My daughter is taking a film studies class in school right now. The teacher has put together a pretty credible syllabus of classic American films from the 1930s through the 1980s. The sort of stuff that you would assume everyone has seen, but even the movies from the 1980s are the “distant past” for teenagers born after 2000, so most of the films are ones that she had never even heard of, never mind actually watched. She was pleasantly surprised at how much she enjoyed “It Happened One Night”, which is testament to the timeless qualities of some sorts of movies. So, when she told us the other day that the next film on their list was “Casablanca”, I was very excited.
Even though “Citizen Kane” (which they also watched) is the traditional Number One choice on every imaginable list of “Greatest Films of All Time”, “Casablanca” is without a doubt my most favorite Golden Age Hollywood film and I feel like it probably represents the high-water mark of studio B-pictures. It won’t ever displace “Citizen Kane” on those lists, but it deserves to be right up there with it. When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, I had the opportunity to lecture on “Casablanca” and I’ll bet I watched it ten times just for that class. I also had to grade about 120 papers about it, and by the end of the semester I was indeed a bit sick of it, but that was nearly 30 years ago now and it wasn’t a lasting fatigue.
Anyway, the surest way to guarantee that my daughter will NOT do something is to give it to her as a homework assignment. It’s like you’ve immediately turned whatever the task was into the most distasteful, loathsome, unpleasant thing in the world, and she will go to great lengths to avoid, delay, procrastinate, and outright ignore doing it. While she had to watch the other films in class, she missed “Casablanca” the day they screened it in school due to a doctor’s appointment, so her teacher told her she should watch it at home. Big mistake. Because now the Best Movie Ever is like anathema to her.
Finally, after dinner last night, I just started searching for the movie online, and after a couple of dead ends found it available on YouTube as a rental. Actually, I believe I have a DVD copy, but online is easier and the HD version on YouTube looked better than any other version I have ever seen. I managed to get her to watch it up to the point where Rick has his flashback to their time in Paris, maybe halfway through a movie that is only an hour and a half in the first place. Even then, she paid more attention to her phone than the movie and kept asking who was who. I watched the rest of the film by myself, crying through the “Marseillaise” scene as I always do, and marveling as always at how beautiful Ingrid Bergman was.
While the love triangle between Ilsa, Rick and Laszlo is the part of the movie that resonates with most people, as Rick says at the end “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. Rick’s realization that the things Laszlo is fighting for are more important than lost loves, and that he personally owes a responsibility to take a side rather than remain a neutral, passive outsider is the real core of the film’s story. One tiny detail I never noticed before is that when Rick is alone in the bar with Sam, trying to drown his sorrows in booze, he quickly mentions that it’s December, 1941 in the story. I’m sure anyone watching this movie in 1942 understood immediately. Rick stands in for the United States, which entered the war in December of 1941, forced to choose a side rather than stand by self-interestedly. He makes his choice clear in the “Marseillaise” scene, when Laszlo tells the band to play the anthem and Rick nods his head to the bandleader. Of course, his mirror character, Captain Renault, more notably makes the same choice at the end of the film when he throws away the bottle of Vichy water, but we are meant to identify with Rick.
I thought about this in the context of today’s world and the resurgence of Fascism everywhere. In 1942, the sides were clearly defined, the stakes immediately identifiable. Today the Fascists are on the rise everywhere, even in America. What would Rick Blaine do now? It feels wrong to say that he would stick to his own business, but that’s the choice that people are making in this country in the face of looming right-wing peril. America in 1941 would not make the choice until the country had been directly attacked, not just because fighting Nazis was the right thing to do, but this time Americans themselves are the bad guys. What, I wonder, can possibly push us to save the world.
I wish that my child had not decided to put a wall between herself and the enjoyment of this movie, because I think those questions are the ones that face her generation most directly.