Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
“Play it again, Sam.” With that misquote we are thrust into talking about 1942’s Casablanca, a film that has continued to grow in prestige over the decades. Set in 1941 in the Moroccan city of the title, the film centers on Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expatriate running a nightclub for all manners of people. To correctly quote another popular figure, “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Rick’s Cabaret is where all classes meet to buy and sell all kinds of information and objects in secret back room deals.
Rick has just gotten his hands on some needed “letters of transit”—I quoted them, because really they’re just the macguffin to hinge the action on—which his ex-lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) needs to escape Casablanca with her husband Victor (Paul Henreid) so they can continue their resistance against the Nazis. That’s the gist of the plot: a complicated threesome set against the backdrop of World War II in the largest city in Morocco. What will Ilsa choose—her feelings for Rick or her righteous husband?
Up until this film, Bogart had primarily been a character actor in supporting roles. He broke out big with the one-two punch of 1941’s High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, and cemented his star power with Casablanca a year later. It was also the first real film to make him a romantic lead. Before Casablanca, Bogart had been considered too hangdog and dour for that. But Casablanca raising him up to the romantic lead allowed so many other great character actors to fill out the rest of the film, including Claude Rains as the corrupt Captain Renault, Sydney Greenstreet as a rival club owner who also deals in contraband and information (his second film with Bogart; he also played a villainous character in The Maltese Falcon), the wonderfully expressive Peter Lorre as the instigator of the whole MacGuffin, and, of course, Dooley Wilson as the piano player Sam who was actually asked to, “Play it once, Sam, for old times’ sake” by Ilsa as she came into Rick’s looking for help. This iconic scene also propelled the song, “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, into the popular consciousness.
There’s surprisingly a fair bit of comedy in the film, but it’s all based on the characters and their actions. A great example of this is when Rick’s is being shut down for the night by the police. There’s a moment with Renault and Rick really understanding the side that must be displayed to the public versus the realities of a situation. I don’t want to say too much if you haven’t seen the film because I don’t want to ruin the moment, but it’s an amazing moment that is equal parts humorous and real.
I find it surprising from a historical perspective that Casablanca was filmed and released while the war was going on. Originally scheduled to be released in the spring of 1943, it was rushed through production to capitalize on the publicity of the Allies invading North Africa and ended up premiering on November 26, 1942. For a weird relational idea, films dealing with the Vietnam War weren’t made until ten years after we had pulled out of the country, with the majority starting to hit American popular culture almost 20 years later. So a not really—but yeah—propaganda film released in a war year is unique from a modern perspective.
I know I’ve stressed the historical aspect of this film, but I also highly recommend it as a fun film that really delivers some quality entertainment. Come for Bogey’s “rat-a-tat” style delivery, and stay for all the other amazing characters and shady dealings. You’ll laugh, you’ll be entertained, and you might even cry. And perhaps most significantly, you’ll learn the importance of the line, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
On a great note, Twin Cities geeks have a chance to see this film on the big(ish) screen this summer. Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis has been playing the films of Michael Curtiz recently, and Casablanca will be playing at the Heights on Thursday, Aug 27th at 7:30pm as part of their Trylon roadshows. For more information on showtimes, visit the Trylon Microcinema website.
If you can’t make it to the theatre this film can be found on both Blu-Ray and DVD. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s currently available via Netflix rental or streaming right now, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
Let me know if there are any films you think Throwback Thursday should cover in the future.