Casablanca," featured "more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined. But when corn works, there's nothing better." Which is another way of saying that Nazism made all the tired genre conventions of melodrama entirely fitting and powerful. Strasser really is evil. Laszlo really is good. And Rick and Elsa have truly difficult choices.
I’m shocked, shocked, that I forgot to include this first go-round: In case you missed it, here’s the link to my post from a little while back on how I showed Casablanca to my students, none of whom had seen it before: “You must remember this…”