It’s easy to answer the question “What’s your favorite film?” The answer almost seems a bit of a cliche, though.
Let’s flash back to the days before video recorders, when the only way you could catch a Hollywood classic was a rare re-release or when it aired on your local station. With commercials, naturally. By the time I was a teenager, I was well-versed in silents and samurai films thanks to our local public television station, but while I could burble happily about Orphans of the Storm (1921) or Lon Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), many of the films of the ’30s and ’40s were a cipher, seen only in stills.
Mom and I regularly attended the local fan conventions, both Star Trek/SF and nostalgia-focused. A regular feature on Saturday night was the “mystery movie,” revealed only when the credits showed up on the screen. One Saturday, Mom had said she was ready to go home, but agreed to stay until we found out what the film was. Lights went down, the Warner Bros. logo came on, along with Max Steiner’s score and a single word: Casablanca. I told Mom we could go if she wanted. She said, “No, you need to see this.”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Humphrey Bogart as Rick swears he doesn’t stick his neck out for nobody, or Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa ask Sam to play “As Time Goes By.” The story is lush and romantic, and while the poles of “good” (Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo) and “evil” (Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser) are clearly marked, there’s plenty of grey between the two. The script is filled with memorable lines and the performances top-notch, no matter how small. It’s set in a moment when the fate of the world hung in the balance. We watch as Rick struggle with the arrival of Ilsa, the woman he fell for in Paris in this corner of the world where he’s carved out a life. Worse, he discovers the secret Ilsa was hiding when he knew her: she’s married to Victor Laszlo, a leader in the resistance. She was married to Victor when she and Rick fell in love. (She thought he was dead at the time.) It’s a story of redemption, of making hard choices at personal cost because you believe them to be right. Of being willing to accept the consequences of those choices.
I love every inch of this film, and when the world seems awful, I’ll curl up on the couch and pass some time at Rick’s Cafe American, watching Claude Rains as Captain Renault tell Rick he’s willing to bet no more than 10,000 francs because “I’m only a poor corrupt official.” Or Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari, offering a suggestion, though he doesn’t understand why because “it cannot possibly profit me” as he delivers 80% of the films exposition. Hearing the call to “round up the usual suspects,” and knowing “this is the start of a beautiful friendship.” It’s a film so unique to its time and place that I don’t think it could have been made anywhere or anywhen else.
But why do I love it? As a film fan, the answer is, I simply do. I could pick nits, but Casablanca is lightning in a bottle, the sum being much bigger than the individual parts. It’s the stuff of legends, with items too good to believe that really are true. The wonderful scene where Laszlo leads the crowd at Rick’s in La Marseillaise is meant to stir the blood, and always draws cheers whenever I see the film in a theater. But it’s not just the writing or the camera work, but the expressions on the extras and bit players, such as Madeline Lebeau, who played Yvonne. With her husband, Lebeau, who was Jewish, had made the harrowing journey to Lisbon, fleeing ahead of the German army as it marched into Paris in June, 1940. They were stranded in Mexico for two months when it turned out the visas they’d purchased were forged, finally entering the US on temporary Canadian passports.
One of the most memorable moments of the La Marseillaise sequence is Yvonne, tears streaming down her face as she sings, shouting “Vive la France! Vive la démocratie!” as the song ends. Those tears aren’t glycerine or a trick of acting, but a very real emotion from Lebau and a defiant cry for her homeland. That communicates to the audience, giving the scene power. It’s just one moment among many.
Those moments are why I curl up on the couch, and pull up whatever format is currently popular just because I need to remember that, for one hundred and two minutes, we’ll always have Paris.
What’s your favorite film? Leave a comment below, then hop on over to visit Jenna Da Sie to learn her favorite film.
As a bonus, here’s Madeline Lebeau and Paul Henreid singing La Marseillaise. Here’s looking at you, kid.