“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on BiffBamPop! where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the horizon – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to The Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.
Something like Casablanca.
Really, if you haven’t seen this high-water mark of filmmaking, I almost envy you, because you get to see it for the first time. So what makes this 1942 black-and-white romance picture part of The Ten Percent?
So glad you asked.
First, look again at the date. Casablanca was filmed and released during World War 2 and takes place during World War 2. Keep in mind that in 1942, we didn’t know how that conflict was going to turn out, so the film doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight. When we watch Saving Private Ryan, Sophie’s Choice, Fury, or any other WW2 movie, we have the luxury of knowing that the Nazi regime was defeated. In 1942, that was up in the air – and even more so, when you consider that fact that Casablanca was filmed in 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year. Keep that in mind as you watch the wretched refuse that congregates every night at Rick’s – Europe had been at war for years; we had just barely gotten involved and the Nazi juggernaut was powerful indeed.
Second, the cast. I was lucky enough to see Casablanca on the big screen a couple of years back as part of the film’s 70th anniversary, and what they say is true – Ingrid Bergman as the mysterious Ilsa Lund is simply luminous. She’s beautiful on your home TV, but on the silver screen, she’s otherworldly. Her steely determination mixed with her anxiety about the future comes through clearly. (Some of the anxiety was probably due to the fact that the script kept being re-written, even during production.) Also, there’s a little of Humphrey Bogart’s hard-bitten Rick Blaine in every scoundrel with a heart of gold (I’m looking at you, Han Solo) who you’ve ever seen and admired. Add in Paul Henreid as the underground hero Victor Laszlo and you have a love triangle for the ages.
But the cast also includes Claude Rains as the oily Vichy police captain, Louis Renault; Peter Lorre as the weasel-like Ugarte; and Sydney Greenstreet as Rick’s nightclub competitor Ferrari. All are perfection in their roles, as are a number of denizens of Rick’s – look for the sympathetic Swede and the crazy Russian, along with a Frenchwoman driven nearly mad with despair over her lot in life and a Bulgarian girl who seeks advice (and quite possibly absolution) from Rick.
Casablanca revolves around a MacGuffin – a plot device that motivates the protagonist, but which has very little actual explanation so that it doesn’t become the focus of the overall story. (Think of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and you’re on the right track.) In the case of Casablanca, this MacGuffin is the letters of transit that everyone seeks to get their hands on since, as Ugarte boasts, they “cannot be rescinded. Not even questioned.” (Don’t let the fact that these “get out of Nazi-controlled Casablanca free” letters never existed spoil your good time, okay? Just run with it.) The letters are worth killing for, as Casablanca is all too often a dead end rather than a way station on a journey to somewhere better – just ask Yvonne.
This was Bogart’s first real romantic lead role and, while his wife was suspicious of the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman, the chemistry between the two was all acting. Off-set, the two hardly spoke. It seems that Bogart was far more interested in chess than in chasing his leading lady (that story would change two years later when he met Lauren Bacall, who is the subject of her own Ten Percent column). Bogart was a skilled chess player and played tournament level chess. It is reported that it was Bogart’s idea to have Rick play chess throughout Casablanca and the game can be viewed as a metaphor for Rick’s wary relationships throughout the film. Bogart enjoyed playing chess with cast and crew members during the shooting of Casablanca, although he was regularly beaten by Paul Henreid. (Oh, Laszlo!)
Several of the most memorable scenes in this film take place in Rick’s – after all, “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” The nightclub is an oasis of merriment in the dismal desperation that is Casablanca. Plus, these are without a doubt, the best-dressed refugees in the history of the world – Ilsa’s hat collection alone is a wonder for a woman on the run from the Nazis. While no one actually says, “Play it again, Sam” (it’s one of the most commonly misquoted lines in the history of the movies), Dooley Wilson’s rendition of “As Time Goes By” is the fateful link that brings Ilsa and Rick back together. And when the Nazis try to take over the club with their hearty German drinking songs, well – one of the most beautiful moments in filmdom occurs.
Casablanca is not a heavy-hitting drama on the lines of Schindler’s List or The Big Red One and that’s just fine. Melodramatic as it may be, you still can’t help but get caught up in the story of love, honor, and principle. Truly, Casablanca deserves its place in The Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.