The Distraction Blogathon- “Casablanca” (1942)

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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

“We’ll always have Paris.”

“Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By.'”

“I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Everybody comes to Rick’s.”

Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Claude Rains (Louis), Paul Henreid (Victor) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) in “Casablanca.”

These are just some of the amazing quotes from Casablanca. Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and for good reason–it is a fantastic movie. Almost every line of dialogue is quotable. The characters (especially Rick, Ilsa, and Louis) are iconic. The last scene between Rick and Ilsa at the airport and later, the ending scene with Rick and Louis walking off into the fog are forever symbolic of Classic Hollywood. Between the quotes, the scenes, the music, Rick and Ilsa’s romance, Louis’ corruption… there is so much to remember about Casablanca. However, does anyone remember the object that plays a central role in the film? 1

1 Obviously a rhetorical question, because duh, we’re all Classic Hollywood film fans, OF COURSE we know the answer to this question; but roll with it.

Answer? The letters of transit. The letters of transit are introduced in the film as a piece of crucial documentation that refugees must present to leave Casablanca, Morocco. These refugees are hoping to obtain a letter of transit so that they can travel through German-occupied Europe to Lisbon, Portugal (which is neutral), then board a ship/plane to head to their new life in the United States. These documents are the objects that motivate the main characters’ actions in the film. The audience is first introduced to Peter Lorre’s character in the film, Ugarte, as he races through town and into Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) club, Rick’s Cafe American. Ugarte boasts that he murdered two German couriers to obtain these precious letters of transit. He wants to sell them in Rick’s club. In the meantime however, Ugarte asks Rick to keep the letters of transit safe.

Later, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive in Casablanca and head over to Rick’s. Victor is the leader of the Czech Resistance movement. Because of his activity, Victor ranks high on the Germans’ list of persons to not allow to leave Casablanca. Thanks to Rick’s business rival, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), Rick is suspected of having the letters of transit in his possession. This suspicion is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick’s. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), the corrupt prefect of police, also suspects Rick has the letters of transit. He is a subject of the German-controlled France and is supposed to be preventing Ilsa and Victor’s escape.

Dooley Wilson (Sam) attempts to comfort Humphrey Bogart (Rick) as he laments Ilsa walking into his gin joint.

But does the audience care about the letters of transit? No. Not really. As the audience, we are immediately captivated by Rick’s sour reaction to Ilsa’s showing up at his club. What’s the story there? That’s what we want to know. Judging from Ilsa’s acquaintance with Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s pianist and friend, and her asking him to play “it,” we know that there’s a story there. Sam knows what “it” is and reluctantly agrees to play the song when Ilsa persists. When Sam acquiesces to Ilsa’s request and begins playing “As Time Goes By,” (i.e. “it”), Rick angrily emerges from his office, demanding to know why Sam is playing *that* song. He spots Ilsa and oof. If looks could kill. Rick’s reaction, combined with Sam quickly grabbing his piano bench and scurrying out of the way, is what we need to know about. What is the story behind Rick and Ilsa?

The story of Rick and Ilsa provides the main framework of the story and the main conflict. Add in the fact that Ilsa is married to Victor, and a love triangle develops. Rick and Ilsa’s romance is re-kindled and soon it’s up in the air as to whether Ilsa will want a letter of transit to leave Casablanca. A different side of Rick emerges. He was a cynical, world weary ex-pat living in Casablanca, seemingly impervious to everything. Then Ilsa shows up (unexpectedly) and the romantic side of him emerges. Louis is there, kind of playing both sides, both as an ally of Rick’s but also wanting to follow through on his “duty” and prevent Victor’s escape. He knows Rick knows where the letters of transit are, but he doesn’t really work too hard to look for them. Louis, a French police officer, is stuck in the middle between duty to his country and duty to the corrupt Nazi regime who had taken over Vichy France. At the end of the film, Louis tosses the full bottle of Vichy water into the trash, symbolically showing that he is severing his ties with the Nazis. Louis, like Rick, becomes a patriot.

At the end of the film, Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice and sends Ilsa off with Victor. He hands over the letters of transit very casually. There is no big fanfare, no big build up when Rick hands off the coveted documents. Instead, we are treated to Rick’s very self-sacrificing monologue, the monologue in which he finally severs ties with Ilsa and closes this chapter of his life. This is closure to the romance that we’ve been captivated by since the beginning of the film. We’re finally finding out the resolution of the love triangle. Which man will Ilsa end up with? The man she fell in love with after her husband was thought to be dead? Or her husband, whom she reunited with (and abandoned Rick in the process) after learning that he was still alive? Does she stay with the man who escaped the war to live in Casablanca? Or does she stay with the man who is conducting very important, but also dangerous work on behalf of the Resistance? The letters of transit are essentially irrelevant in the context of the real crux of the film.

Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) in the iconic airport scene from “Casablanca.”

RICK: “Last night, we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.”

ILSA: “But Richard, no… I… I…”

RICK: “Now you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten we’d both wind up in a Concentration Camp. Isn’t that true, Louis?”

LOUIS: “I’m afraid Major Strasser would insist.”

ILSA: “You’re only saying this to make me go.”

RICK: “I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

ILSA: “But what about us?”

RICK: “We’ll always have Paris. What we didn’t have, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

ILSA: “When I said I would never leave you.”

RICK: “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t have any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

(ILSA lowers her head and begins to cry)

RICK: “Now…now…”

(RICK gently grabs Ilsa’s chin and raises it, so they can look into each other’s eyes.)

RICK: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), and Claude Rains (Louis) in one of the most iconic scenes in Classic Hollywood.

The final scene between Rick and Ilsa is one of my absolute favorite scenes in any film. Who knew that a scene where two people are breaking up could be so romantic and heartbreaking. It was beautifully written and acted. After taking in the emotional gravitas of this scene and the absolutely heart-wrenching ending to this romance, who is still thinking about the letters of transit?

Rick, hide me! Do something! You must help me, Rick!”

What a Character Blogathon–SZ Sakall

Everyone remembers the big stars: Bogart, Hepburn, Monroe, Gable, etc. but not enough attention or praise is given to the character actors. Character actors are performers who often played supporting parts, but weren’t expected to carry the film. A film’s failure wasn’t blamed on the character actor. They weren’t “the name” that brought in the crowds. These actors were hired for the types of characters they portrayed. Some actors, like Claude Rains, for example, could play leading parts, supporting (but lead) parts, and character roles.

“Everything is hunky dunky.”

One of the all time best character actors is SZ Sakall, or as I like to call him: “International Treasure SZ Sakall.” SZ was born Gründwald Jakob in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now present day Budapest, Hungary) on February 2, 1883. As a young man, he wrote vaudeville sketches under the pen name Szőke Szakáll. In the 1910s and 1920s, SZ was working on the Hungarian stage and screen. In the 1920s, he moved to Vienna. By the 1930s, he was living in Berlin. He continued to appear in German cinema and plays. He also ran his own production company.

SZ returned to Hungary in 1933 after the Nazis gained power in Germany. He started appearing in Hungarian cinema and performed in over 40 films. In 1940, SZ and his wife Anne moved to Hollywood after Hungary joined the Axis powers. Many of SZ’s relatives, including three sisters, were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. SZ started appearing in films almost right away. He made his American film debut in It’s a Date (1940) with Deanna Durbin. He also shortened his name to the much easier to pronounce, SZ Sakall.

SZ or “Cuddles” as he was dubbed by Jack Warner, specialized in playing befuddled, but loveable European shopkeepers, uncles, restaurant owners, etc. He was usually in a small part, some more critical than others. SZ was popular with actors like Errol Flynn, who loved him. But he was unpopular with other actors, like Alan Hale Sr., who claimed that SZ was a scene stealer. Flynn tells a story in his memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, about how he liked to invite Cuddles and Hale to the same get togethers over and over:

“Sakall was a funny old guy. I always liked him for his screwy, mushy personality, but most other actors hated him. He messed up the English language so much that they couldn’t get their cues. I let him run on. It was fun to see the effect of him on the other character players. He ran off with many scenes, and that was enough to make him despised by the others.

Hale couldn’t stand him. They hated each other and refused to work with each other. To see them together was like a meeting of two prima donnas at a tea party. Naturally I brought them together as often as I could, and on this night Hale hollered, “For Chrissakes, Zakall [sic], a’int it time you learned to speak English? You been here long enough!”

Errol Flynn, “My Wicked Wicked Ways” (1959)

Over his Hollywood career, SZ appeared in over 40 films. He appeared in a variety of different roles and genres. His most famous role is arguably Carl, the waiter in Casablanca (1942). SZ appeared in dramatic films, comedies, musicals, westerns, he was everywhere. His last film was The Student Prince (1954). Sadly, SZ suffered a heart attack and passed away on February 12, 1955, 10 days after his 72nd birthday.

SZ will always be remembered for his colorful film appearances. His loveable, flustered persona is endearing as is the way he delivers his lines in mangled English. I absolutely love him and am always excited to see him when he pops up in a film.

My Top 5 SZ Sakall Appearances:

  1. “Carl” Casablanca (1942). In the classic film to end all classic films, SZ plays “Carl,” the head waiter and maître d’ at Rick’s Cafe American. He is loyal to Rick and watches in admiration as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) lets the young Bulgarian couple win at Roulette. He also delivers a funny line when asked if the gambling is honest.

CUSTOMER: “Are you sure this place is honest?”

CARL: “Honest?! As honest as the day is long!”

2. “Luigi” Never Say Goodbye (1946). SZ appears with buddy Errol Flynn in one of my favorite Christmas films. In this film, Flynn and ex-wife Eleanor Parker are divorced. Their daughter, Flip, hates spending 6 months with one parent and then 6 months with the other. She desperately wants to get them back together, as does her father Errol, who it seems was blindsided by the divorce. SZ plays Luigi, the owner of the restaurant where Errol and Eleanor frequented while they were dating. Luigi is also a family friend. Errol pulls him into his schemes and Luigi does all he can to follow along, often to disastrous results. There is a funny scene where he and Errol wake up after having spent the entire night bar-hopping while dressed as Santa.

PHILLIP (Flynn): “I don’t care about Nancy. But I don’t want her to start making a scene. You know how she is.”

LUIGI: “Sure. You take a girl out to dinner two or three hundred times and right away she thinks you’re interested in her.”

3. “Felix Bassenak” Christmas in Connecticut (1945). SZ appears as Barbara Stanwyck’s uncle who is enlisted to help his niece cook a delicious Christmas dinner for a visiting soldier, Dennis Morgan. Stanwyck’s character, Elizabeth Lane, works as a magazine columnist. She’s concocted this entire persona as the perfect wife, cook, mother, everything. She describes her gorgeous Connecticut farmhouse to her readers. On paper, Elizabeth looks like she’s living the dream and everything’s perfect. In reality, Elizabeth is single, lives in New York, and has just purchased an absurdly expensive mink coat. Her publisher, Sydney Greenstreet, is unaware of her charade and insists that Elizabeth host Christmas at her farmhouse for visiting soldier Dennis Morgan, who is so fond of her articles, that he writes to Greenstreet expressing his wish to meet her. Aside from being the chef who cooks all the food, SZ gets involved in Stanwyck’s shenanigans–at one point, he insists that the baby swallowed his watch.

FELIX: “Watch now. I show you how to flip-flop the flop-flips.”

4. “George” The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) . In this film, SZ plays Charles Coburn’s butler. Coburn is Thomas Merrick, “the richest man in the world.” Merrick owns a department store whose employees want to unionize. Merrick goes undercover as “Thomas Higgins” to find the source of the union talks. As he spends more time with the employees, the more he sympathizes with their desire to form a labor union. SZ is so put upon as Coburn’s butler–he only serves Coburn graham crackers and milk due to Coburn’s constant stomach issues. SZ does almost everything for Coburn to the point where he’s so out of touch with reality, that he fails at even the easiest of tasks. At one point, in an attempt to show up his nemesis, Coburn asks SZ to bring in a small child and sell her 12 pairs of shoes. Coburn tries the ugliest shoes on the little girl and the whole scheme falls apart.

GEORGE: “Dr. Schindler made up your pepsin in to sticks of chewing gum sir. He thought that you would like the change. You are to have one every hour on the hour. You will find them in your lower left breast pocket.”

5. Otto Oberkugen “In the Good Old Summertime” (1948). This film is a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film, “The Shop Around the Corner.” In ‘Summertime,’ Judy Garland plays Veronica who gets a job at Otto Oberkugen’s music shop. One of the other salesmen, Andrew (Van Johnson), is threatened by her potential competition for sales, but he also develops a crush on her. Both Veronica and Andrew begin corresponding and falling in love with their respective secret pen pals. Little do they know that they’re corresponding with each other.

OTTO: “Don’t call me Uncle Otto. In the store, I am Mr. Oberkugen.”

SHEESH!

Noirvember 2020

My “Noirvember” picks will be continually updated as the month wears on and I make my next choice!

Maxine Cooper & Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Noirvember is upon us. I love film noir, so every month is “Noirvember” for me, but I thought I’d try to actively participate in the event this year. Previously, I lurked in conversations and posts and read about it, but didn’t actually contribute.

For those who are unfamiliar with “Noirvember,” it is simply a portmanteau of the words “Noir” and “November.” It is a term used to describe what is essentially a month-long celebration of film noir. Noirvember was invented by a poster (@oldfilmsflicker on Twitter) who just wanted an excuse to catch-up on film noir. It has since evolved and become a full-fledged event.

I have seen a lot of film noir and have a lot of favorite films and performers. While I definitely want to revisit some old favorites, I also want to watch some “new to me” film noir. I don’t have a particular list of 30 film noir to watch, as I wanted my list to flow organically. However, so that I had some semblance of organization and didn’t spend my entire evening trying to decide what to watch, I’ve decided to play a game with my selections. Each successive film will feature a performer from the previous film. E.g. “The Big Heat” features Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. “Sudden Fear” features Grahame and Joan Crawford.

It is my hope that my final film of the month will link back to the first.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray conspicuously looking inconspicuous in the grocery store in Double Indemnity.

Click here to view my Noirvember Picks!