Casablanca (1942):  “No one ever loved me that much.”

Casablanca made Bogart; Bogart made Casablanca.”

Bogart, A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax

December, 1941.  Casablanca, Morocco. 

It’s a night like any other at Rick’s Café Américain.  Every table is filled with broke couples, wealthy couples, bank managers, pickpockets, pastry chefs, and thieves. 

As World War II rages on in Europe, those who can make their way to Vichy French-controlled Casablanca, where they hope to obtain passage to Lisbon and then America.

Some will wait for days, some will wait for years.

Some will die in Casablanca.

Rick Blaine, (Humphrey Bogart) the café’s mysterious American exile owner, provides liquor and gambling and music while they wait.

Nobody’s happy, but at least they’re having a good time.

Rick keeps everyone at arm’s length, a cynic who treats his employees and customers decently, doesn’t kowtow to anyone, and “sticks his neck out for nobody.” 

Until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks in and asks Sam to play, “As Time Goes By.”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

She’s the woman who broke Rick’s heart, the lover who left him waiting at a train station the day the Germans marched into Paris.  The Germans wore gray.

Ilsa wore blue.

She’s on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the tireless leader of the underground resistance who inspired the world when he escaped from a concentration camp and will continue his work despite great personal danger.

And thus the stage is set for the greatest love triangle in Hollywood history—Ilsa Lund, torn between a sinner and a saint.

Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart

A cruel twist of fate forced Isla from Rick in Paris—she learned her husband, the great Victor Laszlo, was alive, not killed in a concentration camp as she’d believed.  It’s an ever crueler twist that brings them back together—Rick possess the only two letters of transit in Casablanca, papers that would give the Laszlos passage to Lisbon, ensuring their safety and the continuance of Victor’s work.

There’s a less famous moment in the film that I love, a gesture so small you’ll miss it if you blink.  Victor tells Ilsa that Rick would not give him the letters of transit, not for the cause, and not for any price.

“Did he give you any reason?” Ilsa asks him.

“He suggested I ask you.”

“Ask me?”

“Yes, he said ask your wife.  I don’t know why he said that.”

Ilsa knows why.  She turns away from Victor, puts her hand on her neck, runs it through her hair, and smiles.  It’s not even a full smile, just a flicker of one that reveals her first subconscious thought.

Victor could die or be recaptured by the Germans without those letters.  The tide of the war could change with them.  While she will eventually rage at Rick to give her the letters, threaten to shoot him over them, her first instinct was to smile.

Because Rick is so jealous that he is willing to let the world burn out of spite.

What woman wouldn’t want to be wanted that much?

She admires and respects Victor.  But with Rick it is passion and desire.

We’ll never truly know who Ilsa would’ve chosen if she’d been free of the war, free of her prior commitment to Victor.  For Rick, it’s enough to know that Ilsa hadn’t made a chump of him when she left him at the railroad station. 

He might not have her now, but they’ll always have Paris.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Casablanca exceeded everyone’s expectations, delighting wartime audiences, and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with acting nominations for Bogart and Claude Rains.  It put Ingrid Bergman on the map.  It is number 2 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American Films, and its lines dominate the AFI’s List of 100 Greatest Quotes.

Humphrey Bogart was finally a romantic leading man.

Though his professional life was at its peak, things were falling apart at home.  His relationship with wife Mayo, while always volatile, had become dangerous and began interfering with his work.

“They were poison to one another,” actress Jane Bryan said.

A failed actress, Mayo was jealous of Bogart’s career.  She believed he was having an affair with Ingrid Bergman during Casablanca (he wasn’t) and began showing up on the set, “always looking like the wrath of God,” assistant director Lee Katz said.  “In fact, looking like somebody you wish would never darken your life.”

Things were so violent at home that Bogart had to learn his lines on the set.  One night he came home to find Mayo lying in wait, and she stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife.  During another incident, she set the house on fire and nearly burned it to the ground.

She was a woman with demons, haunted by alcohol and thwarted ambitions, a full-blown alcoholic on her way to killing herself with booze.

Still, Bogart soldiered on with the marriage.

In the first half of Casablanca, a young girl, Annina, asks Rick for advice. 

“M’sieur, you are a man.  If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing in the world that she wanted and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”

“No one ever loved me that much,” Rick replies gruffly.

Rick was wrong, but it was true that no one had loved Bogart that much in 1942.

That was all about to change.

Next week, Bogart finally meets Bacall.

Anybody got a match?

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Grand Hotel (1932) title card plus shots from the film
Grand Hotel (1932) opening banner

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel (1932) film premier showing crowds outside the theater.
Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.

Grand Hotel (1932) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

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Grand Hotel (1932) title card plus shots from the film

The King of Hollywood

#4 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Clark Gable standing on a deck in Mutiny on the Bounty
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) opening banner

If you were a baseball player in the 1930’s, you wanted to play for the New York Yankees.  And if you were an actor or an actress, you wanted to work for MGM.

Both the Yankees and MGM had all the money, all the power, and most importantly, all the stars.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was the first to perfect what is now called the star system.  

In this system, the studios identified young actors and actresses with potential and signed them to long term contracts in which the studios had near total control of their career.  

MGM was looking for more than talent, more than beauty.  They were looking for blank canvases on which they could paint, raw clay that they could mold.

They wanted to make stars.

The studio managed their parts and their personal lives.  Actresses were required to always appear in public smartly dressed and in full makeup—no tabloid photographs in yoga pants with a Big Gulp.  Affairs and assorted bad behavior were covered up. Fake dates were set up to encourage the press to speculate on potential pairings.

Twitter would’ve been strictly off-limits.

Think Taylor Swift and her carefully cultivated reinventions—from curly-haired teenager singing her diary, to constantly jilted lover (did she really date all those boys?), to squad goals feminist pushing back against The Man.

Each MGM star had a designated persona—Garbo the ice queen, Jean Harlow the blonde sexpot, Jimmy Stewart the everyman.

And then you had Clark Gable.  Dubbed The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable was the finest leading man to ever grace the silver screen.  By the end of his life, he’d made more than sixty movies over nearly forty years. And if that wasn’t enough, he put his career on hold to serve in the Air Force during World War II and fly active combat missions.  Hollywood would never be the same without him.  

He was debonair, with a rakish grin and a glint in his eyes.  He oozed sex, charm, and charisma.  

All of which were on full display in the 1935 Best Picture Academy Award winner Mutiny On The Bounty.  And I couldn’t help but also notice the devilishly handsome lock of hair that is always perfectly out of place.

Another fascinating true story, Mutiny is a tale of adventure as the British Navy starts a two-year voyage to the West Indies on the HMS Bounty under the leadership of William Bligh, a brilliant but cruel captain.

Gable plays Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who enforces Bligh’s strict discipline on the sailors with compassion and good humor.

The crew, several of whom have been unwillingly pressed into service via a British Law that allows the captain to effectively kidnap British subjects and force them into the Navy, are filled with unease when Captain Bligh orders the flogging of a sailor, and insists the punishment continue even after the soldier is dead.

Captain Bligh imposes increasingly severe punishments for minor rule infractions, and the crew—Christian included—are relieved when they drop anchor in Tahiti and are granted furloughs.

After a taste of freedom, the men chafe even more beneath Captain Bligh’s thumb.

The movie’s tension increases with each unjustified punishment.  The Captain has men flogged, he orders them on dangerous unnecessary tasks, he cuts their water rations to prioritize the precious plants he is hauling as cargo.

We know the men will turn on Captain Bligh—the mutiny is in the title of the film.  The question is which straw will break Christian’s back—for the men will not mutiny without his leadership.  

When Christian finds one of Bligh’s men kicking the starved and shackled prisoners for asking for water, he’s had enough.  

In a tear of rage, he changes the fate of every man on the ship when he raises his fist in the air and bellows, “Bligh, you’ve given your last command on this ship! We’ll be men again if we hang for it!”  

And make no mistake, they will hang for it.

A British Navy Captain must be obeyed, regardless of his cruelty.

But only if he lives to tell the tale.

Christian casts Bligh and a handful of his supporters adrift on a small boat with barely enough water to survive.  It’s tantamount to murder as they are 3,500 miles from any port.

But they can never go home, and Christian knows that if Captain Bligh finds a way to survive, he and the other mutineers will indeed hang, “from the highest yardarm in the British Fleet.”

In the third and most thrilling act of the film, Bligh fights to survive so that he may one day have his vengeance, as Christian and the mutineers look for a place where Bligh and the British Navy can never find them.

If you want to find out if the King of Hollywood can outrun one of the most persistent and ruthless villains in film history, you’ll have to watch this 1935 Best Picture winner and find out for yourself.

Mutiny on the Bounty Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty