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Category Archives: Movies Made During WWII

Revisiting Casablanca

casa7Yesterday, I had a small family party and we watched Casablanca, partially because my cousin had not seen it before and wanted to (he said he liked it). The last time I saw Casablanca was before I developed my slightly obsessive enthusiasm for classic movies, so I was hoping to be able to see a familiar classic with new eyes. I don’t know if I quite did, but here are the four things that I took away this time.

1) There’s a lot of music in Casablanca. All movies have music, but it’s particularly noticeable and pointed. Max Steiner (he wrote the score for Gone With the Wind and King Kong), weaves in “La Marseillaise” and “Die Wacht am Rhein” throughout the entire movie score. “La Marseillaise” is the French National anthem and stands in for freedom. “Die Wacht am Rhein” is used to represent the Nazis (it’s a song about the fatherland and fighting in the Rhineland – specifically against the French). They are a call to arms and a drawing of the battle lines.

Juxtaposed with this martial music are the romantic songs that Dooley Wilson sings, especially “As Time Goes By.” Since that is the song that we really remember from the movie, the underlying message is that love will last forever and transcends war and hatred and evil. This point is made more clear when we see repeated scenes of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) falling in love in Paris (to the music of “As Time Goes By”) interspersed with scenes of the Nazis invading France to martial anthems. Rick and Ilsa may not get to be together at the end of the film, but there will always be other people who will fall in love, especially when the war is over and tyranny is defeated. “The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”

still-of-ingrid-bergman,-humphrey-bogart,-claude-rains-and-paul-henreid-in-casablanca-(1942)-large-picture2) I have a theory that it takes one to know one. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) may be a flagrantly, cheerfully corrupt official, but his clear understanding and sympathy with Rick makes me suspect that at heart, he is just as much a sentimentalist as Rick. I like to imagine that he had a romantic and quixotic past before he came to Casablanca. He’s just had more years to grow entrenched in his cynicism than Rick. At least, that’s my theory. Because at the end, he proves just as sentimental as Rick. For him to throw up everything and join the Free French is quite a step for a man who “blows with the wind.”

3) At the end of the movie, to convince Ilsa to get on the plane and leave with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Rick tells Ilsa that she must go because Victor needs her, that she is the only thing that keeps him going through all his trials, and that she would later regret having left him.

Captain Renault then comments that Rick was spinning  a fairy tale and that Ilsa knew that the things Rick said were not true (she probably wouldn’t regret staying with Rick and Laszlo is far too dedicated to his work to quit even if his wife did leave him). So why did she stay with her husband? Because Rick needed to fight and he couldn’t do that if they ran way together. Love must be sacrificed for duty, which both she and Rick recognized. It’s all a matter of timing, as Ilsa notes when they are in France, when she says they picked a terrible time to fall in love.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Casablanca)_11In the original screenplay, Rick and Ilsa were going to leave together. However, when America entered the war, the studio realized that it would be impossibly irresponsible and selfish to have two people run away together as if there were not a cataclysmic war raging across the world. So the ending was changed.

4) Although Casablanca is not the movie that turned Humphrey Bogart into a leading man (High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon did that), it is the movie that cemented his reputation both as a star and as a romantic lead. And I think Casablanca summarizes his appeal as a romantic lead. He looks like a gangster, he talks like a gangster, but as Captain Renault perceptively notes in Casablanca, beneath the cynical shell there is a sentimental man. He may look like a tough guy and talk like one, but you can instinctively feel that inside he is an idealist who has been disappointed, but can’t quite shake the idealism. He has a sensitive soul and intelligent mind. It just took the studios a while to figure it out because he does not look like a conventional leading man.

 
 

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Lifeboat (1944) – Alfred Hitchcock

225px-Lifeboat1Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s four films that he self-consciously set in a confined, limited space. The others are Rope, Dial M for Murder, and Rear Window. Lifeboat is set entirely on a lifeboat, filled with the refugees from a merchant supply ship that was torpedoed by a Nazi sub. It’s not quite a typical Hitchcock film, though. It is less about suspense, or even survival, and more a psychological drama.

Tallulah Bankhead, alone with her possessions

Tallulah Bankhead, alone with her possessions

The film opens with a shot of a Merchant Marine ship being sunk by a Nazi U-Boat. Next we see some debris in the water and a lifeboat, occupied only by one extremely well dressed lady (Tallulah Bankhead), with mink coat, diamond bracelet, luggage, cigarette and typewriter. And a video camera, which she soon loses. She is then joined by several members of the crew, a rich industrialist, a nurse, a young woman and her dead baby and a German survivor of the sub that also sank.

When they rescue the German captain of the sub (Walter Slezak), there is disagreement about whether to allow him to stay or not. The male crewmen, especially Kovac, (John Hodiak), say throw him back over. Ritterhouse, a very wealthy man (Henry Hull), believes that they cannot act as Nazis have done, even in poetic justice. The nurse, Alice (Mary Anderson), is also against throwing him over. Joe (Canada Lee), a black man from the ship, declines to get involved in the voting and Connie Porter (Bankhead) is all for allowing him to stay since he is the only real sailor they have; except the navigator, Stanley (Hume Cronyn). The vote is in favor of allowing the German to stay.

lifeboatThe woman who lost her baby jumps overboard and one of the  ship’s crewman, Gus (William Bendix), develops gangrene in his leg. The only person who knows how to operate is the Nazi, Willie, and with help, they soon remove Gus’s leg. There is also debate about which direction they should sail. Willi has a compass, but the rest of the people don’t know it. They want to get to Bermuda, but Willi is trying to manipulate the situation so they will head towards the German fleet. Eventually, they catch on to him, but there is a storm and Willi takes over, directing everyone what to do. In the morning, the sails and food and everything has been lost (including Connie’s luggage and typewriter) and Willi is now in charge by dint of his strength (everyone else is tired and he can row), his willpower, his knowledge of the sea and everyone else’s apathy and despair.

When Lifeboat was released, there was some criticism of Hitchcock about how he made Willi, the Nazi character, so much smarter than the rest of the occupants of the lifeboat and how he depicted them as squabbling and too obsessed with their own concerns to challenge Willi initially. Hitchcock defended himself by saying that he was trying to make a point that the allies need to stop fighting and pull together to defeat the Axis armies. However, I think you could argue that there is something even more going on.

Willi is fixing Connie's diamond bracelet for her and giving her advice for the lovelorn - seriously

Willi is fixing Connie’s diamond bracelet for her and giving her advice for her love life- seriously

The way that Willi takes over is because there’s a crisis and he rises to meet it (the storm), he seems to have knowledge (navigation), strength (he’s hidden away water from the rest of them so he is not weak from dehydration), he does some good (operates on Gus’ leg). It is a microcosm for how dictators like Hitler get in power in the first place during desperate times. People are too obsessed with their own concerns (there are two respective couples finding themselves attracted to each other), their hunger and dehydration and are impressed with him and they simply let him lead because he’s got a plan and his aura of superiority saps the initiative from them.

The movie is not just a microcosm for how dictators get in power, but also for how people sometimes rid themselves of tyrants: temporary insanity and mob rule. When they discover that Willi has been hiding water for himself and that he murdered Gus, they go crazy and attack him and push him over the side of the boat. It is a chilling moment, shades of a revolution.

Hitchcock manages to throw in a variety of other interest in the film, too. The story was originated by him and he worked with John Steinbeck, who ultimately was unhappy with the finished product. He felt that Joe, a black character, was too stereotypical, though the actor (Canada Lee) tried to round out the character. Joe spends most of the film not wishing to get involved in the disputes and even when he is invited (rather surprisingly) to vote, he declines. It is only at the end when he takes definite, positive action.

Gus (William Bendix) and Alice (Mary Anderson) read a newspaper with an ad featuring Alfred Hitchcock

Gus (William Bendix) and Alice (Mary Anderson) read a newspaper with an ad featuring Alfred Hitchcock

There is also shades of those kinds of stories about people from different classes and backgrounds getting stranded on a desert island, with all social trappings being stripped away and revealing people as they are. People are attracted to each other, people argue and fight. There is a surprising lack of political conviction from most of the characters, except Kovac (John Hodiak), who Connie accuses of being a “fellow traveler” (not a communist, but somebody willing to work with communists to achieve certain goals). Despite their differences, however, Connie and Kovac come together, though he doesn’t like how much she holds on to her possessions (position, what she’s made of herself). At one point Willi tells her that Kovac doesn’t like the bracelet that she keeps flaunting, that she received from her first husband who got her out of poverty.

It’s quite a fascinating film. Tallulah Bankhead is absolutely wonderful as the self-loving reporter with biting humor and a definite thing for the bare chested and tattooed Kovac. She is also, behind Willi, the smartest one on the boat and is the one to shake the group out of its torpor after killing Willi, and to get them to act in the interest of their own survival.

Walter Slezak is also good as the wily Nazi who believes utterly in his own superiority and treats the rest of them like children to be taken care of, but also as less human then he is. It really bothers him that Gus changed his name from Schmidt to Smith, for being ashamed of being German. Hume Cronyn is also very sympathetic as Stanley, the navigator, who falls in love with Alice and doesn’t want the responsibilities of leadership, though he does possess more knowledge than many people. William Bendix is the sailor who’s dating a girl named Rosie, who loves to dance, and is afraid that when he loses his leg Rosie will leave him.

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John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, Tallulah Bankhead, Hume Cronyn, Henry Hull

And Alfred Hitchcock even manages to get a cameo in the film. His original idea was to be a corpse floating in the water, but ultimately, he ends up in a weight loss ad on the back of a newspaper, showing before and after pictures of himself.

It’s not the kind of movie I will probably find myself re-watching multiple times, like some of his others, but it is extremely interesting. He takes democracy, race relations (in a small degree), social standing, fascism, mob rule and distills it in a small setting and the result is extremely provocative.

 

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2014 in Drama, Movies Made During WWII

 

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Girl Trouble (1942) – A Wartime Screwball Comedy

girl-trouble-affiche_463166_16938Hollywood has always liked stories about rich people pretending to be domestics, usually not successfully; though William Powell was an exception as an unsurpassed butler in My Man Godfrey. There is often overcooked toast involved in these kinds of tales. Merrily We Live (Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne) and If Only You Could Cook (Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur) are also lesser known entries into this genre. However, what all three movies have in common is that it is the man who is pretending to be a domestic when he is, in reality, quite wealthy.

Girl Trouble takes a different tack, in that the domestic is a woman and she’s no longer rich. Without being a war propaganda film, the movie is firmly set during WWII and much of what the characters are doing are the result of the war. There is June Delaney (Joan Bennett) who has lost all her fortune because, for some reason, she can no longer get her money out of London (presumably due to the war). There is also the South American playboy, Pedro Sullivan (Don Ameche), who has come to America to negotiate a loan for his father’s rubber plantation so that they can start selling rubber to the Americans. It is a loan that the US government very much wants, partly because they are in desperate need of rubber and partly to cement good relations with South America – both rubber and South American relations really being genuine concerns of the US at that time.

And then there is Mrs. Rowland (Billie Burke), who is the ultimate in fluttery women, always organizing charities (usually for the war effort) and red cross meetings. And June seems to have an awful lot of spoiled, rich friends (some in uniform) who go from home to home, participating in these meetings. Even the fluttery and spoiled must help the war effort.

1407210366_3Because June is now broke, she must rent out her apartment and Pedro Sullivan (his name is explained by the fact that his father came from America) must stay in New York for a while, so he rents her apartment and mistakes her for the maid because she is dressed like a maid and running the vacuum. June’s friend Helen (Helene Reynolds) thinks it’s all very funny and is glad that June will no longer be in competition for the men now that she is poor. However, when Pedro asks June to stay on as his maid, June says yes and she has the advantage over her friend in that, though he thinks she’s the maid, it allows her to be on the spot where he is most of the time.

Joan Bennett is by far the calmest screwball comedienne I have ever seen. No matter what happens, like burnt toast, a vacuum that spits dust all over her dog, Mrs. Rowland taking Pedro’s clothes away with her for charity (she believes they are June’s father’s clothes), she always remains calm and never visibly reacts. There is no making faces, wringing hands, screaming or looking frazzled. She simply moves on, unflappably, with whatever she is doing, finding some way out of her difficultly or coming up with some sort of lie when necessary. She even takes the news about her impoverishment relatively philosophically and never utters one word of complaint. Perhaps complaining would have seemed unseemly during the war.

It’s not the greatest comedy ever made; it’s only 81 minutes and there’s not a tremendous amount of character depth, but it’s cute and I especially enjoyed Joan Bennett’s comedic style. I was also fascinated with how effortlessly WWII grounded it is. Even the decision to have the romantic lead be from South America is partially war related since South America was about the only continent that didn’t have most of it’s young men in uniform or off fighting

girl-trouble_478199_47588June also has the cutest little black terrier (I think it’s a Scottish Terrier) who is always frisking about and accompanied by lively Scottish (or Irish) music. What is also pretty funny is how blithely unaware Pedro and June are of the massive impropriety of having a female maid living in the same apartment with her male employer. Whenever people hear about the arrangement, they are shocked, but June and Pedro don’t seem to notice.

The irony is that he is a playboy and isn’t all that good at his business. It is June who seems to display business acumen. She reads his papers and asks him intelligent questions that he can’t answer and is also the one to resolve his business difficulties. For being a spoiled, rich young lady, she turns out to be pretty competent, except she can’t make toast.

 

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